Similar to most Nordic countries also Iceland has its own brand of rainwear: 66North. And as many probably know by now this brand is especially interesting to me on a personal level as it was the brand of gear that really ignited that passion for rainwear inside of me. In this article I will go over the history of the brand, how their fishermen’s gear is still being used today, and what they have in their current range that might to of interest to you as well.
While Iceland is a first class tourist destination now, the country was extremely isolated at the start of the 20th century. With only boats being able to cross the distance to reach the island, and a total population of less than 100,000 people, the focus was primarily on subsistence fishing and agriculture. And returns in these two sectors was limited as the geographical location meant harsh weather conditions and long periods of cold each winter. In this situation Hans Kristjánsson was born in 1891. Hans became a sailor early on, like so many people in Iceland, first working on a bulk carrier and later on a steamboat. During this time he first hand experienced the necessity of having the right clothing for the job, as it could mean the difference between life and death in the worst weather conditions. Picture below a sailor wearing raingear produced by Hans Kristjánsson, date unknown. (source)
Most of the gear used by fishermen was either directly imported from Norway or Great Britain, or made at home by stitching together uncomfortable thick pieces of canvas, either impregnated with oils or not, into workwear. This domestic production process had the obvious drawback that every stitch through the fabric would create a hole which resulted in leaks. Hans Kristjánsson set himself the goal of producing waterproof gear on Iceland to protect sailors. In the summer of 1924, with a grant of 1,000 Icelandic Kroner from the Fishery Association of Iceland, he travelled to Norway to learn how raingear was made there. Upon return he and his wife started producing fishermen clothes first in Suðureyri, but soon after in the capital Reykjavík. His company name: Sjóklæðagerð Íslands, which translated to “Icelandic fishermen’s clothes”. Below an advertisement from 1962 showing both the company name and logo (source).
At first the gear was made from canvas, already impregnated with oil and dried, imported from Scotland. Only the sewing was done locally in Iceland. Over time the company started doing the oiling itself, by importing both the fabrics and oils from overseas. Unlike what is common now the most popular design of gear was a complete sailor’s suit which reached from the neck to the boots giving complete protection against the elements. The suit would have a collar but no hood as fishermen traditionally opted for a sou’wester rain hat which would give them the most optimal visibility of their surroundings. With the importance of the fishing industry increasing over time due to improved fishing techniques and motorized boats, “Sjóklæðagerð Íslands” was able to keep expanding its production capacity and profitability. In 1933 Hans had 34 employees working at the company, not counting the management. Besides supplying the fishing industry with waterproof clothing the company also started producing the uniforms for the Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue (ICE-SAR). Below a picture showing members of the ICE-SAR in their workwear, sourced from the 66North website. Date of picture is unknown, but based on the looks of the material of the gear, which seems to be PVC, and the overall sharpness of the picture, I suspect it should be dated to the early 60s.
During the Second World War Iceland saw very limited action. Due to their geographical location the island became interesting for both the Axis as well as the Allied Forces, as it could be used as a springboard towards Canada and the USA, but there was not a shot fired on the island during the conflict. That period of time did result in an increase in demand for their fish due to limited production in other European countries due to the hostilities. And more importantly, the Icelandic industrial sector was well situated for the post-war period when America started helping Europe rebuild under the Marshall Plan.
Over time the company had already produced waterproof gear based on rubber, but the limited supply of rubber during the Second World War stopped that. New materials and production techniques came over from the USA but it took till 1958 for the company to purchase its first high-frequency welding machine from the UK which it used to produce PVC rainwear. The PVC gear they would produce closely matches the work wear they still have today with raincoats, anoraks, rain pants, and bib pants. With the herring catch exploding in the 1960s the country found its source of wealth and what is now 66North was in the middle of that boom. The product range was extended from foul-weather gear to include general workwear which was perfectly timed for the next economic boom. The large-scale industry came up in the 70s followed by the tourism industry that took off in the 1990s. This period marked the end of poverty and hardship for Iceland, as the country now enjoys a relatively high GDP per capita, excellent universal health care, a Nordic social welfare system, low crime rates, and an overall great standard of living.
