Sew What?

A Holiday Treat! The History of Fair Isle Knitwear

December 18, 2020 Season 1 Episode 0
Sew What?
A Holiday Treat! The History of Fair Isle Knitwear
Show Notes Transcript

In this bonus holiday episode, Isabella discusses Fair Isle jumpers. She talks about the history of the area's knitwear, as well as its style.

Be on the lookout for season 2 of Sew What?, arriving in February 2021.

Whatsup stitches!! Here’s a surprise short but fun episode of Sew What in honour of this festive season. It’s a lil Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/winter solstice treat! Delight! To celebrate this wintry time, this episode will be about the history of Fair Isle knitwear, specifically those comfy Fair Isle jumpers or sweaters or whatever you want to call them. Cosy!! I envision you all listening to this episode while wearing oversized cardigans or jumpers while drinking tea or hot chocolate in front of a roaring fire. I’m just projecting my ideal wintertime scene onto all of you. 

Anyway, as always, images and sources are up on the Sew What social media! That’s @sewwhatpodcast on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Woohoo! Aaaaaalso, get excited for February 2021, when season 2 starts! Some needlework joy for all of you in the coldest months in many parts of the western hemisphere (but go out and enjoy the warmth if you’re in the eastern hemisphere!). And in the weeks leading up to February I’ll be releasing Sew What’s new website and patreon so you can access episodes easier and support the pod if you wanna! All of that will be posted on the social media so be sure to follow it on whatever your favourite social media platform is. Remember, it’s @sewwhatpodcast. Okay, now let’s get into the actual episode.  

Let’s start with some basic key points before going all the way back in time. Two things: the first, Fair Isle is an actual place, one of the Shetland islands off the coast of Scotland. Second thing, Fair Isle knitted jumpers became a super big deal starting in 1921, when the Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII, wore Fair Isle jumpers in public. Okay, now let’s go back further. Fair Isle lies between Orkney island and the largest island, known as “The Mainland.” It’s on a major sea route that used to go between Europe and the Americas for centuries. That sea route ended up becoming very important for the spread of Fair Isle knitwear. 

The commercialisation of Fair Isle knitwear began with a long tradition of island men who travelled the world on whaling ships and traded their knit goods for various necessities. When those dudes were out at sea and when it was dark and rainy, their wives and children sat knitting and developed a lot of fun and flirty knitting patterns. Delight! And women and children had been knitting for centuries. In 1774, Fair Islanders rowed out to ships wearing, according to someone on one of those ships, “the softest cloth I ever saw made out of wool.” And in 1814, Sir Walter Scott went to Fair Isle and saw men wearing “striped worsted caps.” 

But everything changed in 1845 when there was a significant decline in living standards on the island. This was due to poor fishing and farming seasons and lots of people left Fair Isle for other countries. Grim! But, slowly but surely, Shetland knitting and Fair Isle knitwear specifically was starting to be noticed. The Great Exhibition of 1851 featured a catalogue of Shetland knitting patterns and in 1862, the first newspaper advertisement for Fair Isle knitwear appeared. And then, in the early 20th century (1902-4 to be specific), William Bruce and his crew took more than 100 Fair Isle garments with them on their expedition to Antarctica. So, as you can see, there were bits of Fair Isle knitwear here and there for decades. But then, several decades later, Fair Isle hit the big time. It’s all happening!!!

In 1921, the Prince of Wales started wearing a Fair Isle jumper while golfing. And painter Stanley Cursiter painted “The Fair Isle Jumper” in 1923. Cursiter was from the Orkney Islands and was integral to the introduction of Post-Impressionism and Futurism to Scotland. And his painting of the Fair Isle jumper is truly fun and flirty. It’s on the Sew What social media pages. I really enjoy the subject’s matching floppy hat. Now, when the Prince of Wales wore Fair Isle jumpers, they were in pretty neutral colours like brown, grey, and white. But his wearing the jumpers ushered in a Fair Isle craze in the 1920s and 30s that hasn’t really ever gone away. Now, Fair Isle knitwear is everywhere and has been reinterpreted by countless designers and fashion people. Ralph Lauren even included a Fair Isle jumper in his first collection in the early 1980s. 

