Iceland: Fiber visits around the island, Part 1.

It’s Saturday morning and I’m at home now. Although I try to write a trip as I go along, I’m never quite able to do so. Especially at the tail end. I usually get a post or two or three written while flying. But then I get home. Jet lagged and happy to be in my house, with my dog, and among familiar things, everything slows down. I don’t know why this happens. It takes me only one full day and a good night’s sleep to adjust to being overseas. But once home, it takes much longer to get back in sync. I’ve taken to allowing myself the first full day back for basic nothingness. I don’t work, I don’t really go out, I nap off and on, and I let only a select few folks know I’m back. Even with that soft landing, it’s two to three days before my engines rev up again and I’m operating at full capacity. Is it psychological? Physical? I’m unsure. It’s a consistent experience with travel, though. I recognize it and accept it as a part of the rhythm of things.

I’m lucky in that my work and personal life allow for a slow re-entry. Much has changed in my life in the last few years. This is one of the changes for which I’m very, very grateful: that work is based on my determination of schedule, intensity and level of engagement rather than on someone else’s. Really a blessing.

So the final two days of my trip to Iceland are just surfacing on the blog now. I’m glad for the opportunity to return the trip in my mind’s eye. These days were full of color, surprises and reminders of how much I love this crazy fiber thing.

Cue happy theme music. Camera pans across the skyline of Reykjavik, settling on the Fosshotel downtown, encased in a snowy blanket – still.

Sunday morning I woke bleary and uninterested in getting out of bed. However, I’d already told some other folks at the tradeshow I’d meet them. I threw on clothes and went downstairs to the breakfast room. With nothing scheduled first thing, I was able to have a slow wake up – coffee and talking with these lovely ladies I’d met. It’s an interesting endeavor, learning about an industry you’ve just plunged yourself into. I honestly don’t know what travel agents actually do these days. I also don’t know why anyone would need them. The internet makes all things travel-ish accessible to the layperson. So I’ve been asking around and gathering info. But that, my friends, is far another post. This one is supposed to be about wool!

One stop before the wool escapades though – and it was a thoroughly worthwhile one – the National Museum of Iceland. These people know how to do museums. Even the museums in tiny, remote Husavik were artfully arranged and well presented. Let’s ignore, for the moment, my experience at the Saga Museum in Reykjavik, the one about the Vikings. I’m going to think of that one as an odd duck in a family of swans. (Nothing against ducks. I quite like them.) The National Museum is elegant and creative. I could have spent double my allowed time perusing it’s collections. And because it did not open until 10 am, I walked there from the hotel, again exploring neighborhoods and looking for how Reykjavikians live in their hometown. I found an array of housing, folks taking Sunday morning walks with their dogs, parents dragging kids on the snowy lawn of a park, what I THINK was a broad river with some folks skating on a cleared patch, and heard the pealing of church bells in the frosty air just about every half hour.

And then I found my way into the warmth of the National Museum.

I spent most of my time in the section about Iceland’s history, from discovery and settlement to the present. It’s a story I was slowly piecing together from the combination of tours, museums, and references all around me. Starting at the National Museum would have made much more sense! I’m just going to share a few images so I don’t overwhelm you.

All through my time at the museum, I was anxiously trying to contact my driver for the day. This is one of those things that could drive many people crazy (and which the Rowan Tree tours circumvent for people, thankfully). Sometimes you just don’t know how you’re going to get to where you need to go. Or there is some crucial piece of information missing that prevents you from understanding what needs to be done. (Remember my descriptions of being in England and not knowing how to make the gas pump stop on time or the episode with the paid parking at the York train station? Oy!) So I’d been informed by one of our contacts in Iceland that she had a driver able to take me to appointments that day. However, she never told me when or where for the pickup. Finally I emailed her and asked for the info (Yes , that morning because I STILL hadn’t been told.) Instead, she gave me the driver’s name and telephone number. I was trying and trying to call and not getting through. I was just about to email Hulda, at Uppspuni, with whom I had an appointment that afternoon, to let her know I wouldn’t make it. Then I thought of contacting Heather. Luckily she was up. It was the crack of dawn, her time. We finally determined that I was not entering a + before the Iceland phone number when dialing. I didn’t even know there was a + on the phone keyboard, much less that you had to use it! Feeling like complete dork, I dialed + and the number and sure enough, Kiddi picked it up on the second ring. He’d been waiting for my call!

I felt very ridiculous. After all, what international traveler doesn’t know how to make an international call from her own phone?!?!? In my defense, I’ll just say that I’ve always done quite well using email and setting things up far in advance. That saves me the expense of turning on my phone when traveling internationally. Just one day later, I’d inform a fellow conference attendee, a travel agent no less, of how to make a phone call with her cell phone using the + on her keyboard. So there.

