The Country of Knitters

05/03/2012 09:27 GMT | Updated 02/05/2012 10:12 BST

In our film about Iceland, you may have noticed locals and tourists alike sporting some top-notch knitwear. Iceland is a country famous for its lopi sweater, and its knitting tradition goes back many hundreds of years. It's something that is well worth exploring for visitors of an artistic bent.

In fact, sheep and their wool are so important in Iceland that they outnumber the population by almost three to one.

When the Vikings settled on the island, they brought with them their hardy, longhaired sheep. Thanks to strict laws preventing the importing of foreign sheep, the Icelandic sheep is still very closely related to that original stock and its fleece remains unique. It consists of two types of fiber: fine inner fibers (pel) that are soft and highly insulating; and longer, glossier outer fibres (tog) that are water repellent.

Milled together, these fibres create wool that is lightweight, water repellent, and breathable. Separately, they've been used for everything from rope and twine to lacy shawls and extremely warm knickers.

Woolen cloth was traded across Europe by Vikings throughout the Middle Ages, which was also when the Icelanders started knitting. Soon, knitted woolens became the island's principal export, sold all over the Atlantic basin.

Even the poorest and those living on isolated farms could make a reasonable income from knitting. All they needed was some knitting needles and a few evenings in front of the fire. Knitting needles became treasured possessions, and their cases - often beautifully carved - are now precious heirlooms.

In the dark of Icelandic winter, evenings were spent in front of the fire; one member of the household reading aloud while everyone else was busy clicking away with their needles (men included).

Today, knitting is still a vital part of Icelandic culture. From the age of seven children are taught how to knit as part of their regular school curriculum. Throughout Iceland people still spend their evenings knitting sweaters, mostly for sale to tourists. At every petrol station in rural Iceland you'll find a selection of hand knitted sweaters, mittens, and caps produced by the people of the neighbourhood.

It would be very easy to become a lopi collector. The sweater actually only started life in the 1920s but since then it's become an iconic product of Iceland. Its typical pattern is a circular yoke and patterned borders, but you'll find a million variations on this theme all over the country.

To keep Icelandic wool an Icelandic product, Istex purchases the entire wool clip in Iceland, so it is impossible for any other company to lay claim to the fact that they use this wool to spin their yarn. That means the jumpers and blankets and gloves you buy in Iceland are truly unique, and that the wool is always a pure, natural, and great quality.

As a visitor to the country, you can buy the knitwear everywhere or even take a knitting tour and try it for yourself. It's a great way to go right to the heart of a country that is as warm and welcoming as its lovely jumpers.