knitting, Knitting Pattern, shetland, wool
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origin & ownership: thoughts on Fair Isle knitting

I have been musing for days and days and days on a blog. A niggly irk that has pinched at me ever since I saw this tweet from @kariebookish kb tweet My first instinct was to say that it couldn’t possibly be a Shetlander who said that – I was wrong, as I read in Karie’s own blog on this topic.

I was startled to see this misguided notion of ownership and origin and it has been the catalyst for these thoughts – my own and from some far cleverer people.

Firstly, I want to set out that I am obviously not an authority on the topic, but I have to say that when ideas on tradition are tautly stretched I feel my hackles rise.

I tweeted myself; “must things, where origins are unknown and variations are wide and fluid, be set up with rigid ideas?” That which we call Fair Isle can’t be rigidly authenticated like Harris Tweed.

It is used as a generic term which describes stranded colour work knitting. We know that stranded colour-work did not originate on Fair Isle  – some of the oldest knitted colour items date to Ancient Egypt  – but patterns from the isles, coupled with the style of garments which gained popularity in the early 20th C have encouraged the term to become used widely.

Fair Isle knitting incorporates motifs and patterns the same of which are found the world over including – to name but a very few –  Lithuania, Estonia, Finland, Norway and as far off as the Middle East. Look at this fisherman’s cap from Yell, on the left. This is a 1950s version of a hat that the knitter saw worn in the late 19th century at the haaf (deep sea) fishing. It is not a motif one would associate with Shetland and is possibly Estonian[1]

(c) Shetland Museum

(c) Shetland Museum

The story that patterns were incorporated into traditional knitting  from those who were wrecked on Fair Isle from the Armada ship, El Gran Griffon, is largely unsubstantiated and often pointedly denied by Fair Isle inhabitants. The first mention of Fair Isle seems to mention a style of hat very similar to the one above and comes from from a visitor to Shetland in 1832.

They were Shetland fishermen, the first I had seen, and I shall never forget the impression their strange garb made upon me. Dressed in their skin coats and breeches with their nether limbs encased in huge boots, they rather resembled the pictures we have seen of some of the Esquimaux tribes […] however the long fair hair of the Shetlanders, escaping in curls down upon their shoulders from beneath their large pendant caps of variegated worsted, certainly gave them a more picturesque appearance the the inhabitants of the more Northern clime.

Edward Charlton. Travels in Shetland, 1832-52 [2]

I suppose one could be fooled into believing that stranded colour-work knitting should be held aloft as something native to Shetland because knitting from Shetland has most certainly blazed its trail brightly.

The oldest article of Fair Isle clothing in the Shetland Museum & Archives dates from around 1850. It is dyed with madder and indigo. The bands of motifs are quite different from the popular 8 pointed stars,  flowers, tree of life and OXO patterns that we associate with garments we see today,

(c) Shetland Museum

Interest in Fair Isle knitting came in the early 20th century when  Edward, the Prince of Wales, posed in an all over sweater. This undoubtedly sparked a boom in style and trend. I recently visited the museum to look at Fair Isle garments from this time. They are largely knit in Rayon, silk and cotton  – this would perhaps jar with that purist; if Fair Isle has to be made in Shetland by Shetlanders, surely it needs to be knit in Shetland wool, no?

Suddenly Shetland found it was in demand for knitwear again, but not for the traditional woollen hoisery, gloves and lace work that were previously exported in great quantities.

In the 1960s the colour motif yokes boomed and brought Fair Isle to attention of world again. fairisle1TWIG paul-linda-mccartney-children-1976 And again in the 21st century colour-work yokes are trending again.

‘Traditional’ does not have to mean something rooted in ancient history and when it is an object like Fair Isle knitting we simply cannot state that it is an indigenous style and we certainly cannot say that practitioners of the tradition must be connected to its roots.

