In the first episode of Trapped, Netflix’s 2015 Icelandic TV drama, a group of Chinese investors is trying to buy up land to expand a port. The proposal causes tension in the local community. Some want the Belt and Road investment – agitating for financial gain. Others resist it on the grounds it will disrupt their local way of life.
Back in the real world there is a similar drama in play – this time about the nation’s famously chunky jumpers Lopapeysa (or Lopi for short).
After the global financial crisis nosedived Iceland’s economy, the island has tried to reinvent itself as super-cool destination for tourists – a transition helped by the popularity of Nordic dramas like Trapped or Denmark’s The Killing.
And as more people began visiting the “land of fire and ice” sales of the hand-knitted Lopi sweaters also soared. So much so, in fact, that the nation of 360,000 people could barely knit enough of them to meet demand.
So sweater vendors began looking for a new, more affordable source of labour – which they found in southern China.
Wool from the island’s 500,000 sheep was shipped to Chinese textile factories, with the finished goods then labelled as “hand-knitted from Icelandic wool”.
However, as Iceland’s tourism boom began to wane its traditional knitters – often retired women – lobbied the government to change the labelling laws so that only Lopi made domestically could be identified as “Icelandic”.
“People buy the imported sweater as the real thing, but it is not,” Thuridur Einarsdottir of the Handknitting Association of Iceland told AP.
Imported Lopi now account for two-thirds of traditional sweater sales, according to the news agency.
Unlike the locals, who know that no two Lopi should ever look exactly the same, tourists are happy enough with the lower priced Chinese versions. Locally made sweaters sell for about $200, while the Chinese ones are $30 or $40 cheaper. Making matters worse for the local knitters: the imports are so durable that even some traitorous Icelanders are choosing them over the locally made ones.
The debate raises an interesting question: when does a product stop – or start – being local? “What if the sweater is made by a Polish resident in Iceland?” Bjarni Jonsson, owner of company that sources sweaters from China, asked AP.
A jumper typically takes between 14 and 25 hours to knit and most of Iceland’s producers work in short bursts when they are watching TV or having a cup of coffee.
Jonsson added that he needs to import about 20,000 sweaters a year from China – which would otherwise require about 250 people knitting full time.
A final paradox about the Lopi saga is that the sweater may not even be Icelandic in origin. Some sweater fans argue that the design arrived on the island from neighbouring Greenland.
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