The phrase ‘fair isle design’ is bandied about these days and has almost become a wide spectrum term for any piece of knit wear that could possibly be termed as Nordic. However, what is true Fair Isle, and why is it so enduringly popular?
First up, Fair Isle is not a part of Scandinavia, or even technically of the Nordic countries, although it’s not that far away. It lies between Orkney and Shetland and therefore is a part of Scotland. It is also miniscule at just under 3 miles square in area and with less than 70 people (or crofters) living there. It was a traditional trading post in Western Europe and now holds important transmitters for television and mobile phones.
The Fair Isle knitting pattern is peculiarly unique to the tiny island. Traditionally it involves a palette of 5 different colours that are knitted together, with no more than 2 colours per row, and the patterns are of symmetrical form. Because the other wool colours are carried across the back of the piece of knitting, it makes the item really warm. Since sheep are one of the few commodities on the island, the wool from them was easily available.
The modern love of Fair Isle knitted designs can be attributed to Edward VIII (the Prince of Wales and briefly the King before his abdication in 1936). The dashing prince was first seen sporting Fair Isle tank tops in 1921, and the trend quickly caught on. The endurance of the design is probably down to the warmth and also the endless possibilities of patterns available.
At a time when every female was taught to knit at a young age, knitting patterns for Fair Isle designs soon found their ways into women’s publications, and so into the hearts of the nation. From one tiny Scottish island to you, Fair Isle knits don’t seem to be going anywhere soon. My personal favourite? This beautiful men’s jumper from Burberry.
Fair Isle jumpers can be expensive so it is always worthwhile to search about online to see if you can see some great little vouchers and deals to make things a bit more affordable.