A knitter’s guide to Iceland

Icelandic sheep near Reykjahlíð in Mývatn.
Icelandic sheep near Reykjahlíð in Mývatn. Photo by Christopher Lewis
Sheep on a slope in south Iceland.
Sheep on a slope in south Iceland.
Jökulsárlón, a glacier lagoon in southeast Iceland on the edge of Vatnajökull National Park.
Jökulsárlón, a glacier lagoon in southeast Iceland on the edge of Vatnajökull National Park.

I feel very lucky to have travelled to two fantastic fibre destinations this year – Ireland in the spring and most recently Iceland. I remember the first time I knit with Icelandic wool, a clay-coloured lopi that I picked up at Romni Wools when I moved to Toronto in 2002. I loved it immediately – it shed like crazy but I didn’t care. I free-styled a capelet/cowl with a few balls of it, and immediately went back for more in navy to make myself a toque.

When I first went to Iceland in 2006, I didn’t buy a single ball of yarn. I had recently started my first job in media, and didn’t exactly have money to burn. This time though, I did it right. I not only brought back a nice stash of lopi, but a custom lopapeysa (Icelandic sweater) as well. Chris and I spent a little over two weeks in Iceland, most of it driving around the Ring Road (or Route 1) and the Westfjords. It was an incredible experience, and covering more than 3,000 kilometres gave us a taste of places we’d like to go back to and explore further.

But back to the yarn… a lot of things are expensive in Iceland, but yarn is not one of them. $3.50 CAD is pretty typical for a ball of lopi. You can find Icelandic wool almost everywhere – convenience stores, grocery stores and knit shops. So it’s plentiful and affordable, a dangerous combination for a knitter. My first fibre stop was on our first day in Reykjavík, at the Handknitting Association of Iceland. It’s wall-to-wall in there, stuffed to the gills with machine-knit socks, hats and sweaters as well as a whole room devoted to handknit lopapeysur, Ístex wool, patterns, needles and notions.

Just your typical convenience store yarn selection... in the village of Kirkjubæjarklaustur in south Iceland.
Just your typical convenience store yarn selection… in the village of Kirkjubæjarklaustur in south Iceland.
Icelandic sheep at the Viking Cafe near Höfn.
Icelandic sheep at the Viking Cafe near Höfn.
Lopi Loop
Lopi Loop. Photo by Christopher Lewis

The second fibre stop was Storkurinn, a 2nd-floor shop on Laugavegur, which is Reykjavík’s main shopping street. Guðrún Hannele Henttinen is the owner of this lovely shop, and we chatted with her a bit about her time spent in Montreal as a student. Guðrún has a very nice selection of yarn, Icelandic and otherwise. This is where I made my first purchase, four balls of Létt-Lopi, which I used to make my Lopi Loop (pictured above). I should mention that although our trip spanned the end of August into September, a wool loop was most definitely welcome (especially up north where it dipped down to around 2°C).

Guðbjörg knitting at the Kolaportið flea market in Reykjavík.
Guðbjörg knitting at the Kolaportið flea market in Reykjavík.

On our second day in Reykjavík, we stopped by the Kolaportið flea market down by the harbour. This is a great place to go if you’re looking for a lopapeysa. There are many, many options. I met a knitter there named Guðbjörg, and she agreed to make me one in shades of grey. Her son dropped it off when we got back to Reykjavík after our road trip and it’s perfect. This was my first time on the other side of that particular relationship and it was so special to meet the maker.

I love the lopapeysa Guðbjörg knit for me. Photo by Christopher Lewis
I love the lopapeysa Guðbjörg knit for me. Photo by Christopher Lewis

SPARK Design Space is a unique shop in Reykjavík, and while not specifically fibre-focused, it’s not to be missed. I kind of stalked it until the last day of our trip, when I had the good fortune of finding it open! It’s filled with art, objects, books and textiles. The owner Sigríður is a great person to chat with, and is so knowledgeable about the artists and designers she carries in the shop. I had seen Vík Prjónsdóttír designs elsewhere, but am happy that I ended up buying one of their Raven Wing scarves from Sigríður.

