The History of Fair Isle knitting in Shetland
Shetland Fair Isle knitting is a traditional knitting style that has a rich history and has become synonymous with the Shetland Islands, far north of Scotland. This distinctive style of knitting features a colourwork technique that involves using two colours in a single row or round of knitting, creating intricate designs that are both beautiful and functional. Very rarely, three colours are used in a row.
The origins of Shetland Fair Isle knitting can be traced back to the late 19th century, when a group of women in the Shetland Islands began to experiment with new knitting techniques. Shetland wool is highly prized for its softness and warmth, and knitters wanted to create new designs that would showcase the unique qualities of the wool.
They began to incorporate multiple colours into their knitting, using a technique known as stranded knitting, where background and pattern colours are skilfully blended, usually using just two colours in a row/round. This created a distinctive woven effect, which would become a hallmark of Shetland Fair Isle knitting.
At first, the patterns were simple and geometric, but as the technique evolved, the designs became more intricate and varied. The women of Shetland began to create sweaters, hats, and gloves featuring designs inspired by the natural world, such as stars, flowers, birds, and sea creatures.
The Rise of Shetland Fair Isle Knitting
As Shetland Fair Isle knitting gained popularity, it became a thriving cottage industry in the Shetland Islands. Knitters, mostly women, would sell their knitted items to local shops and visitors, and the intricate designs and high quality of the wool made these items highly sought after.
In the early 20th century, the popularity of Shetland Fair Isle knitting spread beyond the islands. In 1921, a collection of Shetland Fair Isle garments was exhibited at the British Industries Fair, where they were seen by fashion designers and buyers from around the world.
The popularity of Fair Isle knitting continued to grow, and in the 1930s, the fashion industry embraced the style, with designers such as Coco Chanel and Jean Patou creating their own interpretations of the traditional Shetland Fair Isle patterns.
Today, Shetland Fair Isle knitting is still practised by knitters in the Shetland Islands and around the world. The patterns continue to evolve, with contemporary designers incorporating new colour palettes and styles while still honouring the traditional techniques.
Preserving the Tradition of Shetland Fair Isle Knitting
In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in preserving the traditional techniques of Shetland Fair Isle knitting. Knitting groups and organizations in the Shetland Islands are working to teach the next generation of knitters the intricacies of the technique and to promote the use of locally sourced Shetland wool. ShetlandPeerieMakkers supports volunteers in schools and older learners can attend classes which are run from time to time by Adult Learning Shetland.
There are also efforts to document the history of Shetland Fair Isle knitting, including the development of a digital archive of Fair Isle knitting patterns and designs.
Shetland Fair Isle knitting remains a beloved tradition in the Shetland Islands and around the world, a testament to the skill and creativity of the knitters who developed this unique and beautiful style of knitting.
Shetland is the most northerly group of Scottish islands. Apart from mainland Scotland, the other near neighbours are Norway to the east and the Faroe Islands to the northwest.
It is a great place to visit - see www.shetland.org for more.
For those with a special interest in knitting, Shetland Wool Week is an annual festival celebrating Shetland wool and its associated crafts, including knitting, spinning, weaving, and dyeing.
Shetland Textile Museum and Unst Heritage Centre are open over the summer months and will open for at least part of Shetland Wool Week. Other museums throughout the islands usually have some knitwear on display too.
Shetland Arts and Crafts Association has many members who produce a wide variety of high-quality items, including knitting belts, knitted and woven accessories, knitted clothing, handspun yarns, handwoven materials, etc. The annual Craft Fair, held in November, is well worth a visit.
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