What Is Fair Isle Knitting?

    During 2022-2023, when I lived and worked in the capital of the Shetland Islands, and then in Fair Isle, I personally observed consistent attributes to locals’ Fair Isle knitting. These attributes set apart Fair Isle knitting from other regional knitting styles of stranded colorwork, such as Norwegian knitting, Swedish knitting, Icelandic knitting, Faroese knitting, Estonian knitting, and Latvian knitting.

    Fair Isle knitting is a classification unto itself. My definition of “authentic” Fair Isle knitting is based on my years of textile history research and practice, as well as many insightful discussions I enjoyed with local Shetland and Fair Isle knitters. I define Fair Isle knitting as stranded colorwork that includes the following characteristics.

    •   100% Shetland wool must be used.
    •   There are two wool colors maximum per row.
    •   Designs are interpretations of historic Fair Isle motifs or patterns.
    •   Hand knit Fair Isle is generally knit circularly or “in the round.”
    •   Only knit stitches are utilized for colorwork, without purling.

    These characteristics define “authentic” Fair Isle knitting; however, there are caveats. One could, for example, knit with merino wool yet still create a beautiful Fair Isle garment. The knitting technique would be Fair Isle while the textile was not of Shetland. It is important to understand the boundaries and definitions of Fair Isle knitting, yet it is equally important to allow room to express knitting creativity beyond stringent definitions.

    During 2022, while I managed the day-to-day operations at the Shetland Textile Museum, I personally welcomed 3334 visitors to the museum, many of whom were local knitters, who demonstrated Fair Isle knitting techniques at the museum. So, every day I would listen and learn from museum visitors, who hailed from nearby and afar and who were selfless in sharing their knitting know-how. Then, like today, I perpetually seek new knowledge, absorb it, and then put that new knowledge into practice. I truly enjoy sharing knowledge with others.

    It was with this learning dynamic that I thrived as a knitter during my professional tenure at the Shetland Textile Museum. Every day that I managed the museum was, in reality, another day of fun and interesting collaboration with Fair Isle knitters. When the Shetland Textile Museum closed for the season, I then transferred my knitting learning environment to the small island community of Fair Isle, where I lived firstly in the homes of established Fair Isle knitwear designers, for whom I worked. I eventually obtained my own house in Fair Isle, where I established my knitting design studio. During 2022-2023, it was my textile dream come true to be living and working in Fair Isle, the reputed birthplace of Fair Isle knitting.

    My own interpretation of what constitutes Fair Isle knitting might differ from others’ interpretations. We all have different perspectives, all of which are valid. Knitting is an artform, and therefore we must accept fluctuation in definition and execution. I have never claimed to be an expert, but instead I embrace and claim the title of eager student who relentlessly pursues knitting knowledge.

    The titles of my knitting pattern-books reflect this; for example, the sub-title of my fisherman kep pattern-books is Fair Isle Inspired Fisherman’s Kep and Design Workbook. The key word in the sub-title is “inspired.” My knitting designs are Fair Isle inspired, not necessarily always Fair Isle knitting by strict definition. For decades, I have been inspired by Fair Isle knitting, and my designs reflect that. At times, I am inspired to design a knitted object that is reminiscent of a historic textile item in a museum collection. At other times, I am inspired to begin designing a knitting pattern with a traditional Fair Isle motif, but then I modernize the design with a creative twist and splash of color.

    A knitter in Fair Isle once told me, “Everyone’s knitting is the same. We all use the same OXO combinations and diamond shapes and typical Fair Isle patterns. The only thing we individually do as so-called ‘designers’ is assemble the existing motifs with our own color choices.”

    This then explains how Fair Isle knitters and pattern designers can inadvertently create garments that appear similar, but which are not technically copied. One cannot accuse a knitter of plagiarism or copyright infringement if the knitter is using design shapes and geometric layouts that have been in the public domain for decades, or centuries. For example, many of us design knitting patterns that include an 8-point “star” (or Norwegian “rose”). We knitwear designers are not copying each other; instead, we are generating our knitting designs with the inspiration and support of building blocks of traditional Fair Isle knitting motifs.

