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Made in China? Iceland’s sweater-knitters unhappy

Knitting co-ops seek to stop outsourcing of ‘lopi’ sweaters

REYKJAVIK, Iceland — 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.

The practice was started by some local manufacturers who have successfully outsourced the labor to China. Containers 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.

With Chinese imports grabbing an estimated two-thirds market share, knitting co-ops around the country worry about the future.

Locally made sweaters retail for about $200, while the Chinese ones sell for about $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. In Iceland, competitive pressures have pushed the knitting rate far below the hourly $14.50 minimum wage.

Contrary to popular belief, the sweater is not a tradition, but entirely modern.

“No one really know where it comes from,” said Vedis Jonsdottir, a clothing designer.

The method spread around knitting groups in the 1960s after the arrival of the circular needle made the defining pattern possible. The design was most likely inspired — or plagiarized — from neighboring Greenland where the female national dress has a beaded collar similar to the “lopi” yoke pattern.