And what’s become of Fair Isle itself? Well, in 1947, a dude named George Waterston bought the island and built a bird observatory. And then in 1954 the National Trust for Scotland bought the island to secure its protection. In the 1980s, Fair Isle knitwear was trademarked and then started to be mass produced. And then in 2011, a crafts co-op transformed the knitwear from a subsistence craft to a luxury good. And there you are, the Fair Isle knitwear history.  

So now let’s think about the jumpers themselves. How did the Fair Isle knitwear aesthetic, with its coloured stripes and geometric motifs, come to be? Well, legend has it that Spaniards got stranded on Fair Isle after the breakup of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and supposedly they taught the islanders to use the colours and patterns typical of Fair Isle knitting. But there’s also evidence that these designs were influenced by Scandinavian designs, which seems more likely but truly, TRULY I have no idea and that’s just my immediate thought when I look at Fair Isle designs. If you know more, please let me know. 

And what’s up with the many colours of Fair Isle jumpers? Well, wool from the Shetland islands has been a variety of fun colours since the 19th century. The colours came partly from different breeds of sheep, but more often from dyes. Madder and indigo resulted in red and blue, and lichens made red, brown, orange, and purple. Brightly coloured synthetic dyes were invented in the 1850s and subsequently increased the possible colour range, but were not used very often.  

The early Fair Isle knitters stitched stockings, caps, and scarves. Fair Isle jumpers, the ones that are so synonymous with cosy wintry times, were not made until World War I. Those jumpers were constructed by knitting horizontal bands with two different coloured strands of wool and involved motifs like crosses, diamonds, and eight-pointed stars. 

The 1920s and 30s saw probably the most hip hoppin’ period of innovation in Fair Isle knitwear design. During those decades there was a lot of experimentation with patterns and garment shapes and colours and even fibres. And now there are so many different patterns and motifs and colour combos that I couldn’t even give you a full list. In terms of motifs, there are flower shapes and diamonds and X’s and O’s and eight pointed stars and hearts and snowflake looking things. And my god there are SO many Fair Isle knitting patterns available – it feels like a truly infinite amount. It’s not, but that’s how it feels.   

And now, you may ask, what’s the Fair Isle knitwear technique? What do those stitchy stitchy needles do? So basic two colour Fair Isle knitwear requires just the basic knit stitch – purling is not used if one is knitting with circular knitting needles or 3 or more double-pointed needles. Traiditional Fair Isle patterns only use about five or so colours and only two colours per row. The traditional jumpers are worked in the round and limit the length of a run of any particular colours. Since the 1990s, the term “Fair Isle” has been applied pretty loosely, referring to any stranded coloured knitting even if it is not from the Shetland Islands or even close to them. Now, at this point, I’m gonna read you a few paragraphs from Wikipedia which I know is a bold move but the reason I’m doing this is because it really is a good description of how these pieces are knit. Here goes: 

“At each knit stitch, there are two available "active" colours of yarn; one is drawn through to make the knit stitch, and the other is simply held behind the piece, carried as a loose strand of yarn behind the just-made stitch. To avoid "loose" strands larger than 3-5 stitches, the yarn not in use can be "caught" by the yarn in use without this being seen on the front of the work. Knitters who are comfortable with both English style and Continental style knitting can carry one colour with their right hand and one with their left, although it is also possible to simply use two different fingers for the two colours of yarn and knit both using the same style.

The simplest Fair Isle pattern uses circular or double pointed needles, cast on any number of stitches. Knitting then continues round and round, with the colours alternated every stitch. If the pattern is started with an even number of stitches, a vertically striped tube of fabric will be formed, while an odd number will create a diagonal grid that appears to mix the two colours.

