Iceland in the Heart of Winter

Last spring our Icelandic friend, Valdi convinced my brother, Pecos and me that winter is the best time to go to Iceland. And like fools, we believed him, thank goodness, because he turned out to be wonderfully right.

Valdi is wearing the lopapeysa his aunt knit thirty years ago. Except for the eight years his cat claimed it as her nest, he’s worn it nearly daily. After she died, he washed it, patched the elbows, and resumed the warm relationship, full of cat memories. Icelandic wool is the real thing.
Valdi introduced us to his relative, Hulda Soffia, a knit designer and primary school teacher in Reykjavik with a degree in textiles. Hulda helped us plan a community-based knitting adventure like those we lead in Peru, Ireland, and the United States. We finally met our lovely long-distance friend in person the week before our travelers arrived,
and she helped us get all our ducks (and swans) in a row, so to speak.
Reykjavik is at once grand and intimate, labyrinthine yet easy to navigate, each home uniquely charming, the window sills displaying carefully curated personal collections and hand-crocheted lace curtains, offering glimpses of the worlds within.
Photo by Phil Iverson
Photo by Phil Iverson

We chose a hotel at the top of the highest hill, where Hallgrimskirkja’s pristine architecture soars above the entire city, so our travelers could always find their way home. This is the view from the top of Hallgrimskirkja’s tower. Pecos took this photo on a sunny day just as a snowstorm began to blow in on the right.
Photo by Jim Petkiewicz

Dawn at the end of January begins its slow, delicious transformation at about nine,
Photo by Jim Petkiewicz

and sometime before ten one realizes it is daylight.
Photo by Phil Iverson
Photo by Jim Petkiewicz
Around five the light becomes drowsy and by six darkness enfolds the sparkling world again.
Darkness embraces daylight like a circle of petals sheltering the unfurling tenderness at a rose’s center, making each day’s transformation serene. Icelanders wind delicate white lights around bare branches and arrange luminous treasures in windows, so that taking a walk during the so-called darkness is magical. I loved dark and light equally.
Icelanders drop mittens a lot, it seems, and so it is customary to pick up forlorn lost mittens and set them somewhere at eye level. This gate’s display changed daily as some mittens returned home and newly lost ones arrived.
Many of our travelers found handknit Icelandic sweaters, tunics, and more in the Reykjavik thrift shops. Here is a rack of pre-loved children’s handknit sweaters.
These thrift store slippers (which I photographed but for some unknown reason did not buy!) inspired me to design my own version (and pattern), which I will post when they are done.
I did buy these elegantly patterened mittens in the same shop and found them to be much warmer non-Icelandic wool mittens twice as thick. That good Icelandic wool...
The next day I found another pair of slightly fulled woolen mittens which were made by the ancient technique of nalbinding, which predates knitting. Such a find was so unlikely that I didn’t realize what I had until our travelers Sara and Phil Iverson, who own Blue Heron Knittery in Decorah, Iowa, and whose neighbor and friend Kate Martinson is one of the world’s experts on nalbinding, confirmed the rarity of my treasure.
Traditional knit designs appear everywhere in this knit-centric culture, where every child learns to knit in grade school. There is no such thing as a person who doesn’t understand and value knitting. Here is a stained glass window with a knitting pattern,
and a bridge railing with a yoke design.
Everyone from active construction workers to babies, wears sweaters, for they are beautiful and durable.
Every morning we gathered in our hotel’s breakfast room for knitting workshop, where I taught my unpublished Icelandic yoke sock architecture. The method invites variation, so in addition to socks, several chose to knit legwarmers, and one made an Icelandic Christmas stocking.
Icelandic food is beautifully presented and satisfying.
The freshest fish, succulent lamb (rivaling El Albergue in Ollantaytambo, Peru), soups, stews, open-face sandwiches, even rye bread ice cream (hidden beneath the whipped cream)!
Tucked here and there are tiny food shops that beckon you to enter their enchanted world,
that includes flowers...
Licorice (lakris) rules the candy counter (imagine licorice coated in good chocolate!) as well as gourmet shelves.
Abundant, well-fed cats roam Reykjavik’s streets and gardens. Since all dogs are leashed, the cats know they are free to explore, and do. Here is a friend I made on the way to the geothermal pool and hot pots a few minutes’ walk from our hotel.
Cats slip in and out of windows, which tend to be left open because of the plentiful geothermal heat,
wait for shops doors to open so they can pitter-patter inside,
and cuddle in a passersby’s warm arms (that would be me),
Or wait by the door.
Photo by Jim Petkiewicz

One morning Hulda Hákonardóttir gave us a tour of the Istex Mill where all Lopi and Alafoss yarns are born, from bales
to broad swaths of batting
to finished yarn. Istex is celebrating a 25th anniversary this year and each month will release a free pattern, like this one which Hulda was still proofing.
From there we traveled to Alafoss, a legendary shop with everything from handknits to yarn to gifts.
Photo and arrangement by Jim Petkiewicz

And made a final stop at Litla Prjónabúðin, a small and utterly entrancing shop where we fell in love with a fox,
And every nook and cranny in this fairyland of a shop.
Photo by Jim Petkiewicz

One evening we drove out to Handprjon, a spacious, and beautiful shop in Hafnarfjordur, to commingle, sup, and knit with Hulda Soffia’s knitting group.
Owner Drífa Alfreðsdóttir has created a spacious and welcoming home for knitters, with a fantastic selection of really interesting yarns, some under her own label and others from other Nordic countries and Scotland.
She even offers a pattern for a hat or mittens with a silhouette of Iceland as the centerpiece! Lucky me, she sent me home with a kit. By the time we return in January of 2017, I’ll know the island’s shape well.
Drifa’s shop is a knitter’s labor of love: her wallpaper is ribbing, and she made swift-chandeliers. And above all, she and her talented assistants are devoted to service and hospitality.
Like Icelandic sweaters, Icelandic children are sturdy and beautiful.
Snowy nap photo by Jim Petkiewicz

Babies thrive on long outdoor naps (well bundled, of course) year-round, like the little one tucked inside this carriage while its parents enjoy being with friends inside the restaurant.
Children are safe walking to and from school or heading out to play on a neighborhood tire swing in the snow.
We made the most of our final morning by heading an hour out of town to Þingborg, a rural collective of farmers and artisans who mill their own icelandic fleeces with great care and use plant-based dyes. We arrived as the sun was just clearing the horizon,
Photo by Jim Petkiewicz

and the horses across the road were waiting for breakfast.
Inside, with limited time because most of us had flights to catch, we chose treasures, like batting carefully rolled in paper.
elf musicians,
And buttons. I bought a year’s supply of Icelandic wool to play with, until we return for more in 2017.
Photo (and self-portrait) by Jim Petkiewicz

Just outside the door we all paused to imprint this scene in our hearts forever...
Back in Reykjavik, a final walk along the harbor,
Photo by Jim Petkiewicz

And climbing back up the hill, wistful smiles at the now familiar colorful face of storefronts,
Thank you, Valdi, (buttoning up the sweater, we brought back for him) how right you were. Without your bright spirit and promise that winter in Iceland can be glorious, we and our travelers might never have had this magnificent experience.
Photo by Jim Petkiewicz

and one last view of Hallgrimskirkja.

Note: We won’t have our 2017 Iceland trip PDF posted for several more months, but if you wish to be on the interest list, email me (see contact in side menu) with “Iceland” in the subject line.