Thursday, September 16

what is "fair isle" -repost

Reposting from last year w/ a few tweaks. File under good to know.

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 a 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-worthy 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 -ed.]

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 called 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 2010/2011 from boldfacednames.

LLBean for her (yoke style).
Good looking men's example from JCrew. Marmite test??
Not certain but since the Fair Isle sourced sweaters routinely run into the $400 range, going to guess these were not made on the island. That is v v rare. JCrew did so some legwork and they namecheck Edward III/The Duke of Windsor as a force in popularizing the design. Thistle&Broom have created a historically accurate slipover/vest replica of a pattern the Duke wore.

The final verdict; hope this type of historical pattern/activity gets recognized and gets some protection à la Harris Tweed. Looks good on preppy wives too... 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.)

4 comments:

Charlotte K said...

I love Fair Isle knits. I have a pair of authentic gloves in really bizarre colors & a love tam-o-shanter. I bought them in Scotland and they are labeled very particularly and with the name of the maker. The knitting is fine, fine, fine. Very small needles & fine wool.

When I bought them I was told it's getting harder & harder to source the items, and mostly it's small accessories. People are leaving those islands in droves and don't have the patience to learn/keep up the craft.

P said...

I LOVED THIS POST.
I'm getting a pair of gloves from T&B!!!

james at 10engines said...

@P good call.

all plaidout said...

Foxy -

As a young lad, I used to muse in bar conversations that I'd propose an independent study where I'd move to the Fair Isles and learn the trade, making sweaters in an antique a manner as possible. Grass-dyed yarns, natural fibers, etc.

Still a dream. Now, more likely a retirement project.

Great post. Great images. Tumble that piece!

- Max