Fair Isle Knitwear

Fair Isle is a small island off the coast of Scotland, not much more than seven square kilometers in area. Quite secluded but nevertheless inhabited, this jewel of the Shetland archipelago is known for its variety of migratory birds as well as for a notorious history of maritime and air disasters occurring there over the centuries.
Most importantly, Fair Isle is celebrated for its eponymous knitwear, a traditional method pioneered by the inhabitants of the island. This variety of jacquard seems to date to the 16th century, when a Spanish galleon shipwrecked on Fair Isle, stranding an entire crew dressed in outfits bearing Moorish motifs. Attracted to the resistance and thickness of these uniforms, the women of Fair Isle were inspired to reproduce them to dress their husbands, taking care to vary their designs so that if their sailor husbands were lost at sea, identifying them would be next to foolproof. The technique, taught by the Iberian survivors of the stranded wreck and transmitted ever since from generation to generation, is detailed and complex: up to twelve colors (with only two per row) produce designs that vary from row-to-row in the knitting; the heart of the pattern may, additionally, be in a different hue altogether. The aesthetic diversity of ornamentation in Fair Isle is the result of the various cultural influences that have flowed through this historical port of passage.
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It wasn’t until 1921 that this insular product passed beyond the borders of the island, and even the country, when The Prince of Wales and eventual Duke of Windsor Edward VIII publicly wore a knitted Fair Isle vest.
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Today, the industrial production of Fair Isle knitting has largely supplanted local artisans and the motif makes regular appearances on fashion runways and the racks of major retailers, yet none of these mass-produced products has ever passed through the Shetlands. It has gotten to the point where the term “Fair Isle” has become generic: it describes, incorrectly, a pattern inspired by the original but no longer linked to the local, ancestral know-how with which it is associated. Some are seeking a legal protection of the term – similar to the legislation in place for “Harris Tweed” – in order to avoid the devaluation of their heritage. Others, more optimistically, are finding an upside to the ubiquitous misuse of the term, which has brought “Fair Isle” into the public consciousness at a time when the last few holders of the secrets of this technique are already over 70 years old and knitting lessons have been removed from the school program by Parliament.