The history of Fair Isle knitwear

A true Fair Isle garment made on Fair Isle will win you recognition anywhere.

Fair Isle knitting originated on the remote island of Fair Isle - a tiny jewel in the ocean lying midway between the Orkney and Shetland Islands to the north of Scotland in the UK, at the point where the Atlantic Ocean meets the North Sea.

The traditional knitwear of Fair Isle and its intricate skill have been practised continuously on this small Isle for generations upon generations. A rare store of patterns has evolved during this time and these are chosen and personally interpreted by each knitter so that each then achieves their own recognisable style. The traditional method of hand-knitting Fair Isle ‘in the round’ using double-pointed needles - known locally as ‘wires’- along with a special padded knitting belt, continues to this day. A small quantity of exclusive hand-spun, hand-knitted items are produced for sale on the Isle, as well as a number of high quality hand-frame garments.

We may never know from which source the women of this remote island derived their inspiration but we do know that they are the just custodians of this enchanting art which can still be enjoyed by visitors today.
The term ‘Fair Isle Knitting’ has nowadays unfortunately become generic and is used worldwide to denote any form of multicoloured knitwear. However, whilst there are many imitations, Fair Isle is still the only place where authentic Fair Isle made in Fair Isle garments are produced. Genuine Fair Isle knitwear made in Fair Isle carries Fair Isle's own trademark 'Star Motif' as a guarantee of quality and place of origin and is not available in any retail outlet, instead being sold direct to customers visiting the island or by mail-order. 
Origins of Fair Isle patterns....
The origin of our knitting patterns is not now known. Their similarity to Moorish patterns has led to the, rather romantic, notion of a link to the Spanish Armada ship, El Gran Grifon, which was shipwrecked here in 1588 or could the skill have been developed from the Vikings who settled here in the more distant past? It seems most likely that at some date a piece of patterned knitting was bartered into the isle from a passing ship in return for fresh food and water. Much of this trade was with ships from the Baltic nations and this is from where the knitting could well have originated. The isle women, who were probably already skilful producers of plain knitting, eventually developed the patterns into a unique form of knitting. By the mid 19th century all-over patterned garments were being traded off the isle and the evolution of the intricate pattening has continued ever since. Crosses and lozenge shaped hexagons containing symbols, often of a religious nature, formed the basic OXO pattern. A range of other, smaller, patterns - such as anchors, ram's horns, hearts, ferns and flowers - were also used, all of which reflected the life and environment of the isle.

Ram's Horns pattern.

Artwork copyright John C Best. Photo copyright Elizabeth Riddiford.



.....and traditional Fair Isle colours
Traditionally, brightly coloured garments were knitted using hand-spun yarns coloured in a variety of ways. Indigo would have been bartered onto the isle for the dyeing of blue yarn. Madder root was also bartered for and, when mixed with an orchrelechia lichen found on the isle known as Korkalett, produced the reds (known as madder) so distinctive of old Fair Isle knitwear. Yellow was dyed from amphibious bistort, a plant native to Fair Isle and were known as Blocks. A small amount of hand-spinning and natural-dyeing continues on the island to this day.
Natural (undyed) colours - The isle women have traditionally also made use of the wide range of natural wool colour which occurs amongst the fine-fleeced Shetland sheep, ranging from Shetland black, shaela (dark grey), sholmit (pale grey), moorit (brown), mooskit (dark fawn), eesit (pale fawn) to unbleached white.
Nowadays, most islanders continue to sheer their Fair Isle sheep with hand-sheers - the majority of fleeces being sent to the spinning mill at Sandness on Shetland mainland, where they are now commercially spun and dyed. The full range of natural (undyed) and traditionally coloured commercial yarns are then used by the current knitters on Fair Isle along with a selection of contemporary colours
In genuine, traditional Fair Isle knitting made on Fair Isle, two colours are used in each row with an average of four colours used throughout the whole garment. Blocks of patterns are not repeated. 


Visitors to Fair Isle can find more information about the history and origins of Fair Isle knitting at the George Waterston Memorial Centre and Museum on Fair Isle which hosts a range of interesting and informative displays on the traditional culture and handicrafts of the island.



 Unless stated, all text and photographs on this website are Copyright of Elizabeth Riddiford, 2012. All rights reserved. 

All knitwear designs on this website are the Intellectual Copyright of Elizabeth Riddiford, Fair Isle. All rights reserved.

Make a free website with Yola