Iceland’s Knitters Unhappy with Sweaters Made in China


17 June, 2019

There is trouble in one of Iceland's most special industries: the production of hand-knit "lopi" sweaters. Visitors love to buy them and Icelanders happily wear them. Each sweater is made by hand.

The unique piece of clothing has come to represent Iceland for many tourists.

But, local knitters are angry at the rise in "Icelandic" sweaters being made in China.

Lopi sweaters in Reykjavik, Iceland.
Lopi sweaters in Reykjavik, Iceland.

The China-made sweaters use real wool from Icelandic sheep. But the actual knitting process is outsourced to workers in China. The wool is shipped to China, knitted by hand, and then returned as a finished product to Iceland. The sweaters are described as "hand-knitted from Icelandic wool."

Knitting groups around Iceland are struggling to compete. Last month, they asked the Icelandic government to ban companies from calling wool sweaters as "Icelandic" unless they are really made in Iceland.

"People buy the imported sweaters as the real thing," said Thuridur Einarsdottir. She is the founder of the Handknitting Association of Iceland. "But it is not," she added.

The business needs "tourists because most (Icelanders) already own a sweater," Einarsdottir added. She created the Handknitting Association in the 1970s to help women make more money from the stores that sold their sweaters.

The "lopi" wool comes from Iceland's 500,000 sheep. Their fleece is especially strong and warm.

The sweaters are impossible to make by machine. One adult-sized sweater usually takes between 14 and 25 hours to knit. The time depends on the number of colors used and whether there are buttons.

The Chinese sweaters have taken nearly two-thirds of sales; they appeal to tourists because of their low price. Sweaters made in Iceland sell for about $200. Sweaters made in China cost about $30 dollars less.

Today, many Icelandic knitters are worried about their future in the industry. Most of the knitters are self-employed and retired women. "It gives me something to do while watching television or drinking coffee with friends," said local knitter Heiddis Gunnarsdottir.

The discussion about China-made Icelandic sweaters has made some ask what makes a sweater "Icelandic."

"What if the sweater is made by a Polish (person) in Iceland?" asked Bjarni Jonsson. He is the owner of Nordic Store, a company that makes about 20,000 sweaters a year in China. "When does the sweater start — or stop — being Icelandic?"

I'm Susan Shand.

The Associated Press reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

unique – adj. one of a kind, or unusual

knit – v. to use two needles to work with wool to create clothing

sweater – n. a warm, usually wool, garment

tourist – n. someone who visits a place for pleasure

symbol – n. a representative of something

wool – n. the product made from the hair on a sheep

fleece – n. the hair on a sheep