Lopapeysur at Álafoss in Mosfellsbær.
Lopapeysur at Álafoss in Mosfellsbær.
The Álafoss wool store in Mosfellsbær.
The Álafoss wool store in Mosfellsbær.

Just outside of Reykjavík, we made a pit stop at Álafoss in Mosfellsbær when we first hit the road. Chris found his lopapeysa there, which was knit by a woman named Hrönn. This is a nice touch with the Handknitting Association of Iceland lopapeysur; the makers sign their names on the labels. I picked up some plötulopi (unspun plates) and Védís Jónsdóttir’s wonderfully comprehensive book, Knitting with Icelandic Wool. We then made our way around the Golden Circle and drove counterclockwise around the island.

It was in Akureyri, a town in northern Iceland, that we visited one of my favourite shops. Flóra sells handknit goods (some made with alpaca/Icelandic wool blends), hand-dyed yarn, new and second-hand clothing, Icelandic music, food and housewares. The owner Kristín introduced me to a local knitter, who told me all about a wool centre/workshop in the south, Þingborg. I will definitely be paying them a visit on a return trip to Iceland. From what the knitter told me, the women select the fleeces by hand and oversee every stage of cleaning and production. Rather than the fleece being scoured, with lanolin reintroduced after cleaning, they wash it lightly so the original lanolin remains. They produce natural wool yarns without the use of synthetic dyes, which really appeals to me. The sheep were roaming the countryside freely when we visited, and will be rounded-up during the annual Réttir in September. The diversity and depth of colours was truly beautiful.

A handsome black sheep in the Westfjords. Photo by Christopher Lewis
A handsome black sheep in the Westfjords. Photo by Christopher Lewis
Me wandering around the Hverir geothermal field at Námaskarð, Mývatn. Photo by Christopher Lewis
Me wandering around the Hverir geothermal field at Námaskarð, Mývatn. Photo by Christopher Lewis
Beautiful Icelandic horses in Fljótsdalur, east Iceland.
Beautiful Icelandic horses in Fljótsdalur, east Iceland. Photo by Christopher Lewis
Svartifoss in Skaftafell, Vatnajökull National Park.
Svartifoss in Skaftafell, Vatnajökull National Park.

Ireland, land of sheep and wonderful woollens

Sheep stand off in Co. Kerry
A sheep stand off in the Caha Mountains, along the N71 to Kenmare, Co. Kerry.
Sheep on the road
Sheep on the road at Moll’s Gap.
Moll's Gap
Moll’s Gap in Co. Kerry.
Avoca
Woolly goodness at Avoca, 11-13 Suffolk Street, Dublin 2.
Knits at the Irish Design Shop
Knits at the Irish Design Shop – 41 Drury St, Dublin 2.
Kevin & Howlin
Kevin & Howlin, specialists in hand-woven Donegal tweed. The shop is at 31 Nassau Street, Dublin 2.
Barleycove
Barleycove, a beach near Crookhaven and Goleen in Co. Cork.
Burren Fine Wine and Food
Burren Fine Wine and Food, on Corkscrewhill Road in Ballyvaughan, Co. Clare.
Streedagh Strand
Seaweed specialist Prannie Rhatigan running across Streedagh Strand in Co. Sligo. That’s Benbulben – Ireland’s “Table Mountain” – in the distance.
Streedagh Strand
Sea pinks growing out of the rocks on Streedagh Strand, Co. Sligo.
Black mussels on Streedagh strand
Black mussels on Streedagh strand.

I spent an incredible seven nights in Ireland on a work trip in May. Although my focus was culinary (read my story on Irish farmhouse cheeses on the National Post), I did squeeze in a couple of woollen blankets for myself, and a failed trip to This Is Knit in Dublin (Note: don’t necessarily trust the opening hours listed on their website).

