What do you get when you mix a knitting designer, a photographer and a trip around Iceland? A pretty spectacular book, that’s what! The self-proclaimed ‘nerdy knitter’ Joan of Dark (aka Toni Carr) and talented photographer Kyle Cassidy made a visit to the magical, geologically fascinating place that is Iceland to write Lopapeysa, a book that is part travel guide, part knitting pattern collection. Filled with stunning photographs, Icelandic designer profiles, and a selection of beautiful designs written by Joan during the trip, it’s a joyful read that will have you reaching for your passport. We caught up with the authors to get a taste of their experiences while putting it together.
You may have heard that Iceland is something of a promised land for knitters – the unique wool, the Handknitting Association Store, the way that knitting and wool are embedded in the country’s very core. But not only is it paradise for crafters, it’s also the perfect destination for those who love them too, as Kyle explains. “If you go on a knitting vacation to Iceland, and your spouse is knitting or faffing around with yarn, you can turn your head and look at the volcano that is right now spewing lava 300 feet into the air,” Kyle says. “Iceland has this amazing, marvellous, mind-blowing knitting scene – everybody knits, there’s a yarn isle in the grocery store – but there is so much else that will delight and fascinate non-knitters.” Promising everything from the “life-changing experience” of seeing a volcano erupt, to beautiful, isolated landscapes, Kyle assures us that Iceland is for everyone.
As well as volcanic eruptions, Joan and Kyle got to see a lot of incredible things during their trip, including unique Icelandic horses, hot springs, and a rehearsal of Iceland’s most famous heavy metal band Sólstafir (yes, really). But Kyle’s favourite thing, he says, was the people. “It's shocking how quickly you can make friends in Iceland if you try. But there were a few people who became really significant, and you’ll meet them all in the book,” he says. “One was Eyþór Steinarsson, who’s a college professor and just a charming individual we met at a party basically. He drove us around and introduced us to just a ton of people. Another was singer Hera Hjartardóttir, whose frænka (an Icelandic word meaning ‘female relatives’), have owned and run a knitting store for half a century. And Kristinn Snær Agnarsson, a session drummer who just seemed to know every single person on the island.” As Kyle tells us about these wonderful people he met, he remembers more and more, like Mikjall, the book’s cover model, and the prolific lopi designer Védís Jónsdóttir. He thinks his favourite experience though, “was meeting Palla Gunnarsdóttir, the 91-year-old woman from Búðardalur who picked up unusual techniques from the sweater of a shipwrecked sailor who washed up on the beach of her town in 1943 that she kept using,” he recalls. “It was really gripping to hear her stories of how the lopapeysa evolved over the years and how thousands of women across the country contributed to it becoming what it is today.”
And what is the lopapeysa today? Simply put, the lopi is a colourwork sweater that is knitted using unspun Icelandic wool. But really, it’s so much more than that, as Joan explains. “The lopapeysa is so fascinating to me as an American, because there’s nothing like it in our country. It’s an article of clothing that everyone seems to own, almost like a national uniform. Everyone has one and has stories about them.” It’s a treasured piece of the country’s culture. The unique relationship between Icelanders and their lopis, Kyle thinks, is in part down to the fact that they are handmade, often by family members. “Wrapped up in it is the love of your grandmother, or your mother,” he says. “And the place is at 66 degrees north latitude – it gets cold up there. So you might as well have the extra warmth provided by love.”
Like many people, during lockdown Kyle was eager to find something to fill his time when his photography work curtailed, and so he learned to knit over Zoom with Joan as his teacher. “The goal was that by the time we did get to Iceland, I’d be able to knit a lopi while I was there,” Kyle says. “Joan started out listing all the skills that I’d need to make one, and then each lesson we’d have a special cocktail and Joan would teach me one thing.” If you’re curious, you can actually watch all of Joan and Kyle’s lessons on YouTube – find episode one of Drunk Knitting Iceland here! “I will say though that one weird side effect of learning over Zoom was that I kind of had to figure out how to hold the yarn on my own, and I knit really strangely now,” he laughs. “But it works.”
“A lopapeysa is knit in almost one piece, usually from the bottom up and worked in the round to the underarms,” Joan tells us. “Then the sleeves are knit, and everything is joined together at the yoke, where you start your colorwork pattern.” Armed with this knowledge and all the necessary techniques, once in Iceland, Kyle set about knitting his very own lopapeysa. By making his lopi during his travels, Kyle was able to create something that acted almost like a diary of his time there. “Whenever you build something, whether it’s a sweater or a house, that thing is made of time and it’s made of memory,” he says. “You’re preserving an ephemeral experience that you had in a physical object. As a photographer, as someone who tries to preserve things, being able to essentially save emotions is both fascinating and wonderful to me.” Everything that Kyle experienced, with Joan’s help, could be turned into stitches and incorporated into his lopi. “My pattern had the earth, it had Viking swords, it had a design we saw on the pavement in Reykjavik, it had a volcano...” he recalls. “All of these things that I saw made it into this design.”