At some point in time the company name changed to 66North, referencing the 66th latitude line of the Arctic Circle which touches the city where Hans Kristjánsson first started producing his products before moving to Reykjavík. The exact date seems impossible to retrieve, but the two names have been used next to each other for some time as shown below from the label fragment available on the 66North website.
Due to competition within the Icelandic market the company decided to move production from Iceland to Latvia in the year 2000 where wages were lower resulting in a loss of 150 jobs in Iceland. Their heavy-duty rainwear is still produced in Latvia to this day, although I have seen that (parts of) their fashion range is being made in South-East Asian countries known for their textile industry.
Cultural connection Iceland and 66North
With the fishing industry being the first sector that pulled Iceland out of poverty and still producing a decent part of the export value of Iceland, there is a strong cultural connection to the fishing industry. This comes best to light during the Icelandic Þjóðhátíð festival. Below a short promotional clip from TuborgTV with a presenter wearing an orange 66N rainsuit at the festival.
This festival was first organised in 1874 celebrating the anniversary of the islands’ settlement and recurs on a yearly basis spanning multiple days and having live bands perform on stage. The combination of Icelandic weather, the outdoor location, and the great number of visitors enjoying the festival, it is only a matter of time for the location to turn into a mud festival. For visitors it is highly recommend bringing a complete set of rainwear, and here many locals will opt for gear from the workwear range of 66North. Below a promotional picture from 66N highlighting how their workwear range can be used as festival gear.
Based on pictures of this festival I got the impression that this type of rainwear would be commonplace in Iceland, but from first-hand experience I can tell the bright PVC workwear is a “stylish outfit” only during the outdoors festivals while it is simple workwear the rest of the year. Compare it to visiting The Netherlands during King’s Day or when the National Soccer Team plays and you see many people dressed up in orange; any other time of the year that kind of outfit would be very much out of place.
One other spot where you can come across the PVC raingear from 66North on Iceland, outside the actual fishing industry, would be in the tourist sector. With tourists booking tours to explore regions by quad, boat, or on horseback, it is necessary to have proper protective gear available so they enjoy the experience instead of catching a cold. The PVC rainwear from 66North fits here perfectly, as the gear is completely waterproof and durable.
The range of clothing 66North sell can be split into a fashion range and a workwear range. The fashion range has some interesting rainwear items which have been offered for limited times only, but in general this range is very expensive like most products in Iceland. Below an image from the 66North 2018 look book with a nice bright coloured fashion raincoat.
Much more interesting, to me at least, is their range of workwear. Besides that it is much more affordable than the 66N fashion range, it is also closely linked to the history of the brand and Icelandic culture in a similar way as hand-made Icelandic woollen products. Below a promotional picture of PureIceland which sells Icelandic souvenirs on Etsy. In my view the workwear of 66North could be an interesting tourist product as well, unfortunately their heavy rainwear is hard to get outside of Iceland.
Even the heavy-duty workwear can be made fashionable by simply combining it the right way. Below a promotional picture from 66North showing their orange Freyr raincoat being combined with a woolen sweater nicely contrasting the bright shiny raincoat with the wool.
Or the manly looking green Bragi gear over wool, offering an interesting look that is certainly not misplaced outside of Iceland. My personal favourite has always been the less conventional anorak, as the lack of a zipper brings that extra twist making it stand out, but these raincoats are probably more practical for daily use. Maybe in Iceland the brand is associated with workwear and festivals, outside of Iceland it can be perfectly fine as fashionable rainwear.
Unfortunately 66North focuses it promotional activities on their high-margin fashion range, meaning the workwear is hard to purchase outside of Iceland (link to their 2022 catalog of workwear). I have received numerous requests for online shops selling the PVC rainwear in Europe or America, but have no links to any reliable site that ships internationally. That raises the question why their workwear is so sought after, and to that I would point to the Iceland photographer who ran the now defunct site of benzophoto.com (link to the archived page of orange rainwear). He has created three photobooks showcasing Iceland and Icelandic culture with playful pictures of models in orange 66North rainwear. The overall quality of these professional photos are probably the main reason people outside of Iceland have ever heard of the range of heavy-duty PVC gear from 66N. On his Flickr page you can still find many images of 66North rainwear, mostly as festival outfit used by the local population. His pictures certainly played a major role in my interest in the 66North brand and were directly responsible for me purchasing some orange gear when I visited Iceland years ago.