Hopefully a future trip to this wonderful land allows for visits to woollen mills – Avoca, Cushendale, Donegal, Foxford, and Kerry – and of course the Aran Islands. Fellow knitters will admire the work of Inis Meáin Knitting Company; building on a rich tradition of knitted fishermen’s garments born of necessity and practicality, now with a luxurious touch.

I covered 1,530 kilometres in Ireland; my tips for an Irish road trip, as well as a video and more photos are included in my story on Driving.

VIA Rail + spring knits

VIA Rail panoramic car - Qu'Appelle Valley, Saskatchewan
View from the back of the VIA Rail panoramic car – Qu’Appelle Valley, Saskatchewan
VIA Rail in Hornepayne, Ontario
Stopped in Hornepayne, Ontario
View from VIA Rail No. 1 train en route to Saskatoon from Winnipeg
En route to Saskatoon from Winnipeg
View from VIA Rail No. 1 train en route to Edmonton from Saskatoon
En route to Edmonton from Saskatoon

Chris and I travelled 4,466 km by train last week. It was a fantastic, frozen trip on VIA Rail’s Canadian route from Toronto to Vancouver. This could qualify as the best birthday present ever – thanks, Chris! We spent four nights on the train and saw plenty of wildlife along the way – mostly elk, deer, wild turkeys and foxes as the bears are still hibernating – and made stops in Hornepayne, Ontario, Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Jasper, Alberta. If you’re interested in seeing some more photos, I have a set on Flickr.

Dr. G's Memory Vest by Kirsten Kapur

I did do some train knitting. Mostly finishing up a birthday vest for my dad (Dr. G’s Memory Vest by Kirsten Kapur), and starting a birthday cardigan for my sister. We met our new niece for the first time – she’s pretty darn cute, if I do say so! – and brought her this little bunny (Sophie by Ysolda Teague).

Sophie by Ysolda Teague
Photo by Christopher Lewis

[Ravelled: Cabled Vest and Sophie]

Food and travel

I’m off for a bit of a summer vacation to Paris, the Basque Country and then Paris again! I hope to have plenty of photos and tales to share when I return. My friend Lara, who I’m visiting in Paris, and I will be taking two Basque cooking classes – one in Biarritz and one in San Sebastian-Donostia. We’re also making an extra special trip to Mugaritz – a restaurant in the mountains just outside of San Sebastian-Donostia. I had the absolute pleasure of speaking with chef Andoni Luis Aduriz while he was in Toronto for the launch of his book and documentarymy feature is here if you’re interested in taking a read.

Until September!

[Photographs courtesy of Mugaritz]

Road Trip: Wellington Fibres

Doe and kid

Buck

Wellington Fibres is located just outside of Elora, Ontario and we were lucky enough to stop by on our way to a Pixies concert (yes, revisiting surly, misunderstood teenage days!). There was something a little bit unnerving about walking into the barn and seeing 30 goats just turn and stare. Especially the buck in the second photo. He didn’t take his eyes off of us! Some of the does kidded in early April so there were some very new little kids.

The goats produce mohair, which Wellington processes in their own mill on the farm. They also do custom fibre processing, so if you have a fleece lying around, here’s a place you can take it! The owner, Donna, was kind enough to give us an in-depth tour of the mill and introduce us to the goats.  It was my first time at a functioning mill so it was really interesting to see the equipment and dye set-up. Donna has solar panels that power some of the mill and farm as well.

I picked up a few skeins to try: 50% Mohair/ 50% Wool; 60% Mohair/ 40% Wool; and 100% Wool. I’m looking forward to testing it out – the mohair has such a lovely sheen to it. I also picked up some Philosopher’s Wool at Yarn Bird in Elora, right on the gorge. There were three skeins left of a rustic, heavy-worsted in a deep green. There are no labels so I’m not sure of the yardage. I think I should be able to get a pair of mitts out of it though. I’m thinking Coler by Stephen West. Now I’m cut off, especially after this weekend’s Knitter’s Frolic!