Traditional Fair Isle patterns normally had no more than two or three consecutive stitches of any given colour, because they were stranded, and too many consecutive stitches of one colour means a very long strand of the other, quite easy to catch with a finger or button. A more modern variation is woven Fair Isle, where the unused strand is held in slightly different positions relative to the needles and thereby woven into the fabric, still invisible from the front, but trapped closely against the back of the piece. This permits a nearly limitless variety of patterns with considerably larger blocks of colour.

Traditionally, Fair Isle jumper construction involves knitting the body of the jumper completely in the round. Steeks (from the Scottish word meaning 'stitch', 'to close shut', and comprising several stitches) are worked across the armhole openings allowing the body to be completed in the round without interruption. Once the main body of the jumper is complete, the armhole steeks are cut open (sometimes these are secured before cutting). Stitches are then picked up around the armhole opening and the sleeve is knitted down toward the cuff in the round.”

Still with me? Okay, good. Thank you Wikipedia. Living and loving the detail of that technical description, to be honest. And now that I’ve spoken about the history of the Fair Isle jumper and the knitting technique, I’m gonna conclude with a bit of a bigger picture view of how Fair Isle knitwear got to be so popular in the 1920s and 30s. This is thanks to Joan Fraser, who wrote a really helpful article about this for a company called Fraser knitwear, which I’m just assuming is named after Joan herself. 

Joan makes some really good points about why Fair Isle knitwear got popular when it did. In the 1920s, women’s fashion got a lot more typically masculine. I know that there are more than two genders and it’s not as easy as saying some fashion is masculine and some is feminine, but in the 1920s, women’s fashion definitely adopted silhouettes and shapes that resulted in flatter chests and smaller hips and that resulted in an androgynous, boyish look. So when Fair Isle jumpers became popular for men, they became popular for women, too. The Shetland knitwear situation was actually a bit cyclical, as the vogue for jumpers from that area was actually a result of the fact that they were worn by both genders. Before the 1920s, Shetland knitwear sales were really gender-specific – there were “frokes” for men and lace shawls for women. So basically the jumper grew out of a need for genderless clothing and then it got popular and demand increased massively. 

Joan ends her article with this quote, “I have been intrigued to find that the masculinisation of women’s fashion was clearly not a one way street.  The popularity of the Fair Isle jumper signified a temporary return to more flamboyant dressing in men. One would think that Fair Isle with its multi-coloured patterns and often rather floral motifs might have been too decorative to be considered truly masculine in the 20th century.  However as Christine Arnold says in her article on gender dynamics in Shetland knitwear: 'Fair Isle knitwear did and does allow men a certain amount of the sartorial display enjoyed by Scottish men. ...The Scottish male national costume champions male decorative display. This is considered masculine and encouraged by all the generations.'

Indeed, many societies still encourage colourful male dress and do not look upon it as dandified.  And as Dr Christensen points out, today’s necktie is in the same tradition as the showier clothing worn by the 18th and 19thth century gentleman.  His ornate silk waistcoat with floral motifs and fancy buttons, just visible beneath his coat, was in its own turn an echo of the more conspicuous dress of an earlier age.

It could be said, then, that just as the Fair Isle jumper allowed women freedom from the restrictions of ‘female’ clothing, it liberated men to be a little more in touch with their peacock side.” 

And yes, again, gendering clothing is not a good time but it is necessary to realise that for much of history and in many different places, clothing was gendered and that in this instance, Fair Isle knitwear allowed women more androgynous, simpler shapes and men brighter colours and prints than men’s clothing had offered for decades. Imagine being a woman going from an Edwardian tea dress or a man going from a black or dark grey Victorian suit to this. It definitely rocked some worlds and blew some minds. It’s the power of needlework! The power to transform!

So yes, there you are, a shorter holiday time episode for all you lovely people. I hope that you’re having a lovely festive season and if you’re not, I hope this gets you in the mood a little bit. Now’s the time to don your Fair Isle jumpers or if you’re in the eastern hemisphere, time to turn on your air conditioning and rock those jumpers in July. Thanks for listening and I will see you all for real in February! Yay for season 2.

Now go out and stitch some stories and get started on knitting your stripy patterned jumpers. Bye!