traditional fair isle

Hello everyone, at this point in my life I think I must admit to myself that I have become a semi-professional knitwear collector.. when I started collecting knitwear it was really just for things to wear – which I still do, from September to May every year I am pretty much-wearing something knitted every day. I’m not fussy and have a lot of items which to me are everyday gansies and tops however I’ve built up a small collection of what I would call ‘traditional’ fair isle garments – these are not garments which initially would have appealed to me when I started buying knitwear but as my appreciation has changed I have come to find a great deal of time for these styles.

Anyone interested in Shetland textiles may have different ideas of what a traditional Fair Isle is but to me its garments which use early colours – shetland colours aka naturals like Shetland Black, Moorit, Fawn, White etc alongside colours described as Indigo (blue), Madder (red) and Gold (yellow). They also contain motifs found in the earliest examples from the Island of Fair Isle itself, commonly known as OXO patterns with bands of peerie patterns and often but not always – corrugated rib.

These types of motifs and patterns are known to be in existence from around 1856 onwards as this is when the activity of dyeing is known to have been happening in Shetland. Dyes such as madder and indigo were imported and local vegetables could be used for other shades such as yellow. The motifs are said to have come from other textiles – shawls and woven items in which patterns had been embroidered or woven in. This is explained by many as coming to Shetland through the travelling of fishermen and sailors as Shetland was and is a main thorofare and was visited by people from the Baltic, Norway etc and much further afield. The Sheila McGregor fair isle book and Ann Feitelson one both go into the history in that way that people who are not from somewhere can and both clear up rumours and untruths about the origins very well.

Anyway, what started this thought process was the above two jumpers. I got them from eBay late last year – they actually arrived on the same day which I hate. When I’m eagerly awaiting a new second-hand purchase I love the excitement of opening the parcel and when you have more than one that really dilutes the appreciation BUT that says more about my addictive tendencies than anything else. (as an aside, I’m making a big effort to only buy second hand these days which for a former fast fashion addict is very difficult so these parcels have come to mean more to me than ever..#saddo) Although purchased from eBay they are both from Shetland originally – the left is TM. Adie and the one on the right is a Shetland from Shetland – only known by the labels and both brands which sold Shetland knitwear, T.M Adies, in particular, was a very prominent brand which created all kinds of textiles. I decided to wash and board them both on Thursday as they both needed a freshen up, only when I put them on the board did I notice the number of similarities in them. You can see certain motif’s and colour placements are exactly the same and the addition of the sections with the hearts and the corrugated ribbing are the only difference on the Shetland from Shetland one. One thing I love about Fair Isle is that you can see the basque and ribbing detail makes a huge difference to the overall colour ‘feeling’ of a garment. To me the ‘main’ colour of the one on the left is red and the one on the right is shetland black just because that’s what the background of the ribbing is.

These kinds of styles are almost impossible to date as they are so traditional in nature – they are in extremely good condition, as they came from outwith Shetland perhaps they weren’t worn often, a souvenir or special reminder of Shetland. The Adies one was listed on eBay as one of a pair, there was this one in my size (UK 10) and a much bigger one probably for a man. In my head, they were bought in Shetland by a couple who then came to their senses once they were home and realised they would never wear matching jumpers.. haha!! anyway, the style and condition of the label say to me 50s/60s. I have seen examples of Shetland from Shetlands designs and these traditional styles seemed to be made all the time they were producing but I think this garment is perhaps late 70s/80s.

This one also came from eBay but is much newer – made and bought within the last 10-15 years for sure and is actually still available from Anderson & Co another long time Shetland knitwear seller. I can tell you I definitely didn’t pay £200+ for this though – I think I got it for £20..! But I think it is an excellent example of a modern made version of this style. The colours are the same and motifs are similar although they are smaller and have more bands, it sits very well with the other two.

Finally, I wanted to touch on a couple of Fair Isle slipovers I have which are both made by Shetland from Shetland (which is the brand that made Spencer Dresses by the way) one is extremely similar to the above right jumper minus the hearts and the other is a bit different as it has no blue:

Again though they are both so striking. The blue and red ribs on the right again makes it feel like the main colour is blue – to me at least. You can see how if you had these motifs in your arsenal (all of them can be found in Shetland knitting books with pattern sections) you could endlessly make successful garments. The colours could be switched out for different ones and as long as you follow the same values in colours it would work. The one on the left looks that bit different without the blue and comes across more graphic to me with the bigger motifs.

