Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Fair Isle technique
Fair Isle knitting is a traditional two-stranded knitting technique in which geometric patterns are created within the fabric by switching back and forth between balls of different colored yarn from stitch to stitch. Traditionally only two colors are used in any given row, but more colored can be used throughout the garment or fabric. This technique is often confused with, compared with, and contrasted with Intarsia.
From the Shetland Museum Website: http://www.shetland-museum.org.uk
"Fair Isle is well known as a knitting method and a pattern type. Real Fair Isle patterns are built up in horizontal bands, by knitting two coloured yarns in each row. The motifs are clearly defined by careful selection of colours.
Fair Isle is associated with patterned woollen garments, hats, gloves and scarves; hand knitted for centuries in the small island of Fair Isle which lies halfway between Shetland and Orkney.
Unfortunately the term "Fair Isle" is now used to describe a patterned knitted woollen fabric of any origin, quality or pattern definition. The oldest pieces of real Fair Isle knitting are usually brightly coloured, in clearly defined geometric patterns in indigo blue, madder red, Shetland black, yellow and natural white.
Before trading brought indigo and madder to Shetland, plants and lichens were used to dye the yarns...
For many centuries passing ships traded goods for knitted articles with the people of Fair Isle. This trade was important so it was essential to maintain knitting skills in the island. The techniques of plant and lichen dyeing, spinning and patterned knitting were passed down through generations of Fair Isle women.
In 1799 the women of Fair Isle were recorded "spinning excellent linen yarn and having dexterity in manufacturing their fine soft wool into stockings, gloves, nightcaps, and other wearing apparel".
Shetland merchants advertising in the 1800s sold "Fair Isle" and "Shetland" articles regularly. When Shetland Knitting was exhibited in the Great Exhibition of 1851, Fair Isle knitting from the island was listed as: Fair Isle socks; gloves, vest piece, comforter and cap.
Fair Islanders traded their knitting with merchants in both Shetland and Orkney.
In 1922 a Fair Isle patterned garment was included in a package of knitting sent to Princess Mary as a wedding gift. The Prince of Wales was photographed playing golf in the garment and caused an accidental promotion of Fair Isle knitting as fashionable sportswear. It became acceptable for women to take part in active sports, so the new fashion market for Fair Isle included garments for both sexes.
The new demand for hand knitted Fair Isle garments gave higher prices and work of a different kind to many Shetland knitters who had previously supplied plain knitted articles like socks, shawls and vests. It benefited knitters and Merchants alike and formed the basis of the Shetland knitwear industry of the 20th century. All over Shetland, knitters adapted to new techniques and many made their own collections of Fair Isle patterns.
This was one of the most creative periods for knitters of Fair Isle garments. Patterns were varied and complicated. Although silk was knitted in Fair Isle in the late 1800s, new yarns, e.g. "knitting silk" or rayon were knitted into the contemporary shapes and styles of the 20s and 30s. The Museum collection reflects the developments in this era.
It was fashionable in Shetland in the 1920s for young girls to knit Fair Isle. They attended classes to learn new techniques. They played badminton and brought knitting along to occupy themselves between games."
There are a number of books on the topic, including the following: The Art of Fair Isle Knitting: History, Technique, Color and Pattern by Ann Feitelson
Traditional Fair Isle Knitting by Sheila McGregor
Alice Starmore's Book of Fair Isle Knitting by Alice Starmore
Aran and Fair Isle Knitting: Patterns, Techniques, and Stitches by Debra Mountford (Editor)
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