February 16, 2015

Learning from Farming Cultures: Iceland

Way back when, we were privileged to spend two years living in Iceland. Our two oldest children were barely in grade school when we moved there, and I love the exposure they had to another culture.

Likewise, we adults were exposed to this other culture as well. It was my first time out of my native land, and I had a wonderful experience. I never forgot that I was the visitor and I tried to fit in as much as possible. I took a course in conversational Icelandic. I learned how to knit traditional sweaters from the wool of the native Icelandic sheep.

The only picture I could find of the many sweaters I knitted - brown, grey and white.
Those sleeves could have been a little longer!

In case you're curious, you start at the bottom, knitting the sweater upwards on a circular needle, adding contrasting colors of wool yarn to make the design, and stop when you reach the chest. You then knit the sleeves on smaller circular needles from the wrist up to the underarm. Finally you put all three pieces on the large circular needle - two sleeves and the body - and knit upwards to the collar. The only seams are about 7 stitches long under the arms.

I fell in love with the sheep. Such beautiful creatures they were. They came in many variations of color from white to brown and black and everything in between. Traditionally, the wool isn't dyed, it's used in its natural colors to make the intricate patterns on the sweaters. It's naturally water-repellent and very warm. Nowadays you can also buy the yarn in various colors.

We'd drive past sheep farms in the ancient VW bug we bought when we got there and sold when we left. In the spring I couldn't get enough of the lambs.

I was told that after shearing, the farmers let their sheep out and they wander the interior of the island all summer long. In the fall they follow their footsteps back to their farms - or the farmers round them up using their Icelandic ponies, I was told both versions of the story.

The Icelandic sheep is one of the world's oldest and purest breeds of sheep. They are triple-purpose, providing meat, fiber and milk. (Source: ISBONA) Coats, sweaters, hats and mittens are sold in nearly every shop.

Because Iceland doesn't produce grain, the sheep are hardy and do well on pasture and hay alone. Portions of the island are extremely rocky but there is plenty of rich green grass in summer. The photo above shows Icelandic farmers baling hay in a flat and not-rocky field.

Did you know that Iceland doesn't have flies or mosquitoes? Or bees, either. And because there are no bees, there are very few flowers - just some ground-hugging tiny blossoms - and no honey.

I was going through some old photos the other day and came across these. Photography back then scarcely resembles today's technology, so I hope you'll excuse the blurry pictures.

I think we can learn from every country and their inhabitants' way of life. Icelandic sheep are hardy because they have to be; they must survive without grain, they must produce wool enough to survive the winter, their lambs have to be hardy. The strongest animals are the ones that survive, and the gene pool is strengthened. The best milk-producing, best wool-producing, best mothers are prized animals. The people know how to use the wool to keep themselves warm, and they know how to market their products to make a living.

How can we apply this knowledge to our own farms and homesteads?

This post has been shared at some of my favorite blog hops.


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  1. That last picture of the little lamb is as beautiful as any I've seen taken with the technology we have now. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Kathi at Oak Hill Homestead11:33 AM

    Thank you, Susan!

  3. Great post! What a cool adventure to live in another country for a while. I have always wanted to try to knit an Icelandic style sweater, but living in Texas it just doesn't seem practical.

  4. Kathi at Oak Hill Homestead8:12 PM

    Megan, I know a couple of people who have or did have Icelandic sheep and they all loved them.

  5. Kathi at Oak Hill Homestead8:13 PM

    Alexis, it was a real blessing to be able to live there for awhile. As for knitting a sweater, I imagine you have a few cold days that a sweater would be useful - or make them as gifts for northern folks!

  6. Very interesting - and what a gorgeous sweater! A barn without flies - I can only imagine. Then again, I suppose there are no butterflies either?

  7. Kathi at Oak Hill Homestead9:20 AM

    No butterflies either. I really missed flowers and trees while we were there, but did not miss mosquitoes at all!

  8. Fascinating post. What a privilege to live in Iceland for two years! That is one place I have always wanted to visit. I love how Iceland has a hardy land race for just about every type of livestock. Thanks for sharing your pictures!

  9. Kathi at Oak Hill Homestead11:51 AM

    Thank you, Phacelia. I hope you are able to go there someday.

  10. Wow, what an amazing opportunity! I had no idea there were places without bees. Having lived there, I'll bet it makes you even more appreciative of the nature and flowers in this country.

    That sweater is beautiful and what an interesting process! Thanks for sharing!

  11. Kathi at Oak Hill Homestead12:12 PM

    It does make me appreciate flowers and trees, but the country truly did have a beauty of its own.

  12. I do miss my Icelandic sheep. Always loved them in full fleece. They were sweet and easily tamed. Some Icelandic sheep breeders visited Iceland and one brought back Icelandic hatching eggs...several others started to breed Icelandic sheepdogs. Sounds like a great time while you were there.

  13. This is a great post. What an interesting time you must have had. My 19 year old niece backpacked around Iceland and Europe late last year and she just loved Iceland and I am sure after her International Studies she may return. Thanks for sharing this post at Good Morning Mondays. Blessings

  14. Kathi at Oak Hill Homestead8:47 PM

    Michelle, I've only seen them from afar but I'm glad to know that they're as calm as they are beautiful. I've seen ads for Icelandic chickens and sheepdog, and I know there are Icelandic ponies in the U.S. now too.

  15. Kathi at Oak Hill Homestead8:47 PM

    Michelle, I've only seen them from afar but I'm glad to know that they're as calm as they are beautiful. I've seen ads for Icelandic chickens and sheepdog, and I know there are Icelandic ponies in the U.S. now too.

  16. You are always so entertaining and educational to read. I loved my little trip to Iceland through your post. Thank you so much for sharing at the (mis)Adventures Monday Blog Hop. I really (and I do mean REALLY) look forward to what you share this week.

  17. Kathi at Oak Hill Homestead10:14 PM

    Thank you, Mindie, that's so sweet of you to say. I really appreciate it. I enjoy your hop each week.

  18. Anonymous1:33 AM

    My mother, who was from Scotland as I am, used to make me sweaters like this, and now I live is the SW USA and have no need of them any more. But she was a wonderful knitter who sold her work to shops in Edinburgh and other places in Scotland. I wish I still had the one she made for me like this one.

  19. Kathi at Oak Hill Homestead8:14 AM

    Anonymous, that's a lovely memory. I wish you still had one of her sweaters just as a keepsake/heirloom, even though you don't need the warmth anymore.

  20. What a great experience. But life without honey and flowers. Oh my that would be difficult.

  21. Kathi at Oak Hill Homestead5:24 AM

    I agree with you, Heidi, honey and flowers make flying insects worth putting up with. Thank you for stopping by.


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