Alice Starmore's Book of Fair Isle Knitting makes my head hurt in a good way. As she rightly says, it reveals all the "trade secrets" of a master Fair Isle knitter, making it possible for even knitters with little stranded knitting experience to knit with confidence and even design their own projects using traditional motifs.
It's that part of the book in particular that is rather mind-boggling, but with practice and patience anyone can use this book to develop the Fair Isle design of their dreams.
The History of a Tradition
This book had me chuckling from the very beginning because Starmore calls her first chapter "A brief history." This "brief" look back at the traditions of Fair Isle takes 30 pages, which is a pretty good indication of what's to come. Everything is explained in a lot of detail.
This section of the book is really interesting, as she attempts to discover how the stranded knitting tradition came to Fair Isle (which is a real place, in the Shetland Islands of Scotland). She explores the theories of how these relatively isolated islanders might have picked up stranded knitting and developed their motifs.
The real answer to this question is unknown, but it's interesting to think about how different knitting traditions and techniques -- not just Fair Isle knitting -- traveled around the world and were altered by different people who picked them up.
How to Make Fair Isle Knitting
Starmore goes on to cover the basics of what goes into a traditional Fair Isle knitting design: pattern, color and technique.
The patterns of Fair Isle knitting are quite traditional, often symmetrical, and use just two colors of yarn per row, though there may be many more colors through a whole project.
Motifs for Fair Isle knitting can generally be divided into the categories of peeries (very small patterns), borders, seeds, waves and peaks, Norwegian stars and allover patterns, which can be combined in infinite ways to produce Fair Isle garments.
The book includes a good selection of charted motifs and instruction on how to create your own pattern from these motifs, including information on converting charts to be worked in the round (with or without a steek).
Starmore goes on to describe in a general way how color can be used in Fair Isle patterns. There's no discussion of the color wheel or color theory here, and most of the chapter is made up of pictures of scenes and the Fair Isle colorations they inspired.
Finally, a section on techniques explores how to knit a garment in the round, the importance of proper gauge and the basics of knitting a Fair Isle project.
Alice Starmore's Book of Fair Isle Knitting also includes 12 patterns, which look a little dated now (the book originally came out in 1988) but still provide a good grounding in the basics of Fair Isle knitting. There are ganseys, cardigans, vests, a jacket and a set of a "tammy" (tam o'shanter), mittens and gloves.
The Child's Pattern Gansey, worked in a dark blue with pastel heart and diamond motifs, is particularly striking and would be a great project for a knitter today.
What's even better than these patterns is the lengthy section on creating your own Fair Isle designs, which takes readers through Starmore's seven-step process for developing a pattern using Fair Isle motifs.
It's not a simple process, and there is a lot of math involved, but if you can stick with it and follow her clear directions, you'll be able to make a project that's completely individual.
The section includes valuable information about things such as properly centering motifs on a sweater, designing a hat, working neck shaping, sweater variations, different shapes and proper yarn choices.
Armed with this information knitters can be confident they'll produce a successful Fair Isle garment.
Knitters interested in designing their own Fair Isle projects must have a copy of Alice Starmore's Book of Fair Isle Knitting on their shelf. Even if you never make a full sweater of your own design, the motif charts provide plenty of inspiration to slip into a published pattern that might be a little plain.
The book is less useful for knitters who only want to work from patterns. As mentioned above, the projects look like they're from the '80s (because they are) and might not be the sorts of things knitters want to knit today.
But the book is still fun for knitters who want a deeper understanding of Fair Isle knitting, where it comes from and how it might have developed, even if they never design their own patterns.
Publication date: 1988 (original Tauton Press edition), September 2009 (Dover edition)