If you’re anything like me, you’re going to want to pick up an Icelandic wool sweater or at least some Icelandic wool accessories during your visit to Iceland and might be wondering what the texture is like.
In short, Icelandic wool is very scratchy and is scratchier than wool from sheep in warmer climates. However, with that said, don’t let the scratchiness of the wool scare you away from great products with an even better story.
The Icelandic wool accessories that we bought on our trip are some of my favorite accessories I have ever bought.
Once you learn a little about what makes Icelandic wool so itchy, you’ll start to appreciate it more.
You’ll find that sweaters and accessories that are made out of Icelandic wool are not just another piece of clothing.
They have a story and tradition to tell that goes back centuries.
Here is why I think it’s worth plopping down your hard-earned cash on something cozy made from cute Icelandic sheep wool even if it is a little scratchier than other wool.
What is Special about Icelandic Wool?
Icelandic wool isn’t the typical wool that is produced in the rest of the world. The wool in Iceland dates back to the 9th century AD when the first settlers came here from Norway.
These early settlers brought the original sheep with them as a source of wool, fur, and also food.
Now, the 500,000 or so sheep that you find roaming all around Iceland can tie their family heritage back to these original sheep that came in the 9th century AD.
The coolest part is that since Iceland is an island, the sheep have never been mixed with any other breeds of sheep from around the world.
Because of this, the sheep’s wool has developed over time to be extremely durable, warm, and water-resistant, which allows them to thrive in such an extreme sub-arctic landscape.
Icelandic Wool’s Characteristics
What makes Icelandic wool so distinct is that it has a unique combination of inner and outer fibers, that is not found anywhere else.
It keeps the sheep dry and warm even in the worst conditions and can do the same for humans if they wear clothing made from the wool.
The outer fibers of the wool, which is called tog in Icelandic, is tough, long, fleecy, glossy, and is the layer of the wool that is also water-resistant.
This is the layer of the wool which causes it to be scratchy against your skin.
Then, you have the inner layers of the wool, which are called þel in Icelandic. This layer is soft and warm and is the part of the wool which provides insulation against the harsh, cold conditions.
Put these two characteristics together and you have perfect protection from mother nature in Iceland.
Its no wonder why the Icelandic people have been using the sheep’s wool for so long and why the sheep in Iceland can remain outside even in the worst conditions.
The Journey from Sheep to Sweater
Every May in Iceland, thousands of lambs are born into the harsh environment that they will call home.
Then in June, the newly born lamb with the rest of the sheep are sent out to roam and graze the vast landscape, mountains, and hills, and feast on the yummy green grass that has just sprouted.
At the same time, the farmers are out collecting hay, which will be fed to the sheep during wintertime as fresh grass is not accessible.
If you get to visit Iceland in the summer, you’ll get to see these bails of hay spread throughout the many different plots of farmland.
Then when the fall season rolls around, the farmers begin to go out by horseback to round up their sheep!
Once the sheep are all rounded up, they are sorted and the unfortunate ones who are destined for the slaughterhouse are removed from the herd.
The heard is then sheared in the winter and the sheared off fleece is ready to be turned into knitting wool.
The crazy thing is that this is just the start of the journey from sheep to a sweater that you will find in a store.
In total, about 1,000 tons of wool will be sheared.
Out of that 1,000 tons, it is reduced to 750 usable tons of wool after washing it. And finally, 400 tons of only the best material will be turned into knitting wool to be made into sweaters and other clothing items.
Now that we’ve gone over briefly the entire wool life cycle, let’s just take a second to appreciate how much time it takes to turn the sheep’s fleece into a wearable product.
It’s a journey, and with the journey comes a great story and tradition which has been passed on for centuries.
How to Keep Icelandic Wool from Being Scratchy?
Even though the scratchiness of Icelandic wool isn’t necessarily a bad thing, there is still a chance that you will think its too scratchy to wear after buying it.
Have no fear, there are still a couple of things you can do to soften your Icelandic wool. Here are some tips that I was able to find in my research about softening Icelandic wool:
- Don’t Do Anything – it’s reported that Icelandic wool actually gets softer as your body heat warms it up and over time through normal use, so just give it some time.