You can see in this picture the pitfalls with big graphic motifs though, although the pattern has been centred over the fronts either side of the v-neck this means the big motifs aren’t centred on the front and as its a v-neck this really stands out when you’re wearing it.  However, I still love it!

If you are interested in the shades available to match up colours in 2ply Jumper Weight from J&S they would be:

Shetland Black – 5, or in Supreme Jumper Weight 2005

Indigo – 142

Madder  – 9097

Gold – 28

White – 1A, or in Supreme Jumper Weight 2001

They also produce the Shetland Heritage range which although finer than 2ply Jumper Weight makes a perfect match for very old textiles and these kinds of shades were the colour inspiration. You can see that here

I hope this has been interesting? If you’ve made it this far you’ve done well! If you would like me to do posts like this more often please let me know.

Additional reading:

The Art of Fair Isle Knitting, Ann Feitelson

The Complete Book of Traditional Fair Isle Knitting, Sheila McGregor

Motif books:

A Shetland Pattern Book, Mary Smith and Maggie Twatt

Fair Isle Knitting Patterns, Mary MacGregor

200 Fair Isle Designs, Mary Jane Mucklestone

I share these pictures for inspiration, please don’t copy garments from my photos please

Speak soon x

44 thoughts on “traditional fair isle

  1. Ella, this is wonderful and so informative. I’m glad you are continuing to collect and to share your finds with us. I always keep my eyes open when I am in thrift shops over here for additions to your collection.

  2. A very enjoyable read with great pictures. Perfect reading with my morning coffee! Thank you!

  3. Love this particular newsletter, Ella. The history of our lives truly speaks through our dress. One question, well maybe two. LOL Can you tell through examination those that are hand-knit and those by machine? AND were any mass produced rather than made by hand? Love your newsletters even though I rarely comment. Keep ’em coming!

  4. The garments you have are spectacular. I love Fairisle knitting. Alice Starmore has many Fairisle patterns and her book on Fairisle knitting is a primer on how to knit Fairisle from cast on to steeks and everything in between.

    1. Thanks Sue, Starmore has a much more modern way of putting colours together – remember the marled colours that she favours didn’t exist until the 1970s so for these traditional styles there are better books to use. 😊

  5. Ella, thank you for being so thorough regarding the different elements of these pieces, especially your insight as to how the color of the bands affect the overall sense of color. I laughed out loud when you speculated the couple came to their senses when they got home and realized they would never wear these sweaters at the same time! I know Shetland does make one a little crazy while there. This affliction is reflected in all the yarn I brought back then stashed and am still wondering WTH, and when will I ever stop admiring it and just put it on the needles?
    Have a wonderful weekend!

  6. Thank you,I enjoyed reading this newsletter very much. Although I have never learn Fairisle knitting I have bought some on eBay and love looking at them and wearing the ones that fit! There do seem to be a lot of tiny sizes. Looking forward to hearing about and seeing more of your finds.

  7. Loved this blog post, Ella! I’m planning a “traditional” slipover or tank and I love having all these for inspiration!! And thanks for the suggested shade numbers too…..

  8. Really enjoyed reading – and re-reading – this post. Thank you! Great to have books for reference too. But for me, your observations on perceived colour dominance (and why) is most interesting. Thanks again – looking for another in due course!!

  9. Dear Ella, After seeing your collection during WoolWeek, I came away delighted that you took on the task of collecting these garments from thrifts, ebay and all around so I would not be tempted. You have proved to be so worthy of this job and that you share the photos and knowledge is a privilege to we lovers of the Shetland knits. I cherish the fair isle jumpers I’ve knit and may put you in my will! Carry can see from the comments that we just can’t get enough.

  10. Your best blog post yet! The side-by-side comparisons are fascinating and illustrate the range of Shetland fair isle possibilities using just a few motifs. Thanks for posting.

  11. I made it all the way to the bottom of the post. My reward was learning more about fair isle and color usage, subjects that are new but very interesting to me. If you’ll keep writing about them, I’ll keep reading about them. Thank you.

  12. You mention that you are interested in “early colours” and “Shetland colours” which seems to mean what was traditionally used in Shetland knitting like garments found in the Shetland Museum. I am interested to know more about the use of natural coloured wool. At the time J&S introduced the Shetland Supreme natural colours, I understand that these colour fleeces weren’t often used. Now they are more valued. Has someone written a history of colours used? I find it so very interesting.

