Fair Isle knitting is a style of knitting which is used to create patterned garments. It was developed on Fair Isle, an island to the North of Scotland between Orkey and Shetland Islands. The knitting technique yields garments with dense multicolored patterns characteristic of the region and also associated with some Scandinavian nations. Demand for Fair Isle sweaters and other garments using the technique is high in many European countries, as well as in North America.
The skills needed for Fair Isle knitting are actually 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. 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, each block of color in Fair Isle knitting is very small. The result is a densely patterned, colorful garment.
Traditionally, residents of Fair Isle used plant extracts to dye their wool, creating subtle and muted colors of yarn. Knitters who continue to use traditional techniques make garments in subdued but beautiful shades, typically using wool. The introduction of synthetic colors and fibers has resulted in Fair Isle knitting with bright, vivid colors. Some young people prefer more vivid colors for their sweaters, while many older wearers tend to prefer more traditional and staid Fair Isle knitting.
The patterns used in Fair Isle knitting can vary. Simple geometric patterns are the most common, but some knitters also create plant and animal motifs. As a general rule, the pattern repeats itself both horizontally and vertically through the sweater, usually in a light thread against a darker thread. The color of the background thread usually changes through the rows, creating a subtle striped background for the lighter thread to stand out against.
In addition to sweaters, the Fair Isle knitting technique can also be used to produce socks, gloves, hats, and other knitted garments. Several knitting cooperatives on Fair Isle sell sweaters to people who want to support traditional crafts, and numerous off-island knitting communities also produce Fair Isle style garments. Knitters, of course, can also create their own Fair Isle garments, experimenting with different types of yarn and patterns. For knitters who are uncomfortable, a knitting group can help a knitter get started on a Fair Isle knitting project.