In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about Fair Isle sweaters for men and where to buy them.
The term fair isle refers to a highly patterned, knit garment (sweater, vest, hat, mittens or scarf). The reality of the history of Fair Isle clothing is so much more than stranded knitting.
It includes the history of an island, the people who’ve made it home, and how they created a genre of clothing that has been embraced by the world.
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Picturesque and Remote
Fair Isle is located in the far north off Scotland’s coast. It’s half-way between the Orkney Islands and the Shetland Islands where the North and Norwegian Seas meet the Atlantic Ocean. This rugged, small (3 miles long by 1.5 miles wide) island is the home of Fair Isle knit sweaters.
Fair Isle currently boasts a population of 57, although in the past 5,000 years of settlement the population ranged up to 400.
Unlike most of its history when there was little or no movement on or off the island, fully half of the current residents were neither born on the island nor have family roots there, but chose to settle there.
Most live on the more fertile southern end of the island, instead of the hilly northern moorlands.
The island was bought by George Waterston in 1947 and he started the world renowned Fair Isle Bird Observatory. The island has since been purchased by the National Trust for Scotland. The Observatory continues to host numerous bird species and many summer visitors.
In spite of that, Fair Isle is still Britain’s most isolated inhabited island. It can be reached several times a week by either ferry or 8-seater plane. While fairly temperate, it’s frequently battered by storms that have been responsible for over 100 nearby shipwrecks.
The earliest known wreck was Sigurd the Viking in AD 900. Many people believe that Fair Isle sweater patterns reflect Scandinavian designs. The Spanish Armada wrecked off the coast in 1588.
Some believe that the survivors of the El Gran Griffon influenced the islanders in their use of colors and patterns.
Regardless of who had the most influence, salvaged ships provided needed timber, tool making materials, sailcloth, copper, lead, chains and wire. In return, the islanders traded their hand-made woolen goods and fresh produce with passing ships for items the treeless landscape couldn’t supply.
Its inaccessibility and seafaring past is part of the reason Fair Isle sweaters evolved the way they did.
Located along shipping lanes for boats from Scandinavia, the Baltics, Spain, Britain and America, the islanders have created an economy that utilizes their few available resources by knitting commercially since the 1600’s.
What Makes a Fair Isle Sweater Distinctive
The climate and isolated nature of the island had the most influence on the evolution of Fair Isle knit goods. Local knitters discovered that using a double strand of fine yarns spun from local sheep produced durable, warm, yet lightweight clothing that has always been unique to the island.
Because of their practicality and warmth, 100 sweaters were ordered for the famous 1902 Bruce expedition to Antarctica.
This term refers to this style of knitted patterning. Two colors, and only two colors, of yarn are used in each row. The color not being shown on the front is looped or “stranded” across the back of the stitches until it becomes the forward facing color.
To avoid long strands that could become caught on fingers or buttons, loose strands are not more than 3-5 stitches long. This continues with each row contributing to a nearly limitless variety of intricate patterns.
Many of the patterns used have been passed down through generations of a family to the point where each knitter would have their own recognizable style.
Shapes commonly used include the classic lozenge or chevron, crosses, diamonds, eight pointed stars, hexagons, basic OXO patterns and Nordic inspired motifs such as snowflakes. Generally, blocks of patterns will not be repeated within a garment.
Although only 2 colors are used per row, a total of 4-5 colors are used in a garment. Traditional colors include neutrals from different breeds of sheep, and mostly natural, local dyes.
This is not to say that Fair Isle yarn is dull, in fact, the sweaters are usually bright.
- Reds are made by combining local Orchrelechia lichen known as Korkalett with bartered madder root.
- Indigo is the other traditionally bartered dye.
- Yellow dyes come from an amphibious bistort or a native plant known as Blocks.
- Brown, orange and purples are also made from local lichens
After 1850 synthetic dyes were introduced, although they are not the basis of Fair Isle knits.
