Fair Isle

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Fair Isle knits are some of the most beautiful patterns in the world.  I’ve always been drawn to the colorful banded geometric designs.


The complex and colorful knitting is named for the tiny island of Fair Isle ( 1×3 miles, population 70) in the north of Scotland where it originated.  The women and men of the island have been knitting these traditional patterns for centuries.  Some scholars have speculated that the original inspiration for the unusual designs arrived with ancient shipwrecked sailors from Spain.  Others suggest a possible Celtic, Norse, or Scandinavian connection.  Traditionally the women would knit the colorful clothing with wool form the island sheep, and then the men would board visiting ships and trade the knitwear for necessary goods. Today, the art is dying out, and only a few authentic pieces are being made each year and sold on the island to tourists.

This blog  is actually written from Fair Isle, and tells the history of knitting on the island and also what’s currently happening with the remaining local artisans today.  I’m hoping for a full-fledged revival of the art. (If this has piqued your interest you can listen to an interesting BBC radio interview about the future of knitting on the island here.)
You can buy similar authentic Scottish knits here, among other places.

Fair isle has been popping in and out of fashion for years.  For centuries it was utilitarian wear in the coldest climates, and even worn by early arctic explorers, but in the 1920s, the Prince of Wales wore it while golfing and started a fashion craze for the knits.

The style re-emerged in the 40s and 50s.

And when I was in college these preppy and slightly itchy Shetland wool Fair Isle yoked sweaters were all over the place.  Lately Fair Isle has become fashionable again as part of the après-ski style.

Every fall a few designers reinterpret the Fair Isle knit in new ways.  I always look forward to seeing what’s out there.  Ralph Lauren often includes it in his collections for men and women, and his are some of my favorites.  They are pricey, but you can find good buys on ebay from past seasons.

Ralph Lauren

On Ebay right now

Do you love Fair Isle knits as much as I do?


    Leave a Reply

  • Reply
    December 31, 2017 at 1:02 pm

    Where can I buy Shetland fair isle sweater

  • Reply
    September 14, 2011 at 11:14 pm

    I love Fair isle! I remember wearing sweaters (yes, somewhat scratchy) in college with a preppy striped blouse under it…collar up. This is a great and informative post…I would love that RL sweater, but maybe not for $700!

  • Reply
    Inside a British Mum's Kitchen
    September 12, 2011 at 11:44 am

    LOve Fair Isle – as I orginate from Scotland I have a bit of a soft spot for these lovely knits – thanks for a super post 🙂

  • Reply
    Sue/the view from great island
    September 12, 2011 at 11:14 am

    Tabitha—How did I know just what you were going to say!

    Dani—I like the socks, too. Wish they made them for women, wouldn’t they be beautiful tights?

    Gerlinda—It boggles my mind how someone could knit that kind of pattern, that’s probably why I appreciate them so much, good luck!

    Maris—I know, that’s kind of why I did the post, to get myself in the mood. I still have all my summer clothes in the closet, and I’m digging through boxes every morning to find a sweater to wear.

  • Reply
    Maris (In Good Taste)
    September 12, 2011 at 4:56 am

    All of these sweaters are really making me crave fall. So pretty!

  • Reply
    Gerlinde in Dallas
    September 11, 2011 at 7:23 pm

    Wow, less than an hour ago I was flipping through a Fair Isle pattern book at a yarn shop.

    I get an urge to knit every couple of years and this is one of them. I’ve returned with a bag full of yarn, and five projects in mind. ^.~

  • Reply
    September 11, 2011 at 7:08 pm

    Fair Isle!! Now you’re talking!
    Love your pictures, especially the oldey-time ones and thanks for mentioning me. 🙂
    Yes that Tabs is Contrary!

    I really like those RL socks.

  • Reply
    September 11, 2011 at 5:40 pm

    Yeah you see being Scottish I wouldn’t be seen dead in this, in the same way that I shuddered over LL Bean boots when I lived in New England and then obsessed about them when I came back to Scotland.
    I am nothing other than contrary.

    Oh we went to Shetland two years ago – it took us 16 hours to get there!!