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The Art of Fair Isle Knitting

A Colorful History

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The Art of Fair Isle Knitting

The Art of Fair Isle Knitting by Ann Feitelson.

Interweave Press.

No one knows exactly how the stranded knitting patterns and techniques known today as Fair Isle knitting actually got to the Shetland Islands, though there are plenty of ridiculous theories. The most common is that the patterns were taught to islanders by the shipwrecked sailors from a Spanish Armada ship that was planning to invade England in 1588.

This story has been rebutted many times, but Ann Feitelson's version, told in her book The Art of Fair Isle Knitting: History, Technique, Color and Patterns explains that a little logic tells you this story isn't right. She notes that the islanders were not in any way welcoming to the Spaniards, and may have even drowned some of them because of the lack of food available. It's unlikely they sat down together long enough to teach the locals stranded knitting patterns.

About the Book

  • Pages: 184
  • Format: paperback
  • Number of patterns: 18
  • Skill level: none given, but most are best for intermediate to advanced knitters
  • Sizing: most garments have three or four sizes
  • Illustrations: full-color photographs
  • Knitting lessons: no knitting basics, but there are construction and finishing tips illustrated with drawings to help you learn the techniques
  • Publication date: 1996

Detailed Lessons in Fair Isle

Feitelson spends a lot of time writing about the history of Fair Isle knitting (which she says should more accurately be called Shetland knitting, since people throughout the islands did it, not just on Fair Isle) and how styles, patterns, colors and techniques evolved through the years.

At times natural-colored yarns were favored, while at others almost anything was considered fair game in terms of color. The shape of the sweaters changed, too, from the boxy pullovers of the 1920s to the ubiquitous circular-yoke cardigans of the 1960s.

This is information that might not be critical to your success at knitting your own Fair Isle garments, but it is interesting if you're a knitting geek or just like to feel connected to the knitters who came before you.

The chapter on techniques was surprising to me because it noted that -- like everywhere else, I suppose -- Shetlanders do not have a universal way of holding the yarn or working with two colors at once. Even steeking, which I think a lot of people think of as an essential part of Fair Isle knitting, is not performed by everyone.

So Feitelson provides an overview of some of the options and reminds that the main feature of Shetland knitting is speed. These knitters were paid to produce, and the more they could knit the more food could go on the table. So whatever method allowed the knitter to work most quickly would be adopted.

Next a chapter on color in Fair Isle knitting shows how different colors work together, how to arrange sequences and the ways different colors look when used in different places in the pattern. All of this will help when you're designing your own Fair Isle garments or colorways, but Feitelson suggests starting by knitting her patterns with the colors she chose because changing one color can make such a big difference in the look of the pattern.

These introductory sections are incredibly detailed and will take some time to read through, but you'll be rewarded with a deeper understanding of the Fair Isle knitting tradition and how colors work together to make these knit works of art.

The Patterns

The back of the book includes 18 patterns for pullovers, cardigans and vests for men, women and children. This section almost feels like an afterthought to me, not because the patterns aren't nice but because there's so much information in the rest of the book you almost feel like you don't need the patterns (though if they weren't there I'm sure I'd be complaining that there were no patterns!).

It could be I don't find these patterns necessary because I'm not sure there's anything here I would actually knit. That's more a statement on my knitting style than on the quality of the patterns -- I'm just not that into highly detailed, multicolored stranded garments.

That said it makes sense that my favorite patterns here are the ones with a smaller scale, such as the Cunningsburgh Gloves, which have a small sort of checkerboard pattern on the palms and a larger floral pattern on the front with plain single-color fingers and cuffs. I also like the King Harald Street Hats, which are still covered all over in color, but in a more manageable way because they're smaller projects. These are also interesting because they show the same pattern in three different colorways, which is a great way to see the difference a color change can make.

Of course, if you're into the traditional, rather boxy Fair Isle look, there are some good choices here, for men, women and children. I particularly like some of the men's vests and the Scalloway Yokes sweaters, because they're a little simpler and more toned-down that some of the full sweater patterns (and the yoked sweaters are plain, single-color Stockinette other than the yoke, so that little detail makes a big impact).

Bottom Line

If you like a little (or a lot!) of history with your knitting patterns, you're sure to enjoy The Art of Fair Isle Knitting. Sometimes when I write reviews of books like this I suggest that it would be OK to skip the introductory material and dive right into the patterns, but in this case I think it's important to read up on where Fair Isle came from, if for no other reason that to develop a sense of admiration of and appreciation for how hard these women worked when knitting these sorts of detailed sweaters was their job.

This book is also a good reference for anyone who wants to learn more about how color works and choosing colors with more confidence, for stranded knitting projects or any other kind of knitting you might be doing.

Best of all, this book does what I think the best knitting books do, which is to tie us back to the past and remind us that we are connected to all those long-ago knitters who developed the techniques, color combinations and patterns that we still love and use today.

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