‘A bright green spot like an emerald on the wide ocean, this place is quite a little world in itself’ – Catherine Sinclair, Shetland and the Shetlanders, 1840
Fair Isle could be a child’s imagining of a remote northern island: tiny, cliff-girt, isolated on a vast sea beneath a vaster sky – sometimes a verdant rock set in glittering waters beneath a summer sun that barely sets, sometimes a grim refuge marooned in the roiling fury of a north Atlantic storm. Less than 3 square miles in area and with a population of only 55 souls, it lies alone - 27 miles northeast of Orkney, 24 miles southwest of Shetland.
In the past the population was larger. There was a little trade – or rent was paid - in fish oil, butter, cloth. The men fished and worked their crofts and the women spun the wool from their sheep and knitted – and, of course, it is this intricately patterned knitting tradition that has made the island famous.
The wool from the tough Shetland sheep is warm and resilient, softens with use and takes dyestuffs well. Technically, the construction of Fair Isle garments is in the tradition of fisherman jerseys – or guernseys or ganseys – that stretches all around the coasts of the British Isles: garments knitted in the round, constructed seamlessly. But the Shetland wool is woollier than the smooth 5 ply worsted used for ganseys and, while the latter tend to be plain navy blue decorated with textured motifs, Fair Isle knits are beautifully, subtly multi- coloured.
There is much debate about the origins of Fair Isle knitting. Some say it arrived with shipwrecked sailors in 1588 when a galleon from the Spanish Armada was blown onto the island – but this seems unlikely: there are too many stories from around our coasts of this or that local tradition beginning with an Armada shipwreck, folk memory conflating a local particularity with what must have been, to a small community, an outstanding event. Rather, we give our ancestors too little credit for general intelligence, inquisitiveness, travel, trade. As long ago as the Neolithic the Orkneys and Shetlands were centres of a culture.
Much later they were important Viking strongholds – the Vikings who ruled much of Britain from York, the Isle of Man, Dublin; who traded from Scandinavia west to Greenland and North America and east, through the rivers of Russia, into the Black Sea, the eastern Mediterranean and Asia. Individuals and peoples have always traded, travelled, migrated.
Thus the basic motifs of Fair Isle knitting – the cross, the diamond, the diagonal cross – can be found in textile arts from Japan to India to Hungary to Guatemala. They seem to come from a worldwide, subconscious decorative vocabulary. But put these common elements together with local particularities and something unique emerges: the particularities in this case being Shetland wool in varying natural colours, the availability of natural dyestuffs and, perhaps, a sensibility developed in the wild, island environment.
In Fair Isle knitting, at a technical level, two colours are used on each patterned row – but one of the two colours is changed every row: thus row one might be dark blue and red, row two dark blue and rose pink, row three light blue and rose pink – and so on. This constant changing of the colours gives a graduated, tonal effect that can be bright or pale, naturally coloured or heathery – infinitely variable but always subtle.
Our Fair Isle pullover this autumn, on the other hand, is deliberately not subtle. Rather, we’ve riffed on the tradition, using traditional elements – a patterned yoke, Fair Isle motifs, a Scottish-spun lambswool seamlessly knitted for us in a Scottish mill – but instead of using a myriad of toning colours we’ve only used two strongly contrasting ones. You could think of it as punk Fair Isle – but somehow the tradition in the wool and the construction balance the punk boldness. Perhaps, again, it’s another (very tiny and insignificant) product of the ethno-cultural currents and blendings that encircle our ever smaller-seeming but still infinitely wonderful world. We should celebrate them.
Words by James Seaton
Shop the TOAST Fair Isle Sweater.