Fair Isle knitting is a traditional knitting technique used to create rows of geometrical patterns in multiple colours.
It is named after the tiny Scottish island of Fair Isle where the women of the island originally developed the technique. Fair Isle is one of the Shetland Islands and is the most remote inhabited islands in the UK, lying halfway between mainland Shetland and Orkney.
Traditional Fair Isle knitting uses a limited palette of around five colours and never more than two colours in any one row. Most patterns consist of small motifs repeated across the piece.
Because the colour changes are close together, as the coloured yarns are changed, the unused colour is carried across the back of the work rather than tied and cut off. This effectively creates a double layer which makes Fair Isle knits particularly warm.
Nowadays, the term Fair Isle is often used to describe any knitting where colour changes are frequent and where the yarns are carried or stranded across the wrong side of the work.
Technically, this kind of knitting should really be called stranded colourwork and the term Fair Isle should be reserved to describe patterns characteristic of the Shetland Islands.
At each knit stitch, there are two active colours of yarn. One is drawn through to make the stitch while the other is held behind the piece. Traditional Fair Isle patterns usually had no more than two or three consecutive stitches of any one colour, to avoid creating a very long strand of the other colour which could be easily snagged.
A modern variation of Fair Isle knitting involves weaving the unused strand into the back of the piece. This enables the knitter to create larger blocks of colour.
Fair Isle knitting became popular when the Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII, wore Fair Isle tank tops in the early 1920s.
There are still makers living in the Shetland Islands who knit clothing with local Shetland wool using traditional Fair Isle knitting patterns. Many also create new designs in contemporary colourways and will knit items to order.
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