Origins of Fair isle knitwear

29 Nov 2017


If you’ve already seen our 2017 Autumn-Winter collection, you couldn’t fail to have noticed our pretty Fair Isle design pieces. But what do you know about the origins of this traditional British knitwear style?


Where does Fair Isles knitwear come from?

The Fair Isle pattern is a complex design created by skillfully weaving numerous colored strands into a distinctive motif. It owes its name to ‘Fair Isle’, a tiny island to the north of Scotland in the Shetland archipelago.

Just 3 miles long by 1.5 wide, Fair Isle is one of the hidden gems of Shetland. It lays claim to the title Britain’s most isolated inhabited island and counts just 60 hardy souls as resident. So how did this little island, battered by storms and the extremes of a harsh climate, give birth to the world famous Fair Isle knitwear?

The answer lies in the rigors of such tough winters that necessitated warm and hard-wearing clothes, traditionally knitted by the wives of the sailors. This artisan tradition was a local secret until 1921, the year when Edward Prince of Wales, (later king Edward VIII and Duke of Windsor following his abdication) wore a vividly colored Fair Isle waistcoat in public!

West cliffs, Fair Isle by Dave Wheeler and Duke of Windsor by Mati Ventrillon West cliffs, Fair Isle by Dave Wheeler and Duke of Windsor by Mati Ventrillon


Traditionally, Fair Isle patterns use a palette of five or six colors, but only two different colors on each row. They are worked on in circular fashion, and don’t include any large plain areas. The variety of shapes which make up the tiles is practically infinite. Aside from the classic lozenge or chevron, you will find Nordic-inspired motifs such as snowflakes, or more recently queens or fir trees following the British craze for ‘Christmas Jumpers’.

WoolOvers Womens Pure Wool Fairisle Cardigan


In today’s fashion world for some the term Fair Isle is used to describe any knitwear design that uses lots of alternating bright colors, while for others it’s strictly the traditional Shetland motifs.


The return of a retro style

Fair Isle designs are ever present in the winter collections of fashion designers and brands. Thanks to its joyous old-fashioned style and retro charm, it’s the perfect thing whether on the ski slopes or around the family fireplace. It’s a design that is perfect for Christmas celebrations and end of year holidays.

Mens and Womens Pure Lambswool Festive Fairisle Sweaters


Wear it like any other knitted sweater in your wardrobe, but ideally alongside something relatively plain with a single color (great with jeans, beige trousers or a pencil skirt) to avoid clashing.

Reserved for men in days gone by, this style is now hugely popular with women who have rediscovered the famous design on sweaters, cardigans, dresses or accessories… Take a look at our Fair Isle collection for men and women, we’re sure you’ll fall for its old world charm.

Womens Lambswool Long Sleeve Fairisle Sweater Dress

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