[Photos courtesy of Christopher]

Blue Moon Alpacas

Alpaca

Blue Moon Alpacas

Shadow the alpaca

We came across these guys on our way from Bunjil’s Shelter in Victoria, Australia. Glenda and Stephen run Blue Moon Alpacas and sell undyed yarn, fibre, knits and other alpaca goods out of a small shop on their organic farm. Glenda introduced us to the alpacas – very inquisitive, handsome fellows. Since they had all been shorn for the year, 10 of them were going to work guarding sheep.

8ply Blue Moon Alpaca yarn

I walked away with a big 800g bag of 8ply yarn, which I learned would be DK weight in North America, in a natural charcoal grey. I’m thinking about using it to make Kate Davies’ Manu cardigan.

Blue Moon Alpacas don’t have a website (EDIT: they do now!), but if you find yourself in the Grampians, they’re at 340 Pomonal Road, Stawell, Victoria (phone: 03 5358 2581).

View Larger Map

[Photos 1 and 3 courtesy of Chris]

Australia, Pt. 2

I’m back from three fabulous weeks in Australia. I loved it, loved it, loved it. I could have easily done with another three weeks, but it was definitely enough time to get a feel for the state of Victoria, Port Douglas, QLD and Sydney. The landscapes were stunning, the food delicious, and the wedding we attended was perfect. These are some of my favourite bits.

Phil and Aggie's wedding. The guests gathered in front of the bathing boxes, some of which have stood since 1862
Phil and Aggie's wedding. The guests gathered in front of the Brighton bathing boxes, some of which have stood since 1862 (photo courtesy of Chris)
Camping at Johanna Beach, Victoria
Camping at Johanna Beach, Victoria
Sailing and snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef off of Port Douglas, Queensland
Sailing and snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef off of Port Douglas, Queensland
The Sydney Opera House. There was something about seeing this iconic building from the plane after a 22-hour trip
The Sydney Opera House. It was amazing to see this iconic building from the plane as we came to the end of a 22-hour trip

I’m gradually uploading my photos to this set, if you’d like to take a look.

Australia

The Twelve Apostles, Victoria, Australia
The Twelve Apostles, Victoria, Australia

We’re off to Australia for three weeks. Hurrah! Dearest Phil is marrying the lovely Aggie in Melbourne. I’m very proud to be one of his groomspeople. We’ll be back the first week of April, so until then my friends!

Image courtesy of nadi0

Vancouver, BC

I’m back in Toronto after spending three wonderful days in Vancouver, BC. I love visiting Granville Island whenever I’m in Vancouver. The Public Market is incredible and the dock is a great place to just sit with a coffee and watch the boats. I could move into the houseboat in the middle photo tomorrow – how perfect would it be to have that view of the West End?

It was a short trip, but filled with good times with family and friends, and of course, fantastic food! Part of what I love about spending time in a city that was once home is discovering new favourites. This time around, I discovered a new favourite breakfast spot – Medina Cafe. It’s a Belgian cafe that serves extremely tasty Liège waffles (I had mine with milk chocolate lavender). I also highly recommend the Libanais: soft-boiled egg, fried pita, baba ganoush, tabouleh and cucumber salad. Yummy!

Amsterdam + de Afstap

I’m back home after a wonderful week in the Netherlands and Belgium. I met up with my knitting partner for life in Amsterdam and we spent some quality coffee-drinking-wine-drinking-knit-time. We stumbled upon de Afstap yarn shop on our way to the hotel before the sun came up on Saturday morning. It’s the only yarn shop I’ve seen in central Amsterdam and I was overjoyed.

We made it back later that same afternoon looking for some local yarn. It turns out they carry almost entirely Rowan yarn and some needlework supplies. So no Dutch yarn but still a lovely little shop! I must admit that I did make a second trip to pick up a few balls of Cashsoft 4 Ply in navy . . .

de Afstap is conveniently located next door to a chip shop, as well as a whole string of boutiques stretching west to the Jordaan. But after travelling by train to and from Belgium and seeing many, many sheep along the way – where is all the Dutch yarn???