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.
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, 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.

Pure Qiviut Hat

100 per cent qiviut hat

Lightweight and oh, so soft, 100 per cent qiviut is wonderful to knit with. Not to mention warm; it’s eight times warmer than sheep’s wool. I have knit with qiviut before, blended with Merino wool and silk, but this was a new experience. What you see here is undyed qiviut, so 100 per cent natural colour as well.

Qiviut is musk oxen fleece, and it feels more like cashmere than anything else. Most musk oxen live in the Canadian Arctic and Greenland but they were recently reintroduced to Alaska, where they’re farmed. I came across this video from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, showing how qiviut is harvested in a farming environment. Shedding takes place naturally on the tundra but here the qiviut is combed out in a synchronous shed that looks like a blanket.

100 per cent qiviut

100 per cent qiviut hat

Some sources for qiviut yarn:



Wovember is a movement started by Kate Davies and Felicity Ford encouraging the celebration of100% wool. Wool that comes from actual sheep – not wool blends and not synthetics, the real deal.

The idea got me to thinking about how much 100% wool I use in my knitting so I took a  closer look at my past projects. In the spirit of increasing my own woolly awareness, I started a ‘100% wool’ tag.  There are more projects that fall into that category than I expected. I’ve been using a lot of alpaca and linen wool blends lately and actually had a hard time remembering my most recent 100% wool project. It turns out that it was Damson on October 2nd – so not long ago at all!

I also ‘wovified’ myself by ordering some of Felicity’s 100% wool badges, which you can see above. This woolly campaign brought Shrek to mind – New Zealand’s now deceased celebrity sheep. Six years of freedom and a 60-pound fleece!

Road Trip: Wellington Fibres

Doe and kid


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]

Spun: BFL, Merino & Panda

Until I sat down to spin these skeins, I hadn’t spun since December. December! The workshop I went to at Gemini Fibres made me feel more confident but as it turns out, that feeling was temporary. The more I read about spinning, the more complicated I convinced myself it was. In an effort to get myself back on the wheel I joined SweetGeorgia’s Fibre Club. Felicia Lo’s hand-dyed fibre and yarns are amazing – it has been fun to play around with all that colour.

The Foundation

Bluefaced Leicester in The Foundation colourway was May’s installment. As you can see, there’s a lot of, ahem, variation, in my 2-ply yarn. I can accept that. Slubby yarn is a-okay. In fact, more experienced spinners even make it intentionally.

Banana Pancakes

Superwash Merino in the Banana Pancakes colourway came in June. I hit some bumps here as well but there are fewer slubs (thick and thin bits) than in The Foundation, which I found encouraging.

Summer Twilight
Summer Twilight

Panda is a silky blend of Superwash Merino, bamboo and nylon, and came in July in the Summer Twilight colourway. This was really fun to spin – I tried a 3-ply spun from three separate singles. The slightly slippery fibre took some getting used to but I loved spinning it once I got the hang of it.

If you’d like to see what other spinners/knitters have done with SweetGeorgia fibre there’s a Flickr group, a ravelry group, and some really great spinning over on Knitty Gritty Thoughts and daisyfaye.

I signed up for the August to October club as well. I’m looking forward to more lovely fibre to practise on!

Buttons, Fleece & Bread

Three nice things from this week. The first, vintage Japanese buttons from assemblage’s Etsy shop. Just waiting for the perfect project!

The second, the first installment of sweetgeorgia’s May-July fibre club. Bluefaced Leicester fleece in the colourway Foundation, which is named after the restaurant at Main and 7th in Vancouver. This brought back memories of tasty food, my friend Johnny B introduced me to The Foundation a few years ago on a trip back west. A great vegetarian place if you happen to be passing through the city!

The third, a wonderful loaf of St. John’s Bakery Red Fife. Red Fife wheat is a heritage wheat grown in Ontario that has been recognized by the Slow Food movement. It’s a sourdough bread with a nutty flavour, and perfect for summer picnic lunches!

Knitter’s Frolic

I went to my first Knitter’s Frolic this afternoon, held at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre. I have to admit, it hurt a little bit to take the bus to Don Mills on a non-work day!

The Frolic is put on each year by the Downtown Knit Collective and is mainly a marketplace and series of workshops. The spindles above were at the Gemini Fibres booth. Plenty of spinning equipment and books, including a charkha. I’m dying to try one out – I like the idea of having a little notebook charkha.

Indigo Moon from Gabriola Island, BC was there as well. Really beautiful, rich colours and naturally dyed silks. I showed amazing restraint and didn’t buy a single skein of yarn. I’m still wondering how that happened.

For the second time in the last month, I flirted with the idea of buying three skeins of Malabrigo Lace. I have Hannah Fettig’s Featherweight Cardigan in mind, if I could only commit to a colourway!

Road Trip: Picton, ON

It turned out Saturday made a fine day for a road trip to Picton, ON. Prince Edward County is beautiful and farm-filled, and snowy this time of year.

We paid a visit to Rose Haven Farm Store – a really great shop with an interesting selection of yarn and fleece. The owner, Linda Swaine, gave us a tour of the local fibre she carries, including Sabin’s Farm llama yarn (unbelievably soft – pictured below) and Paula Lishman’s beaver yarn (not for me).

As the beaver might lead you to believe, Linda has a huge selection of fibre types. Qiviut, nettle, pineapple, silk stainless steel…

I couldn’t resist picking up a kit from Habu Textiles. Rose Haven is one of the three shops in Canada that carries Habu, and that was all the excuse I needed! I was torn between kntting with stainless steel for the first time and a beautiful angora and cotton felt pullover. I’ll just have to go back for the stainless steel!

Draft, Spin, Ply

I went up to Mount Albert last weekend to take a spinning workshop at Gemini Fibres. The shop is set up in a small building on the edge of a field – a really lovely rural setting. About 65 km north of Toronto and well worth the trip! Spinner extraordinaire Wendy Whelan lead the workshop. She has a really accesible teaching style and by the end of it I definitely felt more comfortable at my wheel.

That’s me at my Lendrum, a double treadle folding wheel. The more I use it the more I love it. Gemini carries so many different types of wheels – it was a great opportunity to try some others out as well. But I really think Lendrum is perfect for learning on. It’s so simple to use – to change bobbins and to adjust the tension. And made right here in Ontario!

This is a Kromski Sonata – a beautiful mahogany wheel made in Poland. I tried it out as well. Not quite as intuitive as the Lendrum and the bobbins are more difficult to change.

Wendy covered the basics of spinning: understanding your wheel, drafting fibre, spinning and plying. This my plied yarn – I took two spun singles and reversed the twist in the fibre in order to ply them together. It seems so simple – adding twist to fibre and feeding it onto a bobbin – but there are so many things to think about and coordinate in your movements. In the end it seems like a miracle that you’ve made yarn at all!

Once I finished plying the singles together, I wound off onto this Roger Hawkins niddy noddy. I really like his design.

Et voilà! The finished skein – after it was tied nicely, and soaked and dried to set the twist. Now I just need to make a lot more so I can get started on a project with my very own handspun!