Un-dyed wool came from a variety of fine-fleeced Shetland sheep breeds: black, dark gray (shaela), pale gray (sholmit), brown (moorit), dark fawn (mooskit), light fawn (eesit), pale fawn (moggit) and unbleached white.
Traditional practices such as hand shearing, spinning and natural dying are all still part of today’s Fair Isle knits. Some wools do come from the Sandness mill on the Shetland mainland where they are commercially spun and dyed.
Authentic Fair Isle sweaters are hand knit using either circular knitting needles or 3 or more double pointed needles. Only knit stitches are used, not purl, and the sweater is constructed in the round.
A technique was created that left an opening for the armhole, which is filled in after the body is finished. Because many color changes are used to create the intricate patterns, yarn remnants and shorter lengths of yarn can be used.
There normally aren’t any large plain areas in the overall design.
The Popularization of a Local Craft
Prior to WWI, it was more common to trade patterned stockings, caps and scarves than sweaters. Sweaters became a viable trade item after the war, and especially after WWII.
Fair Isle knits reached their height of popularity after Edward, the Prince of Whales (later the Duke of Windsor), was photographed in 1921 wearing a Fair Isle vest to play golf. He also influenced his sister, Princess Mary, who became a fan of Fair Isle sweaters.
It’s still possible to purchase an authentic hand-spun, hand-knit Fair Isle garment from the island. Artisans are also beginning to offer high quality hand-frame knitted garments as well.
These are garments using a home knitting machine that aids production but is nothing like mass-production. Each garment is still made singly, by one operator. Of course, many companies and designers have adopted Fair Isle patterning in their sweater offerings.
Sweater Makers from Fair Isle
Even though there are so few people living on Fair Isle, a few have chosen to continue the tradition of hand knitting goods – some as a source of supplemental income for their spare time, and some as a business that they plan to grow and expand.
A co-operative was formed in the 1980’s to promote Fair Isle goods, provide a standard of quality by having a trademarked “star motif” label, and as a way of passing on skills.
In 2011 the co-operative closed, but individual knitters have continued the tradition. Below are three Fair Isle sources that produce knit wear.
Be warned, however, it can take 3 or more years from the time of ordering for you to receive your sweater.
This may sound unreasonable, but an all-over patterned sweater takes an average of over 100 hours to hand-knit, not including design time. Even more hours are involved if you choose a labor-intensive hand spun garment.
Hollie Shaw is a relative newcomer to the island. She and her husband moved from Kent to run the George Waterston Bird Observatory. They decided to settle on the island full time and became crofters, and all the various jobs that all habitants on the island must take on, to make it work.
She sells her made-to-measure sweaters to people who visit her home. She believes that her sweaters have more meaning when they are bought on the island, rather than online, and that this connection to its origin elevates it beyond a simple fashion item.
She does her knitting a few hours a day during the winter months so there is a 3 year waiting list. Hollie has a Facebook page if you want to contact her.
Elizabeth Riddiford has been knitting for over 39 years, having moved to Fair Isle in 1981. She likes to work in natural, un-dyed wools, as well as the traditional fair Isle colors of madder (red) patterns.
She hand-spins her wool and hand-knits her garments. Elizabeth learned Fair Isle patterns and techniques from experienced locals Annie Thomson, Edith and Aggie Stout, who were all island born in the early 1900’s. They began learning how to knit when they were 3-4 years old to help supplement their families’ income.
Elizabeth has been selling hand frame knitted and hand finished hats and accessories since 2011 when the collective disbanded, either on the island or via her website. In 2015 her beanies cost between £48-65 and scarves around £70. You can find her website here.
Matt Ventrillon has taken her knitting from small-time supplemental income to a multi-tiered business that has something to offer a diverse customer base. She is a French-Venezuelan former architect who moved to Fair Isle from London in 2007.
After studying their knitting for four years to understand its intricacies, she started selling her wares when not tending her flock of 50 sheep, which she also hand-shears.
She sells bespoke sweaters, although she stops taking orders when her backlog becomes too long.
