Friday, August 14

fair isle

The term "fair isle sweater" gets thrown around a fair bit a lot as fall approaches... but what does it really mean? It is know it when you see it territory for me but I partially grew up in Scotland and had one grandmother who was an avid knitter. Wanted to know a bit more. Have to admit I could not put a pin in the map where Fair Isle actually was... it is WAY up there, past the Shetland Isles. Closer to Norway than to Edinburgh. The map above makes the 5x3 km island look manageable and homey. The map below shows how isolated it really is.


The Fair Isle homepage has an Eli Roth tagline; "An adventure getting here, sometimes hard to leave..." Classic.

The island is owned by the National Trust for Scotland, pioneering projects in wildlife tourism, windpower and sustainable management of the environment. 70 or so islanders mostly live in traditional crofts on the more fertile and low-lying southern third of the island. - via Fair Isle. OK fine, what about the sweaters...

Apparently, the skills needed for Fair Isle knitting are relatively minimal. Traditional Fair Isle knitting is done in the round, so the knitter only needs to know how to make a knit stitch and follow a pattern. (Lost me already.)

Patterns via The Retro Knitting Company.
Important part now; traditional Fair Isle knitting is accomplished with the use of two colors in each row. The knitter knits a stitch in the desired color and carries the other color behind, in a method called “stranding.” Because long strands could potentially catch on things [love this sort of info -ed.] each block of color in Fair Isle knitting is very small thus yielding garments with dense multicolored patterns. Bonus; the fine yarns stranded into this double layer produce durable, warm, yet lightweight garments.

"For hundreds of years demand for hand-knitting kept Fair Isle women busy. Islanders traded with passing ships, bartering their home-made textiles and fresh produce for goods they couldn’t make themselves... The only source of the genuine article is still Fair Isle, where a small co-operative - Fair Isle Crafts - produces traditional and contemporary sweaters on hand-frame machines, quality-controlled and labeled with Fair Isle's own trade mark and is not available in any retail outlet, instead being sold direct to customers visiting the island or by mail-order." -via Fair Isle

That may be so, but I could not find a picture of this trademark (so one could be sure of getting the real thing), nor can you order from Fair Isle Crafts except by sending them an email via yahoo.

I did find one other entity that has recognized a need to preserve this heritage activity; Thistle & Broom and their Fair Isle Knitting Project.

"To the uneducated Fair Isle is simply a style of knitting, but this is one of Scotland’s most unique pieces of intellectual property,” explains Fritschi. “The crime of it is that these talented women were still being paid about 50 pence an hour until we launched our Fair Isle Knitting Project. Now 2/3’s of our retail price and all shipping costs go directly into the knitters’ bank account when Thistle & Broom receives an order. How many bespoke services take only a 33% mark-up on their product offerings?

Rosabell Halcrow was the first woman to become part of Thistle & Broom’s Fair Isle Knitting Project and she is now joined by Agnes Bowie, Helen Jamieson, and Thomasina Irvine - all have been knitting since the age of four. More hand knitters are expected to join as word of mouth spreads through the rural community.

Thistle & Broom offers the real deal, authentic hand knit Fair Isle of Shetland yarns and created by women creating in their seventies and eighties,” said Anne Macpherson, Director of the Celebration of Celts event. “In an attempt to preserve this piece of Scotland’s heritage Thistle & Broom has set upon a path to educate the public about this art form and subsequently create demand with the hope that younger generations will learn this incredible craft from these women before it’s too late, we’re clearly delighted to support such an effort through our event." [referring to an event in May 2007] via Thistle&Broom.

Completely unrepresentative and highly amusing video comes to mind... I kid, I kid, really I am onboard with this sort of craft preservation.

Anyway, below, a few examples of Fair Isle-style knitwear for 2009/2010.

LLBean, for herThe classic, passion-killing, Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em brown vest, from JCrew for him.

The final verdict; honestly I'm not wild on this stuff for men, but I had been wondering about, and assumed their must be, some official version of it. The long/short is I hope this type of historical pattern/activity gets recognized and gets some protection à la Harris Tweed. Looks good on preppy wives though... nOD wINK.

[update: I had earlier posted a pic of a Paul Smith x Burton collab but I am reliably informed this is not even an attempt at Fair Isle, rather "it is a take off on Norwegian yoke styles flashing back to the Sun Valley days of old when Sonja Henie was a golden girl." Thank you to Teresa of Thisle & Broom.]

3 comments:

newgrass said...

Great post. Super informative. You're right, the term "fair isle" gets thrown around quite a bit. Thanks for throwing some clarification out there.

Charlotte K said...

I have some items with that trademark, but they are put away for the summer. If I can easily find them I could scan them. Bought them in Scotland. I love the stuff. If I weren't so lazy and impatient, not to mention poor, I would spend a summer there and learn the craft. I can do that style of knitting but would love to learn from a native (and being lazy and impatient I never finish anything).

Kristin said...

Awesome post! I'm ashamed to admit that I always thought that Fair Isle was from Norway, not Scotland. (Gasp!)

Glad to hear it confirmed what makes Fair Isle a real Fair Isle.

I also read that the patterns were often memorized and passed down through generations. I like thinking about people knowing which family you were in based on your sweater patterns. Love that stuff!