The Myths and Mysteries of “Fair Isle” Knitwear

Written by Cassandra Milani

Colour photo of Fair Isle knitted cap, late 19th century from the Shetland Museum Textile Collection. Photograph by Cassandra Milani.
Man’s fisherman’s cap. Late 19th century. Shetland Museum Textile Collection. (Photograph author’s own)

“Fair Isle” stranded colourwork is one of the most recognizable knitting traditions in the world today, yet its precise history remains one of the least understood. In an age obsessed with origin stories, “Fair Isle” knitting has nothing concrete, only romanticized and debunked myths about the Spanish Armada.

For my MLitt dissertation a few years ago, I aimed to (at least partially) address this gap, which, considering how famous “Fair Isle” style knitwear is today, puzzled me. I decided to focus on the production, marketing, and trade of “Fair Isle” knitwear on and off Fair Isle between 1872 and 1921.

The year 1872 marked the passing of the Truck Act. This momentous law prohibited the widespread barter-truck system of trade throughout Shetland, which had been detrimental to the island’s knitters. This was also a time when the wider public still perceived colourful “Fair Isle” knitwear as a curiosity rather than a commodity. It wasn’t until 1921 that fashionable women began to wear the “Fair Isle” style jersey, which was previously reserved for men. This trend marked a major shift in customer and production needs. Because of the Prince of Wales’s highly publicized role in popularizing the style a few years later, few realise that the style was already fashionable – albeit it in a minor way – prior to his patronage.

Portrait of the Prince of Wales by John St Helier Lander, 1925 (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
Portrait of the Prince of Wales by John St Helier Lander, 1925 (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Throughout this time period, the name “Fair Isle” functioned as a sort of brand that sustained the hosiery industry on the island. The success of this brand relied on the island’s lack of mechanization and was often marketed as ‘primitive’ in the modern age of industrialization. For instance, while many romanticized the idea that Fair Islanders used lichen to dye their own hand-spun yarn, this was not necessarily always the case. Isbister & Co.’s records indicate that Fair Isle’s only shop occasionally imported dyes such as madder (and potentially synthetic dyes – the horror!) as early as 1878, as well as pre-spun skeins of wool yarn as early as 1891.

Colour photograph of Fair Isle scarves, 20th century, from the Shetland Museum Textile Collection. Photograph by Cassandra Milani, used to illustrate blog, The Myths and Mysteries of Fair Isle Knitwear.
Scarves. 20th century. Shetland Museum Textile Collection. (Photograph author’s own)

Nonetheless, from 1921 onward Fair Isle’s hand-knit hosiery industry could not meet the demands of the style’s growing international popularity. Manufacturers in other parts of Britain took advantage of this gap by producing knock-off, machine-made versions of the Fair Isle originals. As a result, by the 1920s much of the knitwear labelled or marketed as “Fair Isle” was no longer produced on Fair Isle, or anywhere in Shetland.

When piecing together fragments of “Fair Isle” knitwear’s early history, photographs also offered glimmers of hope. For example, the Coats family’s sponsorship of the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition in 1902-04 included pieces of “Fair Isle” knitwear for all crew members. While these knits were captured in expedition photographs, no written records of the knitwear’s purchase have yet been found (perhaps one day…I can dream!)

My research into the early history of knitting on Fair Isle only scratches the surface. The extant written and object records, especially prior to 1872, are now as sparse as the interactions between Fair Isle and the rest of the world once were. There are still so many questions to answer, but the lack of surviving records mean that many will likely go unanswered.