- Soak it with Hair Conditioner – if you don’t have the patience to wait for it to soften over time, you can try soaking the wool. Many people said they were able to soften their wool by soaking the wool twice. The first time in lukewarm water and the second time with a high-quality hair conditioner.
- Wear Something Underneath – for some Icelandic wool products like sweaters, the easiest solution might just be to wear something underneath. Anyways, when it’s cold enough to wear Icelandic wool, you’ll probably be wearing layers anyways.
Before you do anything to your wool product remember that each clothing manufacturer has different recommendations on how to care for it.
Also, if you do end up soaking it, make sure not to wring or rub it. Then lay it flat on a towel to dry because if you hang it, the weight of the wet wool will stretch it out.
Where to Buy Icelandic Wool Products
There are a bunch of places in Iceland that you can find traditionally made Icelandic wool products.
If you’re looking for a made in Iceland product, the one thing to be careful about is the stores that design their products in Iceland, but manufacture their goods overseas.
These products don’t use Icelandic wool, are cheaper, and are mostly targeted towards tourists who want a good deal.
One of our favorite shops to look for sweaters and other accessories made out of Icelandic wool was the Handknitting Association of Iceland located in Reykjavik.
The association was founded in 1977 by a group of mostly women who wanted to make income by knitting and selling sweaters and other accessories made from the wool in their country.
The products in this shop are all handmade by a member of this group and each item even has a tag with the name of the person who made your item!
The staff is extremely friendly and helpful and is where we ended up buying a few items.
The one downside is that the look of the garments in this store is more on the traditional side, so if you’re looking for something with a more modern twist, you should check out Farmers and Friends.
As said by the company’s co-founder Bergthora Gudnadottir, “The company places themselves at a junction. A place where heritage meets modernity, the national meets international, and the countryside meets the city. We find this an exciting place to explore.”
If this sounds like you, then Farmers and Friends is your place to go.
There were so many pieces we wanted to buy from here, but we had already spent our budget at the Handknitting Association of Iceland, so decided to hold off until our next visit.
Icelandic wool is more scratchy than wool from sheep that live in warmer climates, but as you can see, the scratchiness isn’t all that bad and is this way for a reason.
Yes, when I wear my hat, I have to scratch my head more than I’d like to, but trust me when I say that it is my favorite and warmest hat that I wear when it gets cold outside.
Now, if you live in a warmer climate, investing in gear made out of Icelandic wool might not be the best idea.
However, if it gets cold where you live, there is nothing else better to keep you nice and cozy in the dead of winter than Icelandic wool.
Plus, as I mentioned before, the story and tradition of the Icelandic wool is something special and unique.
Each time I put my hat on, I’m reminded of my time adventuring through the country, and I’m sure you’ll feel the same each time you put on your Icelandic wool garment too.
Thanks for this informative article. I’m knitting a traditional Icelandic sweater for my brother with Lopi yarn. I hope he likes it and I’m also enclosing a copy of this article in case he thinks it’s too scratchy. Iceland is on my travel (and yarn buying) bucket list. Hopefully 2020 will be the year I make that dream come true.
You’re very welcome and I’m glad you thought it was informative! That’s awesome you’re knitting an Icelandic sweater for your brother! That will be such a nice present. I hope you get to go to Iceland in 2020. If you do and have any questions, feel free to ask us
Hi Tom – Good information for sure! I’m from Seattle as well. As you know, the closet is full of fleece and goretex. Wondering if an Icelandic wool sweater is practical for our wet climate? Also, is a light long sleeve microfiber / polypro adequate to limit the scratchiness of the wool? Finally, any reco on a store?
Hi Jim! Thanks for reading the article and that’s awesome to hear you’re from Seattle too! Yes, I think Icelandic wool sweaters would work very well in our weather. Of course, the sweater isn’t as good as goretex in rain. However, the outer fibers are naturally water resistant which will help and they are extremely warm. I think that would help with the scratchiness, but I think you would also get used to it over time as you use it more and more.
I’m afraid I have the worst reaction to Icelandic yarn. I can’t even knit with it and had to wear washing up gloves to use up the yarn I bought so I could make a felted bag. Also has to take an antihistamine due to the extra lanolin. Even layers underneath a garment will not protect you if you are sensitive so keep that in mind before you buy it for someone.