Is it right to use the  term ‘Fair Isle’ for so broad a discipline, is it suitable? Well, I certainly cannot answer that and I am not writing to this to say that it is appropriate or not. What I object to are ideas of rigidity in its history and the authenticity of how or where it is created.

Stranded colour knitting  has crossed many borders before it reached Shetland and has continued to cross and flow and find variations ever since. Shetland has always had strong links to the sea. It is no great stretch of the imagination to think how patterns made their way to the isles and vice versa. I recently learned that Faroese patterns were the first that Shetlander’s incorporated into their knitting, before motifs from Fair Isle were popular. It seems totally awe-some, but Shetland and Faroe had a rich shared fishing history, which occurred from the early 1800s.

Tradition is a carrying stream, as the wonderful Hamish Henderson theorised, it begins along its path; it ebbs and flows; it surges in places and dams in others; it cuts through new banks and all the while it accumulates and also beaches flotsam along the way. Tradition is fluid. It has a point of origin, but often this point is unknown and we can only trace it back to one of the bends in stream where it can be so different from where it first began. peeries The fact that this style has been knit in Shetland since at least late 19th has become a tradition itself, though it can never be wholly owned or set against other colour work as more authentic. It’s evolved and grown from fishermen’s keps to  ‘all overs’, to headbands, hoodies, wristies, gadget cosies, shrugs, etc. Just as the patterns and motifs have been carried on the stream, so too has the tradition moved and flowed to incorporate modern garments and needs.

Change within tradition tends not to be revolutionary , or even rapid, but incremental, considered, evolutionary. That is not to say that radical new ideas or approaches do not appear within a tradition on occasions. They do, but time tends to be a judge, the barometer of acceptability, the arbiter of taste. Roots are important, as is an appreciation of where things come from, where we stand within the stream and how to use that knowledge to create fresh and meaningful art going forward. Tradition, then, can be of great use in a liquid modern world, a questioning, solidifying force […] it can still help us to move forward, to move positively and to embrace the future with the confidence that comes from knowing where we’ve been.

Gary West. 2012

I take issue with placing tags of ownership and origin on Fair Isle. Yes, it bears the name of an island (and for this reason may I be pedantic and insist it is always capital F, capital I and never lower case, hyphenated or one word) , the place where the first modern trend of colour work  knitting was seen to come from.  Just like guernseys to Guernsey, jerseys to Jersey…and West Highland Terriers to the West Highlands …ok, I know, its a stretch! but we can’t claim they all originate from that point of origin each and every time.

When something is fluid it can’t be blocked out aggressively, but it can find new variations, tributes and inspirations and hooray for that.

You may be thinking by now why I should care, the person who stated that Fair Isle knitting can only be done by a Shetlander is  a misinformed minority, does it really matter? Maybe it’s not the end of the world, but the ethnologist in me wants to look at the route of the carrying stream, the knitter in me wants to discuss the myriad of patterns and motifs from all over the world, that we (mostly) all call Fair Isle today and the Shetlander in me really wants to roll her eyes at another myth about the isles presented outside them.[4]

Fair Isle knitting is still done in Fair Isle and maybe we can direct the real purists here, where knitting islanders have possibly more links to the local tradition than others, but I will continue to refer to any colour-work as Fair Isle – capital F, capital I – and be proud to see history and geography crossing borders through each stitch as the pattern forms.


1] Complete Book of Traditional Fair Isle Knitting, by Sheila McGregor. Batsford. 1981 2] Travels in Shetland: 1832-52, by Edward Charlton. Shetland Times. 2007 3]Voicing Scotland: Folk, Culture, Nation, by Gary West.  Luath Press. 2012. P13 4] please don’t ever ask me if the weather is always crap; if we have running water/electricity; aren’t we all rolling in hoarded oil millions; don’t we have the best ‘quality of life’ on all those “surveys”; aren’t we all related, etc etc etc *eyes roll to oblivion*


  1. It reminds me so much of all the arguments about folk songs and authenticity – to which the best answer probably comes from Martin Carthy, who has said (paraphrased, because I’m remembering a gig I went to years ago rather than quoting anything written and therefore checkable) “The only crime you can commit against a traditional song is to not sing it. Traditions need to breathe to stay alive”.