By the way, to insert a +, hold the zero down until what you’ve entered changes from the zero to a + sign. Magic! (And thanks for the save, Heather.) Kiddi, an Icelandic gentleman probably a few years younger than me, found me in front of the museum and we were off!

Ever drive in the front seat of a car with a total stranger for over an hour? My first thought was “Oh crap. This is going to be an hour of uncomfortable silence or forced conversation. I’m not going to like either.” Instead, I found myself engaged in a friendly, lively conversation that ranged from his experiences growing up in a small town on the north coast and later becoming a pilot for international flights to the current debate in Iceland about whether the country should change to 100% electronic money via cards. And those conversations led into deeper topics like the Icelandic national identity, the connections between rural and urban life, the nature of criminality, and a host of other things. I’m always amazed when someone can joke and “get” jokes made in another language. I’d not realized how much my conversational style involves humor. I would say something then think “Oh goodness, he’ll have no idea what I’m talking about or what that’s in reference to or how that was a play on words” But he always did! So we had a lot of laughs. We also observed multiple cars by the side of the road and encountered what I thought of as a snowstorm during the drive. Kiddi’s comment: “Oh, this is not a storm. A storm is when you cannot see the car in front of you and must drive based on the five feet worth of pavement markings you can see.” Yikes. I think I told him half a dozen times how glad I was that he was driving!

We drove and drove, finally turning down a snow covered road that seemed to head out into nowhere (a repetitive theme on this trip). We passed a few scattered farmhouses and then hooray! were there. Uppspuni! Word number four that I can pronounce in Icelandic!

Before arriving, I knew very little about the place. Only that it’s a mini mill, we visit it on our tours, the owner’s name is Hulda, and that she makes yarn there. Most yarn that comes from Iceland is made at Istex, a large place that I’d be visiting the next day. Istex is the primary, for years and years the only, way for sheep farmers to have their wool made into yarn. They make the famous Lopi, which is standard fare for the Icelandic sweaters, hats, capes, mittens, etc that you see worn and sold all about the country. One mill. For an entire country. Making one style of yarn, Lopi, though in 3-4 different weights. Coming from the US, with its multiplicity of wool avenues, I’m astounded by that fact. However, if I keep in mind that we’re talking about a country with a population of less than 350,000, it puts things into perspective. There are far more people living in my own state of New Mexico.

So in this country, a single large mill has enjoyed something of a monopoly on wool purchasing and production. However, it is not like in England, where you are mandated to sell your fleeces to the Wool Board and your wool is off to wherever and to make whatever they determine for it. Istex is owned by the farmers themselves and is run much more like a cooperative. But hey! I’ll get to that when I write about Istex! Right now I’m being amazed by this tiny farm that bought its own processing equipment and is producing yarn, roving and handmade goodies from its own Icelandic sheep and those of its neighbors.

For you non-yarnie type folks, let me explain. A wool mill takes raw wool, shorn from the sheep each year, scours it clean, opens up the fleece with a process called picking, further opens up the fibers and prepares them for spinning in a process called carding, sometimes combs the wool to align the fibers so they are all running in the same direction (depending on the type of yarn desired), spins the fiber into yarn, then reels it into skeins or onto cones so it is ready for individuals or factories to use. Many times the wool is dyed here also, just after scouring but before carding. That’s how yarn is made when it’s not made by someone like me, on a spinning wheel, in a sunny corner of my living room.

Most wool mills are processing huge amounts of wool each day. The machinery is large, setting industrial, and it’s all very noisy. But there is also such a thing as a “mini mill”. It’s a miniaturized version of the same equipment, designed to run small batches of wool through the exact same process. By using a mini mill, a sheep farm can have the fleeces from its own flock made into yarn. A large mill combines the wool from many, many sources and runs batches primarily based on color and grade. When you sell off your wool to them, it becomes part of an amalgamated “wool” yarn. But what if you have a prize flock of Rambouillet sheep? Or Cotswolds? Or Blue Faced Leicester? Or Wensleydales?You’ve spent years improving your flock to get that fiber to the highest level of perfection. You don’t want it to become some anonymous wool yarn. You want to sell your wonderful yarn, made from your wonderful fleeces, carefully prepped and spun in a manner that makes the best use of its particular characteristics. And you can sell it for a much higher price than any anonymous wool yarn. People who work with fiber know a good product when they see it. And they are willing to pay. So as a sheep farmer who raises sheep for fiber rather than meat, it’s often in your best interest to have your wool spun by a mini mill, preparing your own wool for you to sell as a product directly to customers.

