Iceland 4 – Ístex

I’m taking our Icelandic adventures a bit out of order, in order to relate them logically to each other. This post concerns the trip to Iceland’s spinning mill, which was the first place our North Atlantic Native Sheep and Wools Conference bus stopped after we left Reykjavik together. The mill is only about fifteen minutes from the city.

After shearing, Icelandic wool is scoured in Blönduós, in the northwest. Blönduós was our primary base of operations for the conference, although we didn’t arrive there until late in the night of that first day together. The scouring facility wasn’t on our itinerary because we were in Blönduós before the year’s shearing commenced.

Once the wool is clean, it is transferred to Ístex, located in Mosfellsbaer. Ístex was formed in 1991 to salvage the capacity previously provided by Álafoss of Iceland, which was going down the tubes in the late 1980s. Farmers and other shareholders stepped in to keep the Icelandic wool industry going. The old factory buildings within the town are now artists’ studios and galleries. We visited the modern facility in an industrial park.


The warm welcome we received included a brief slide show about Icelandic wool. I especially enjoyed the photo of the suppliers: credit where credit is due.


As we saw later in our trip, sheep are located throughout Iceland, including in some unlikely-looking environments.


Lambswool is kept separate from adult fleeces, as are solid natural-colored fleeces, and the white adult fleeces are divided into two grades. The grade one is spun in Iceland, and the grade two is sold out of the country as carpet wool. Although grade one is worth more to the farmers than grade two, it can be a challenge to get the grading done appropriately. There are no “official” wool graders.

So the clean wool arrives from Blönduós.


The washed bulk fiber combines the two types of wool that are characteristic of Icelandic fleeces, one shorter and softer (called þel or thel) and the other longer, sturdier, and more lustrous (called tog). These are processed together at Ístex.


Isn’t that lovely?

The lambswool tends to be softer and whiter than the adult fleeces—although as I mentioned in a previous post, it’s the fall shearings that are used for these yarns, because they are longer, cleaner, and whiter than the spring shearings. We were told that because of the clarity of its color, the lambswool is used primarily in the white rovings and yarns—so if you want the softest possible yarn from their output, you’ll select the white (and dye it yourself, if you want colors).

Ístex begins by dyeing the colors that it will need in huge vats. The dye area was amazingly clean (the whole factory was).


The colors that come out the other end of the factory as yarn are characteristically made from blends of colors—that’s what makes them so interesting. The blending process starts with big clumps of the components.


They are fed through a variety of equipment that gradually tosses the colors together.


The fibers tumble through a variety of blowers and conveyor belts and bins.


Finally, they’re pretty well mixed.


Next they go to the carding equipment—and yes, we’ve changed colors. Each part of the plant was processing a different color run. The carding section was working black.


I’ve seen a lot of mills at this point, and am intrigued by the differences in the way the same types of actions are managed. This plant had a lot of equipment with sections made of wooden slats (those sections move the fiber from one place to another). Also, the sheets of partially carded fiber that the following machine laid down were wider and thicker than I’ve seen in other places, and the equipment made a cool zigzag impression on the wool.


At the end of the carding there’s what is sometimes called pencil roving—and in Icelandic wool, fiber at this stage of processing becomes the end product that is sold as plötulopi, which can be knitted in that unspun form. Yes, it pulls apart easily because there’s no twist holding it together, but because of the fibers’ length the simple structure of the knit stitches is adequate to make it stable in a finished garment.


I’ve got a plötulopi photo, but it will need to go into another post. This post has already been delayed for two days while I try to find time to get that photo off my camera and into place here. I don’t have time today, either—!

Most of the roving does go on to the next process, which is spinning.


Cones of yarn are, to me, one of life’s delights. There’s enough there to really do something with. Cones are mostly sold to weavers.


For knitters, though, balls of yarn are the standard put-up for the lopi yarns, and skeins are the intermediate step.


Bright pink yarn was being turned into balls on the day we were there, and people who hang out in yarn shops know that there are a lot of different types of mechanically produced balls. The lopi balls are distinctive, and I saw how they get made.


This is the nifty machine that does the job. The cores around which the yarn is wound lie horizontally (I’ve seen a lot in other mills that were vertical). The end of a strand is caught on each core.


Wrapping begins.


And continues.


Until there’s a nice, fat ball.


These are ejected from the cores and picked up by little arms from above that transport them. . . .


. . . . and drop them into cradles.


This was fun: then a correctly shaped tool comes down and gives each ball a little squeeze.


I don’t think the label went on until the balls were inside that next area (to the right in the photo below) that I couldn’t see very well. But by the time the balls were in the clear box on the left of that photo, they did have their bands in place. Sorry some of this is mysterious: the x-ray vision on my camera wasn’t working.


The next bit of machinery packed the balls, ten at a time, in plastic bags, sealed them, and added an external label.


Packs went into boxes, which in turn were transferred to the warehouse.


The yarns from Icelandic wool that come out of the mill are all singles, in varying weights. They are:

  • Plötulopi – the unspun roving, which can be worked singly or combined (often two strands together)
  • Léttlopi – similar to an aran or heavy worsted weight, works up at about 18 stitches / 4 inches (10 cm)
  • Álafosslopi – a bulky weight, works up at about 13 stitches / 4 inches (10 cm)
  • Bulkylopi – even bulkier, works up at about 10 stitches / 4 inches (10 cm)
  • Einband – laceweight, and feels a good deal stiffer in the ball than the other yarns although we were told that it is spun from the same fibers and softens when it is washed; I have a ball to test; gauge varies, as with any yarn intended for lace
The mill also produces:
  • Kambgarn – Merino, they call it light worsted but I’d call it sport weight, works up at about 24 stitches / 4 inches (10 cm)
  • Hosuband – 80% wool (not specified) and 20% nylon, worsted weight, works up at about 19 stitches / 4 inches (10 cm)

At the end of our visit, our hosts presented each of us with what has to be one of the best souvenirs of the entire trip.

Before, during, and after our trip, the Bárðarbunga volcano was (and still is) acting up. Therefore shortly before our arrival the folks at Ístex designed a pattern for commemorative mittens and packed copies up with the yarn we would need to make them.


A stop later that same day had knitting needles, which sold out of size 4.5mm in a flash. (This was a group of sheep-interested people and not specifically knitters, but a remarkably high proportion of the recipients of the project bag were casting on by the end of the day. I knit loosely, so I dropped down a size and didn’t need to compete for the specified needles.)

I got a cuff worked, but discovered that knitting in a bus when I’m seated in a position where I can’t move my left arm very much may be the only situation (other than too much time at the keyboard) that causes my hands to hurt. We did celebrate someone else’s finished pair during one of our times on the bus, and I’m sure many others have been completed since. Mine will come along as travel knitting this fall.

Thanks to Ístex for a terrific start to our journeys around the world of Icelandic sheep and wool!


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