Bath Knitting & Crochet Guild – Fair Isle

Saturday was this month’s meeting of the Bath Knitting & Crochet Guild, and this time we welcomed Ruth to speak and share her love of Fair Isle knitting with us.

Ruth started the session with a very thorough history of Fair Isle, both the island and the knitting and how the two are linked. Fair Isle is a very bleak island and the people living there needed clothing that was lightweight, warm and flexible for the work they did as crofters and fishermen. Fair Isle knitting meets this need due to the weight of the wool used, the pockets of air trapped in the garment (in the stitches and the stranded yarn on the reverse, creating a layered fabric effect) and the properties of the wool itself combining to achieve these characteristics. 

Women of the island would knit while doing other domestic work, such as carrying peat or tending flocks, with the aid of a knitting belt or, more conventionally, by the fireside in the evening.

Multi-tasking

Multi-tasking

Fair Isle has been in and out of popularity over the years, and more recently has been confused with any stranded colourwork.  Traditional Fair Isle adheres to strict rules and much of the branded ‘Fair Isle’ knitting currently available (either as patterns or completed garments) is actually colourwork.

Double pointed needles are difficult to use and the traditional technique of making has given way to more modern methods and techniques (they even tried to introduce knitting machines!) There are now only a few women on Fair Isle producing ‘proper’ Fair Isle knitting in the traditional way.

To be considered true Fair Isle knitting, the garment needs to:

  • Be made in stocking stitch
  • Use a limited number of muted colours
  • Use only two colours in any one row
  • Have only three stitches of one colour together
  • Form a geometric band with the pattern
  • Be knit on four double pointed needles (dpns) in the round

The Fair Isle jumper was fairly obscure until the Prince of Wales wore a knitted vest of Fair Isle design in 1921 and they became popular and fashionable almost overnight.

HRH Prince of Wales wearing a Fair Isle jumper, 1921

HRH Prince of Wales in Fair Isle

Scandinavian countries had been wearing similar garments with geometric designs for a long time and for similar reasons. They also needed clothing that was flexible, warm and lightweight and, again, this was influenced by their environment and activities.

More recently there has been a resurgence in the popularity of Fair Isle/colourwork jumpers due to the ‘Sarah Lund sweater’ (from the 2007-2012 TV show, The Killing).

The 'Sarah Lund sweater'

The ‘Sarah Lund sweater’

Ruth has been heavily influenced by the colourwork of Kaffe Fasset, who was in turn inspired to knit and design colourwork after a trip to Scotland.

Learning about Fair Isle knitting

Learning about Fair Isle knitting

Then it was onto the making part of the session!  We’d been instructed to cast on while listening to Ruth’s lecture so the next step was just to start knitting following the simple charts Ruth had drawn up.  There was lots of knitting, chatting, unraveling and knitting again, and the odd tangled ball of yarn as we all got to grips with the traditional technique.

Fair Isle Samples

Fair Isle Samples

There were some brilliant designs and samples produced on the day, from beginners and more experienced knitters.

For anyone wanting to know more about Fair Isle knitting, Ruth recommends the books ‘The Very Easy Guide to Fair Isle Knitting‘ by Lynne Watterson, ‘Knit Nordic‘ by Eline Oftedal and Alice Starmore’s ‘Charts for Colour Knitting‘.

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