Learning Fair Isle

19 Apr

Beginning that first Fair Isle project can be intimidating. There’s the double-strand thing to work out, and then there are the charts…but once you take the leap and learn the technique, Fair Isle knitting can be extremely rewarding. The style has a unique history and, along with stranded colorwork, presents you with the chance to play with color in more complex and varied ways than any other kind of knitting. Fair Isle projects have a big “wow factor”!

Want to try it, but don’t know where to start? Learning about where Fair Isle began and how it developed can really enhance your enjoyment and appreciation of the style. Here is some information and a few resources to inspire and guide you.

The History

Fair Isle knitting is named for the place it was developed, a small, remote island in the United Kingdom, north of Scotland and south of Norway. Some people believe shipwrecked Spanish sailors introduced the idea of colorwork to the people of Fair Isle, but it is thought by many scholars that Fair Isle designs were actually developed over time based on Norwegian banded, geometric patterns. It makes some sense that knitting took on importance to a population in constant need of protection from severe wind and rain. Although Fair Isle knitting as we know it today has probably been around since the 1850s, it was popularized throughout Europe and America in 1921 by the Prince of Wales (Edward VIII) when he began wearing Fair Isle sweaters to public golfing events. For the inhabitants of Fair Isle, knitting has long been and remains a main source of income for many women.

The Aesthetic

Traditional Fair Isle patterns are formed with two alternating colors per row, sometimes with several two-color bands of varied colors stacked on top of one another in order to create more vibrant pieces. Common design motifs are simple, geometric shapes such as crosses, diamonds, stars, and dots, but images from nature are also plentiful. The designs are generally small in size because the method of changing color is a stranded one. The unused color is carried across the inside of the work, therefore the color has to be changed frequently in order to avoid large strands on the back of the work that could catch and snag. All Fair Isle knitting was originally done in the round on double-pointed needles, and socks or undergarments were the most common projects. A nice yarn choice for Fair Isle knitting is Rauma Strikkegarn. It is 100% wool, made in Norway, and available in a beautiful range of colors. It easy to work with, with nice durability and stitch definition, yet softens up quite a bit with washing for a comfortable wear.

The Technique

Sheila McGregor’s Traditional Fair Isle Knitting and Alice Starmore’s Book of Fair Isle Knitting are two classic guides. Both include a brief history of the art of Fair Isle, instruction, and charts for traditional patterns. In addition, Knitting In the Old Way provides the basic fundamentals of Fair Isle design and construction, allowing the knitter to draft their own styles and chart their own patterns. Favorite Mittens is a collection of some of the most popular traditional “roots” knitting designs from Robin Hansen.

Of course, Fair Isle knitting is a skill that has been passed from generation to generation, and learning it from someone else is the easiest way to get started. Brooklyn General Store’s Fair Isle class begins on Monday, May 31, and runs for 4 weeks. It is a project-based class, so in addition to learning Fair Isle technique, you will create a beautiful pair of mittens or socks. Read the full course description and sign up here!

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