But buying the equipment for a minimill is no small feat. It’s expensive. There are only two or three companies in the world that make the machinery. It must be shipped to you from their location. You have to be trained on how to use the equipment. You need the technical know-how and motivation to keep the machinery running well and doing exactly what you want it to do. Owning a mini mill is a huge undertaking.

That’s why I’m so impressed with Hulda Brynjoldsdottir and her husband Tyrfinger Sveinsson. They purchased an entire mini mill from Belfast Mini Mills, Ltd, located on Price Edward Island in Canada, had it shipped over to Iceland, went through the training to run it all, and now are producing a beautiful line of yarns right on their farm. And I really do mean beautiful. The yarn, produced from the same Icelandic sheep’s wool that makes Lopi (not usually thought of as very soft or comfortable-feeling yarn) has a beautiful sheen, is much softer than any yarn I’ve ever encountered made from Icelandic sheep’s wool, and knits up into beautiful – and strong – garments. If you want to take a look at their website, visit them at

Hulda met me and Kiddi just at the door of the studio. It’s a lovely, wooden building. The milling equipment is all on the first floor, the yarn and other foodies displayed in a beautiful shop just above. I got a kick out of Hulda’s dog. He was happy to meet and greet us but is well trained NOT to come into the upstairs shop. He patiently waited at the top of the stairs when we went up there. He looked longingly at us for more petting, but stayed right in his designated spot. Good dog!

We started the visit with Hulda explaining to me about Icelandic sheep, the type of wool they offer, and then the process she takes it through to get from fleece to finished skeins or balls of yarn. In short, Icelandic sheep produce a double-coated fleece. There are long, strong and more coarse fibers AND, shorter, softer, “downier” fibers as well. The first provides strength and durability to anything made using an Icelandic sheep’s fleece. The second, softness and insulation. Together, the two types of fiber in an Icelandic sheep’s fleece are responsible for the sweaters and housewares that have kept this country warm for generations

An entire Icelandic sheep’s fleece. Plus drying racks in the background.
Scouring the wool. Or, as we would say… putting it in the washing machine!
Clean, fluffed up wool fiber, ready to be made into something wonderful.

I was taking pictures, got as far as the scouring and picking (which opens up the fiber and prepares it for carding), then completely abandoned my job of taking pictures. I was deep in conversation. I had a million questions for Hulda. And frankly. I find it fascinating. I am absolutely enraptured by any process that works with this material and turns it from something off a sheep’s back (or alpaca’s back or cashmere goat’s back or… you get the idea) into this stuff called yarn, from which we can make clothes and blankets and carpets and a hundred other useful things. Plus I love the smell and the wonderful squishy feel of newly-created skeins of yarn in my hands. A chocolate lover at a chocolate factory couldn’t be happier. I mean it. It’s pure glee.

So if you really want to see the equipment and what does it, check it out at its source:

Onward for us, though, upstairs to the shop.

Oh my. What a lovely space. It was light and bright, with warm wooden interiors and wonderful things everywhere I looked. Hulda served us coffee, we chatted about wool processing in Iceland, and then I was set free to explore.

Kiddi waits patiently while I ooh and aaah and squeeze and sigh. And buy.

I made a few purchases because I simply couldn’t NOT. And then we were saying goodbye, shaking hands with Hulda, giving final pats to the pup, conveying my thanks for her willingness to let me come by on a Sunday afternoon.

Next, Kiddi and I travelled to Selfoss, the nearby town, to see a hotel our travel business sometimes uses. Always good to see, inspect and take note before bringing folks to stay anywhere! It was lovely and had a fantastic spa. Then were were headed back to the city in a worsening snowstorm. For the seventieth time, I expressed my thanks and relief that he was driving and not me! I was let off inches from my hotel. I waved goodbye. What a lovely afternoon. Then I turned to enter the hotel, squirreled away my goodies upstairs, and retired to the hotel’s bar for beer and a burger – both locally sourced and of excellent quality! Once again, I thoroughly enjoyed my comfy Icelandic bed.

Next up: more driving (thankfully not by me), how moss and cow urine make color, feeling like I was in the movie Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and more beers and burgers.


    • I quite miss spinning. Sold my last spinning wheel, a Majacraft Rose, shortly after moving into this house. I’d realized I hadn’t done any spinning in over two years. It takes large chunks of uninterrupted time to prep and then spin — of which I’ve had very little. Knitting is easier to pick up and put down for short periods. Sigh. Someday I’ll get back to it. Contemplating a tiny supported spindle in the interim. But I have enough knitting projects to keep me uber busy for now.

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