    1. Natural Colours have always been used in Shetland but when millspun yarn started being produced you could get a ‘dyed’ natural colour that would always be the same. Real Natural colours are always changing depending on the sheep being clipped so that’s why dye lots in Shetland Supreme can be very different each time. I have a lot of garments using ‘natural’ colours but it would be very difficult to tell if they were real or dyed, there is very little coloured wool still in Shetland and the majority goes into the J&S natural ranges – 1 and 2ply supreme, Shetland Heritage naturals and Shetland Supreme. Hope that helps!

  13. I really enjoyed this insight into the more traditional colours and motifs. I have those first two books sitting on the shelves, so now I shall look at them again. It seems that for the last few years I have been skimming the surface of things, and flicking through Ravelry and Instagram. Knitting too of course. Having left Instagram, I have been a little lost, but I’m now realising that some more in depth reading is exactly what I need. Thank you!

  14. Thank you so much for your article on your collection of Shetland sweaters. I found it very interesting. As an avid knitter I have always found it very difficult to to buy any form of knitwear but I can see it in a totally different light. Thank you.

  15. A very interesting story! I would love more posts on this subject. I own some of the books you mentioned, thank you for the other titles. My compliments for your collection, they are all beautiful garments!

  16. Very interesting. Love all the links. Thanks. The dress is amazing. Send out more information any time.

  17. Bravo, Ella, for a thoroughly engaging read. I appreciate your detailed observations of the sweaters you’ve featured. Having made a few fair isle garments, I want to make more now. Keep up with this kind of post which shows off your deep knowledge of the subject and enhances my shallower knowledge.

  18. More posts like this, please! I love the way you write. I’m fairly new to your blog and hadn’t heard of the spencer dresses before. Are there knitting patterns available for these, do you know, or were they specific to a single manufacturer?

  19. Love your posts and this one in particular was fascinating in the way the ribbing brings out certain colours to prominence. I often eat my lunch whilst I read. I have had one or two small goes at proper Fair Isle work and I love it, but need to get myself sorted so I can create a cardigan for next winter. Think its time the pattern books came off the shelf. Certainly I pull towards using traditional colours rather than more modern colours. Will share if I manage to get it sorted and completed.

  20. Thank you for this post, Ella. As for future posts, I would enjoy reading about the techniques used for these sweaters, knit for sale, that you might not use when knitting a single piece for yourself. What giveaways are present in a Shetland jumper made for sale (other than a tag) versus a jumper made for one’s self or a loved one.

  21. Great post, Ella. And thanks for the additional reading info at the end – really useful. Re the Spencer dress – any news of a full blown pattern in the offing ?

  22. Really interesting post. One thing I’d love to see would be a book/catalogue that put as much Shetland produced fair isle as possible into a chronological order so it’s possible to trace how fashions change shapes, pattern choices, colours, and motif distribution. It would be interesting to see how garments meant for sale differ from those made for personal use too, and if there are distinctive regional differences within Shetland – having seen the Whalsay heritage groups collection it seems that there might be.

    1. Hi Hayley, that would be amazing but pretty impossible to do – as you can see with these garments it’s very difficult to date them. The Ann Feitelson book has a good brief history of the changing styles through the decades of the 20th century. The Whalsay exhibition also had a book which broke the garments down into decades.. 😊

  23. hope it’s not too late to join the crowd. Happy to see that everybody is enchanted by your beautifully illustrated & scholarly comments on Shetland knitting.

    i remember when you once posted an archive of every item in your well-curated knitting collection. I read every description!

    you even had a couple examples of west coast canada cowichan sweaters. One i recall was obviously a genuine & historic cowichan product, while the other one had a touristy non-indigenous edge to it.

    i remember posting that possibly the 2nd one was an imitation cowichan knit by a white person. Yet it could have been created by a modern cowichan nation knitter, since native art is in continual process of evolving & changing, so it’s entirely possible that a contemporary native knitter would include, now & then, an item obviously based on white man’s advertising design.

    thankx very much for sharing all your treasures. What you have created, with all your original work of collecting, restoring, commenting & posting is a beautiful e-museum. In addition to the actual knit woolen items themselves.

  24. Interesting how motifs travel around the world , many of them are the same, especially round the Nordic Sea. This lookes very much like some of the traditionell motifs from the west coast of Sweden.

  25. Hello Ella!
    I loved this very interesting article, so informative! Would love to read more like it and I love the photographs !

Leave a Reply to cynthiacorbin3003 Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.