    Another knitter in Fair Isle further explained to me how most Fair Isle knitting appears similar. The knitter showed me their copy of the book, Traditional Fair Isle Knitting, by Sheila McGregor. Inside the knitter’s tattered well-worn paperback, a few knitting motifs were specially identified with a pen. These few motifs, the knitter explained, were the only “true” Fair Isle motifs and the only motifs or patterns that “should” be used.

    I ask why, and who decided that? The knitter explained to me that one family, who lived in Fair Isle long ago, used only these specially identified motifs in their own Fair Isle knitting during the twentieth century. So, the twentieth century esthetic preference of one family of Fair Islanders became the knitting norm for Fair Isle knitting.

    This twentieth century esthetic preference, with its abbreviated design palette, was the only acceptable foundation for “authentic” Fair Isle knitting, according to Fair Islanders who attempted to create a well-defined and branded style of knitting. When I lived in Fair Isle during 2022-2023, there were only 44 people living on the island, five of whom were children. So, it is understandable that a small community, struggling with jobs scarcity, would want to hold tightly to anything marketable that could potentially generate income. Fair Isle knitting is one way in which Fair Islanders might possibly benefit financially from their history. Fair Isle knitting, as narrowly defined by Fair Islanders, could be marketed.

    In Fair Isle, knitting was historically (and is still today) inherently a product for commercial purposes. Knitting is one of the few ventures that brings hard currency onto the island of Fair Isle. In 1980, Fair Islanders came together to establish Fair Isle Crafts Ltd, a knitting cooperative. The aim was to work together to produce Fair Isle knitwear of consistent colors, patterns, and styles. All Fair Isle Crafts Ltd knitwear was produced with mechanical knitting machines, which enabled fast and easy manufacture. Exclusively machine knitting was required and relied upon as hand knitting was too laborious and expensive to market for commercial purposes. Additionally, new members to the cooperative often did not know how to hand knit Fair Isle garments expertly. Becoming an expert hand knitter could require years of training when instead the basics of machine knitting could be taught in a matter of days. In 2011, the knitting cooperative closed due to members’ disagreement regarding business strategy and vision.

    During its 40 years in business, though, the cooperative trained willing Fair Islanders in the trade of machine knitting. The money made by (and distributed among) the cooperative members was appreciated as there were then (and still are) so very few options in Fair Isle for income generation. During the 40 years of knitting cooperative activity, members of Fair Isle Crafts Ltd steadily knit uniform patterns that adhered to the rigid definitions of Fair Isle knitting, as set forth originally by one family in the twentieth century.

    When I lived in Fair Isle during 2022-2023, there were no true born-and-bred Fair Islanders who knit exclusively for work or business. Instead, the knitwear designers and entrepreneurs living in Fair Isle were born in England, France, Holland, the United States, Venezuela. This mix-match of knitting origins contributes to a depth of Fair Isle knitting that could not otherwise be realized when relying solely on a narrow historic version of Fair Isle knitting. I value diversity and inclusion, and so I naturally embrace creative liberty in Fair Isle design. All our knitting voices are valid.

    Knitters can choose to rely on established motifs and patterns and traditional color combinations without alteration. Or, new Fair Isle inspired designs can be created, with an untraditionally bright or modern color palette. The craft of Fair Isle knitting is vast, with so much design potential. I encourage knitters to explore the design and color possibilities. There are indeed definitions and guidelines for “authentic” Fair Isle knitting, but there is considerable room for interpretation. After all, we know not how or when Fair Isle knitting originated.

    The origin of Fair Isle knitting patterns is undocumented. There are several origin theories, though. In 1588, there was a devastating shipwreck in Fair Isle waters amidst the rocky cliffs and coastline. Shipwrecked sailors from the Spanish Armada ship, El Gran Grifon, allegedly brought ashore stranded colorwork knitwear from their native Spain, which (legends suggest) influenced and inspired local knitters in Fair Isle. Perhaps, though it cannot be proven, this sixteenth century creative trade in knitwear ignited a brand of stranded colorwork that today we call Fair Isle knitting. Whatever the basis of the initial spark of stranded colorwork in Fair Isle, we are fortunate to have today a splendid textile craft that is both beautiful and useful. 

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