Knitting and finishing a single sweater takes her 20 hours or more, and “designing the shape, writing the knitting instructions takes approximately 3 hours and the color and pattern design anything from 8 hours to a month, depending on the complexity.”
She can produce 30-40 bespoke garments a year and has a 3 year backlog. Her story and sweaters can be found here.
To make Fair Isle garments more accessible, to create a sustainable source of income for islanders, and to pass on the legacy of Fair Isle knitting, she has created her MV Collection. Profits go toward preserving the heritage of Fair Isle knitting by bringing apprentices to the island to teach.
Instead of being knit at home by hand, the sweaters in the MV collection are knit on industrial machines on Shetland’s mainland. These sweaters start at $200+. Her designs made on 1960’s hand machines start at $650+. Obviously, her bespoke sweaters are substantially higher.
The MV Collection is limited in that it doesn’t offer traditional Fair Isle sweaters, but it’s “linked to the history and tradition of Fair Isle through the patterns, the wool, the style.”
She makes the point that Fair Isle patterns are replicated by clothing manufacturers and on catwalks every year, “but none of those garments have a relationship to Shetland or Fair Isle.”
Mati has reason to be leery of mainstream designers. Two Chanel employees visited her shop. After making it clear that they weren’t wanting to copy her designs, she sold them some sweaters.
Shortly after, the 2015 Chanel collection by Karl Lagerfeld showcased Fair Isle designs useing the design that she’d developed for the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations in 2012.
After suing Chanel, the design house apologized and will credit her as the source of inspiration by putting “Mati Ventrillon design” on that sweater’s label.
Non-Fair Isle “Fair Isle” Sweaters
Chanel is not the only design house to feature Fair Isle-like designs.
Almost every casual brand has a Fair Isle based design offered every year or so, and many high-end fashion houses (Burberry, Louis Vuitton, Saint Laurent, Ralph Lauren) have featured them on their runways.
They are shown for men, women and children. Most are in wool, but cotton, lambswool, synthetics, cashmere and blends are also used.
Not every sweater is made the way Fair Isle sweaters are (in the round), and zippers, pockets and other trims may be added, but the essence of the design is the same.
If you can’t find a design in this year’s collection, there are many options available in the vintage market as well as on Etsy and Amazon.
British Makers of Fair Isle
Here are some British makers of Fair Isle sweaters that are worth checking out…
For more authentic Fair Isle sweaters, visit Oldfield Outfitters. They specialize in vintage-inspired British clothing designed and made in the UK.
They use actual patterns from the 1920-1940’s, or even earlier, and the Fair Isle knitwear is knit in the Shetland Islands.
Jamiesons Knitwear is a family owned company that has been producing sweaters in Shetland since 1983. They use only 100% pure Shetland Wool for their Fair Isle designed clothing.
Their yarns are also produced at the Sandness mill, owned by Jamiesons and Shetland’s only commercial wollen mill. When the supply of hand knitters decreased, they embraced computerized knitting technology.
American and International Makers of Fair Isle
Outdoor retailers such as Land’s End, Eddie Bauer and LL Bean all have current or recent offerings.
Other retailers such as Lucky Brand, J Crew, Tommy Hilfiger, American Eagle and Brooks Brothers also have some Fair Isle designs available.
Ralph Lauren, Burberry, and Saint Laurent have also recently offered their versions of Fair Isle.
Fair Isle is a remarkable island with a storied history that has helped influence the way their unique knitting has evolved.
The island’s isolation has controlled all aspects of their livelihood; it has shaped what started out as a practical item, became a tradable one, and has now been embraced by the entire fashion industry.
These highly sought-after sweaters reflect the economy and ecology of this remote island and the people who lived there.
Arbiters of fashion from the Duke of Windsor to GQ Style Guide’s Jim M have embraced Fair Isle.
While the traditional patterns are still being recreated, designers are interpreting the patterns and mechanics in new, more sustainable and fashionable ways.
There is a place for Fair Isle designs in every wardrobe: in the past, the present, and the future.