  2. Haven’t clever knitters all over the world and since early times been observing and copying versions of knitted garments? So many patterns and knitting styles may have been invented from looking at already made garments or even the shapes of natural objects which knitters saw in their local environments?
    While the knitted colourwork called Fair Isle as it was famously used by knitters there, who can truly say that the Fair Isle knitters ‘invented’ the patterns which are now used all over the world? It’s good that the Fair Isle people and Shetlanders are proud of their long and continuing knitting heritage, but it doesn’t seem that they can lay claim to it entirely, any more than the Aran islanders ‘own’ Aran cable knitting?

    • louise says

      Doh! Aran cables to Aran islanders! That would have been better than the dog analogy haha!
      Everything is open to interpretation, isn’t it. Yes, there are local patterns but many are shared in other lands and let’s be honest, I don’t think the Tree patterns can have originated in Shetland!

  3. Lisa-Marie Haugmoen says

    I read your tweet and your blog.
    I am one of those who like to call a spade a spade.
    As a Norwegian I know that certain patterns are unique to my country which is why I am against calling everything FairIsle.
    To not hurt feelings of any knitter,I call knitting patterns with more than one color: Stranded knitting.
    It is because there are so many who do argue where one pattern has originated,and to keep those who do know the origins f.ex: Selbu Rose,from blowing a gasket due to ignorance of provenience.
    I will say : Stranded knitting using patterns commonly used on Shetland or in Norway,etc.
    Make life simple and do the same. :.))
    Thank you.

    • louise says

      Of course there are going to be huge exceptions. I would call Lopapeysa by its name (itself not traditional in the sense the sense of something very old) the same with bohus, but these are quite different to the motifs that commonly come under the umbrella of Fair Isle. My real irk is that the purist wanted to pin the art to someone who lives in the area as the seemingly only true practitioner of the tradition.
      These are just my thoughts!

  4. Anthea says

    Perhaps this topic says more about modern times than it does about techniques of knitting. Today, we can not only visit Shetland and Fair Isle but we can discuss subjects with folk/look at what they are doing, almost as if we are with them; we don’t have as many of the obstacles to seeing/learning that existed in past times. The EU has almost strangled us with its regulations attached to origin and ownership, especially with regard to food. I believe this is at least in part borne out of the fear of losing ages-old particularities and consequent crises of confidence, also, that it is difficult across such open borders and vaste spheres to check the perceived authenticity of any given product/technique. Perceived ownership can create some very emotional responses and nearly always runs deep, whether it is a rightful stance or not. The use of generic descriptors is probably the most diplomatic way out as Lisa-Marie above suggests. In future I will describe my knitting as stranded…….

  5. Louise Tilbrook says

    What a great,thought-provoking piece. Very well written.

  6. Interesting read, Louise; considered and well written. Like you, I call my colour knitting Fair Isle.

    • louise says

      I am blyde! Considering one email I got on subject of this post I was feeling put in my place!
      Thank you Hazel! 🙂

  7. Just dipped into to see what was out in the blogging world about Shetland, knitting and Fair Isle as I’m visiting in August with a knitting tour. Great read Louise, given me lot’s to think about/ digest & pass on to folk the next time I’m teaching a Fair Isle…. stranded knitting workshop!

  8. why not call knitting with more than one colour at a time “stranded” and leave “Fair Isle” for the style of Fair Isle and Shetland as it is (not more than 2 colours at a time, shifting back- and foreground colours…)

    I really am upset to see scandinavian animal patterns called “Fair Isle” as these reindeers etc. are absolutely not Fair Isle…

    I think “style” and “technique” are mixed… calling a technique “Fair Isle” is not correct

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