Joan was also on the lookout for inspiration. “I’ve constantly got my phone out to photograph skylines, or patterns on the street, anything that looks like it could work its way into a chart,” she says. The ‘Learned Lopapeysa’ pattern in the book is a prime example of how Joan’s designs were shaped by her experiences in Iceland. “We were pretty much done with the book and ready to relax, but after seeing some women in short-sleeve lopapeysa shirts, I had the idea to make one. Then I thought about how local knitter Janina Witzel added a rolled edge in a contrasting colour to all her lopi, and I knew I wanted to incorporate that into a pattern as well,” she says. “The yoke came from all the geometric shapes that were just bouncing around in my head from all the sweaters and drawings and stories we had seen. I sat at a table in Reykjavík and knitted and designed the thing in one day!”
The lopi-style designs in the book, which include a hat, dress and a headband as well as several sweaters, pay homage to many of the Icelandic designers and knitters Joan and Kyle met on their travels. “It’s hard to say which I admire the most,” Joan muses. “Rebekka Guðleifsdóttir is a pretty incredible designer and her patterns tend to be very unique. Also Palla Gunnarsdóttir, this older woman who I don’t think published her designs, she just made them – she had this unique style of faroe knitting, and her sweaters were mostly one of a kind.”
Despite the complex cultivation, adaptation and change that has befallen the lopi pattern and its colour charts over many years, Joan assures us that knitting one is in fact easily achievable. “Most knitters who are intimidated by a lopapeysa, knit one, then wonder why they were so worried!” Joan laughs. “Make sure you understand the chart first, and know the decreases. Then just dive in.” Even steeking, a technique that can strike fear into the heart of many knitters, shouldn’t be a concern Joan tells us. “Just remember that your yarn doesn’t want to unravel!” she points out. “Especially sticky wool like Istex, or other Icelandic yarn. I steeked a couple of sweaters that I didn’t have time to reinforce beforehand, and I didn’t lose a single stitch! If you’re too worried, machine sew the stitches first. Nothing’s getting loose after that!” Joan admits that she was slightly freaked out by the 1-2 steek stitches that are common practice among Icelandic knitters. “I’m so used to having a larger steek to cut, but once I tried it, I found that it worked perfectly,” she says.
Joan is also keen for knitters to embrace the freedom that lopis offer. After hearing Icelandic singer Hera Hjartardottir refer to a knitting pattern as a recipe, Joan says she fell in love with the phrasing. “As she described it to me, the recipe is the overall sweater and the pattern is the colorwork of the yoke,” she recalls. “And it makes so much sense! A sweater is like a recipe; you start with a basic cookie, but maybe you don’t like chocolate chips, so you leave those out and replace them with peanut butter chips. Or you like a sweater, but want to add some waist shaping, or turn it into a cardigan. But the pattern, the colorwork chart, needs to be more specific, or in the recipe analogy, you still need to mix eggs, flour and butter and bake it in an oven!”
One ingredient that you certainly can’t leave out of a lopapeysa however, is Icelandic wool. Utterly unique to the island, Icelandic sheep have two coats, Joan explains. “A top coat of long wool that provides protection from the wind and the rain, and a coat underneath which is softer and keeps the sheep warm. It makes for a warm sweater that is also resistant to the rain,” she informs . Joan had first-hand experience of just how resilient it was to the elements when she and Kyle hiked up to the hot springs on their trip and got caught in an intense rainstorm. “Every inch of me was soaked, except my Adventure Sweater! While my jeans needed to be wrung out, my sweater just needed the water brushed off,” she tells us.
Any knitting adventure in Iceland wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the Hand Knitting Association store in Reykjavik – a real Aladdin’s cave for crafters. Having been there on a couple of occasions as a non-knitter, Kyle noted the stark contrast between those visits, and his experience going after he’d learnt. The first two visits were very much perfunctory, to snap a few pictures or to do some interviews without much desire to linger, but “then a funny thing happened” he says. When Kyle went back for the third time, it was to get yarn to start his first lopi. “Going in there knowing how to knit was so different to the other times, because I now had this language and I understood, rudimentarily, how things worked,” he recalls. “I looked at all the patterns, I looked at all the yarn colours, and I realised that I could understand how some of these things were done. My brain started to figure out how I could incorporate them into my own first lopi. And they have plenty of yarn there,” he adds with a grin.
By the end of the trip, Kyle had indeed managed to make his very own lopapeysa – and it was a big moment. “The first time my head went through the finished sweater it was an eruption of joy – there are actually pictures of that moment in the book,” Kyle recalls. “It was a year of work behind me in learning how to knit, planning the trip, doing all that work, and here was this physical thing at the end,” he says. “Here was the tangible output of that intangible experience. And that was perfect.”
Read all about Kyle and Joan’s adventures in Iceland and discover 12 lopi-inspired knitting projects in Lopapeysa by Kyle Cassidy and Joan of Dark (Herbert Press, £25)