A Brief History of the Fair Isle Sweater

Inspired by this colder weather and a beautiful bespoke piece that I'm in the process of finishing, this week's post takes a brief look at the history of Fair Isle knitting. First a confession, I do class some of my pieces as Fair Isle knits, despite the fact they are all knitted in Brighton - to the purists, I am truly sorry.

Unlike many other styles of knitting, Fair Isle knitting is named after the island that it originated on; a tiny little land mass not far from the Shetland Islands. Generations of knitters on this island have interpreted and reinterpreted traditional patterns, so that now it is possible for a knowledgeable person to tell who knitted a garment just by looking at it.

Whilst it is not set in stone exactly where Fair Isle knitting patterns originated from, there are several ideas. El Gran Grifon, part of the Spanish Armada was shipwrecked on Fair Isle in 1588 - the strong similarities between Fair Isle knitting and Moorish patterns has caused many to believe that this ship could have carried an item of clothing from which the craft originated.

Others speculate that Viking settlers may have been the ones responsible for the brightly coloured patterns, though probably the most widely accepted idea is that patterns originated from the Baltic nations. The island was on a trade route from the Baltics and its likely a piece of knitwear was swapped by a passing ship in exchange for goods. It is likely that the women of the island were already adept knitters, so introducing patterns would have been relatively simple with their already developed skills. Over time the intricacy of the patterns developed, until the 19th century when patterned garments were regularly being traded off the island.

As well as the location of the knitter and the intricate patterns, there are two further aspects that set apart Fair Isle knitting. Fair Isle sweaters should be knitted in the round, using double pointed needles, making a beautiful and seamless garment. Originally this knitting was done using a special knitting belt, though even purists nowadays don't insist on this!

Today it's simply not commercially viable to knit by hand in this way for customers, a Fair Isle sweater would take hundreds of hours to produce. Of course some people are incredibly lucky to be gifted a hand knitted Fair Isle sweater - I'm still waiting for mine! Knitting using hand framing machines is the now accepted way of creating Fair Isle garments and it saves a little time. It's still a very skilful process developing patterns and knitting them as machines aren't electronic. I use these machines at Laine for the same reason.

The patterns of Fair Isle knitwear are most recognisable for the 'OXO' pattern, crosses and hexagons which often contained religious symbols. Interspersed between the OXO patterns you'll likely find smaller symbols that represent life on the Fair Isle, perhaps local flora and fauna such as ferns or sheep horns. 

My personal favourite aspect of Fair Isle knitwear is the huge range of beautiful colours that are used. In the early days the bold colours would of course have been naturally dyed. Indigo from passing ships created vivid blues, roots and lichen were used to create red hues, named after the Madder root and yellow was created using a bog plant native to the Fair Isle. 

For me the part where Fair Isle knitting really comes to life is in the huge variety of natural colours available. Shetland sheep come in a whole host of beautiful tones, which are separated by hand the same way now as they were then. This gives a colour range from black through grey, brown, fawn and white, each with their own name. In traditional Fair Isle knitting, only two colours of yarn are used per row and a pattern block is never repeated. At Laine I also only use two colour per row, but must confess to occasionally repeating my pattern blocks!

Most islanders nowadays send fleeces to Shetland where they are commercially spun and sometimes dyed. I love to use wool from this spinner's in my designs, whilst it isn't quite as soft as Geelong lambswool or Cashmere, it has a texture that is inimitable. The soft fuzzy loftiness of Shetland wool is really something special on its own and that teamed with the rich history of the Fair Isle knitters, a garment made in this way is truly something special.