REYKJAVIK, Iceland (AP) — Trouble is rattling one of Iceland’s most distinctive industries: the production of the thick, hand-knitted “lopi” sweaters adored by tourists and worn with pride by locals.
The individually produced, very warm sweaters have become a symbol of Iceland. But local knitters are upset at seeing their profit margins diminished by the appearance of sweaters actually made in China, albeit from authentic Icelandic wool.
The practice was started by some local manufacturers who have successfully outsourced the labor to China. Containers full of local yarn are shipped from the North Atlantic island nation, made into sweaters, then shipped back again, labeled as “hand-knitted from Icelandic wool”.
Knitting co-ops around Iceland, struggling to compete, last month urged the government to ban companies from branding woolen sweaters as “Icelandic” unless they are made locally.
“People buy the imported sweaters as the real thing,” said Thuridur Einarsdottir, founder of the Handknitting Association of Iceland. “But it is not.”
The “lopi” yarn comes from Iceland’s 500,000 sheep, which have a fleece adapted to a rugged landscape with widely fluctuating temperatures.
The thick sweaters are impossible to make by machine. One adult-size sweater takes between 14 and 25 hours to knit, depending on the numbers of colors used and extra features like zippers and buttons.
Icelandic women have traditionally subsidized household income with the work, and today many sweeten their retirement years with the extra cash.
With Chinese imports grabbing an estimated two-thirds market share — particularly among tourists — knitting co-ops around the country worry about the future.
The quality of each garment ultimately comes down to the skill of the individual knitter, raising the question of what actually makes the sweater “Icelandic.”
Locally made sweaters retail for about $200, while the Chinese ones sell for around $170, reflecting the wage gap between the two nations.
Chinese knitters are, according to Nordic Store, paid $3 to $5 per hour, depending on their skill and experience. The number could not be verified and the company declined to identify the location of its operation, beyond that it is in southern China.