On Icelandic Sweaters and Reykjavik Fiber Tourism

a striped green scarf unrolled on the sidewalk of brautarholt in reykjavikFollow me.

scarf going up the side of a building in reykjavikUp, just a little. Where are we going, you ask?

green striped scarf going up the side of a green building on brautarholt in reykjavikReykjavik again. Specifically to Brautarholt, a street that runs parallel to the most popular street, Laugavegur, aka the one with all the stores and also the Lebowski Bar.* This bit of amazingness is not how I learned about Iceland’s heritage of rad fiber arts, but it was the first really vivid demonstration of it I got.

My boyfriend went to Reykjavik last summer. He told me two things on the eve of my own solo trip:

  1. Do not eat the hakarl.**
  2. Budget at least a couple hundred bucks for a sweater. It is a Thing one does in Iceland.

I elected to follow the second, and I even volunteered to pick one up for my neighbor. I went into the city’s renowned vintage stores, perusing their prominently displayed racks of pre-loved sweaters. I even visited the Icelandic Handknitting Association. In each one I gently caressed a series of sweaters. And, over and over, I thought:


I have been knitting for about a decade now, and when I pet yarn, I have immediate and visceral reactions about what a yarn is and is not for. “Ooh, this would feel good on my forehead” means I am holding hat yarn. “This feels sturdy, is colorful, and is cheap” indicates yarn for dishcloths.

When touching traditional Icelandic yarn, I got a vivid demonstration of Iceland’s history of making do with what they had. They are a people who built ships of driftwood and made bones into ice skates. Brilliant, resourceful. So Icelandic sweaters are thick, pragmatically pretty, wildly warm… and mad itchy.

Although I opted out of the Icelandic sweater investment***, I was still thoroughly charmed by their knitting culture. I am a person with a piece of dedicated yarn furniture****, and I have operated under a yarn-buying moratorium for a couple of years. Even so, I took a good, thorough look around. I passed this place several times:

erla yarn store, reykjavikBut only when they were closed. Probably for the best. (Despite the logo, I assure you that it is a yarn store, not just a shop for needlepoint supplies.)

And then, close to the center of town, there was this beautiful treasure of a store display:

knitting window display in reykjavikIt’s so pretty I kind of want to eat it. I spied knitting in public too:

knitting at Hlemmur bus stationHlemmur bus station (the main public bus depot in the city) was covered in swatches of knitting. I didn’t capture more than this one because I was only there to get cash to go to the Icelandic Phallological Museum. But that is a story for another post. A schlong-filled post, to be clear.

And, finally, spotted after lobster soup but before my evening tour of four different museums:

knitting artSerious business. When more run-of-the-mill knitters such as myself get bored, we make cables and bobbles and other weird decorative elements you never quite understood why your awesome knitting aunt bothered with. That’s the answer: after a while, if you get good, you get bored. So, to keep yourself amused, you get weird. That’s all. It’ll happen to you someday too, if you’re lucky. This is like bobbles times one hundred. Remember: the weirder the handknit, the closer the knitter is to basically being a wizard.

But it’s not only knitting. I spotted this on the edge of Hljómskálagarður. (That’s the central park in Reykjavik. Big lovely lake with bridges. Largely covered in ice and aged snow when I was there. I glided along and savored solitude and the crisp air. Also the shocking number of swans.)

needlepoint on a pole in Hljómskálagarður in ReykjavikThere’s a bit in Mason-Dixon Knitting where one of the authors advises – no, implores – you to use the handknits. Your precious sweaters, your beautiful dishcloths, these are objects to be used.

So I had a moment of alarm when I saw this beautiful thing attached to a pole, clearly under the stress of a couple seasons of elements. And yet, it’s also… perfect. I did some mostly unsuccessful research to see what this was about and only found this. As if I needed another reason to go Berlin!

Did you gather yet that I like Reykjavik? I like Reykjavik. It’s crafty as hell, one of my favorite qualities of both cities and people. It’s also so generously artsy, something I’ll explore in another post.


*Where I didn’t get to go. I didn’t get to eat hakarl either. Two casualties of a sour belly, and twin tragedies so far as things I really really wanted to do while I was there.

**I will fucking eat the hakarl one day, I swear to god. But it was not a good idea when I was feeling a little sick and was full of a rather pricey seafood dinner that I really wanted to keep in my belly – if only for frugality’s sake. I didn’t eat super well in Iceland, and I would’ve lamented losing the one really full meal I enjoyed there.

***Seriously, used ones were more than $100. Supply and demand, my friends. The most frantic dividing by 115 I did while I was there in the vintage store, realizing that my quick, jet-lagged math was off by 90 percent.

****It’s a shelf. It really ties the room together.