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Banana Republic straight houndstooth skirt, Hipstik tights, Harley Davidson booties, Eddie Bauer Fair Isle sweater

This post discussed the characteristics of an original Fair Isle sweater, its history and how to style it to look timeless.

  1. The Prince Initiated the Fair Isle Trend
  2. Fair Isle Knitting Technique
  3. Not Every Fair Isle Is a Fair Isle
  4. Wrapping Up the Characteristics of an Original Fair Isle Sweater


The Prince Initiated the Fair Isle Trend

Fair Isle sweaters became very popular when the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) wore Fair Isle sweater vests in 1921.


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Fair Isle or Shetland Sweater

The name Fair Isle refers to a traditional knitting technique named after the Fair Isle, an island belonging to the Shetland Islands north of Scotland. Therefore, many vendors also call their Fair Isle sweaters Shetland sweaters.

Fair Isle Knitting Technique

Fair Isle sweaters are knit sweaters with a pattern of different colors. Typically, Fair Isle patterns use a palette of about five different colors in total, and only two different colors per row. The sweaters are knitted in a round. This technique uses either a two pointed needle that has a flexible plastic middle to hold all the meshes of the sweater or on five double pointed needles. In the latter technique, four needles hold about one fourth of the meshes. The fifth serves to knit the next quarter of a round. Both ways limit how much a knitter can knit in a given color.

Example of Fair Isle sweater variation
This Eddie Bauer sweater is a Fair Isle sweater in the sense of using the original technique, but not in the sense of the production location.


To avoid loose strands or that the strands catch buttons, the knitter catches the yarn not in use by the yarn in use. This technique ensures that one can see the strands on the outside. Typically, catching of unused strands occurs when the yarn not in use for more than 3-5 stitches.

This knitting technique is very suitable to create an extra layer of insulation as five colors make for a lot of catching up of strands. Consequently, a lot of air is between the various strands and air is a great insulator. Consequently, the pullover protects the wearer from body heat loss around the upper chest.

Fair Isle Knitting Technique

Unfortunately, since the 1990s, vendors and designers use the term “Fair Isle” very loosely to any stranded color knitting. Concretely speaking this means that the name only refers to the origin of the knitting technique. It does not identify the place of manufacture anymore, nor that the production followed the traditional technique and/or pattern. I actually own one Fair Isle sweater in the loose sense. It has the original pattern and technique, but not the place of manufacture (see outfit inspiration photo). Cheap mock versions of Fair Isle/Shetland sweaters have the pattern stitched onto the knit.

Wrapping Up the Characteristics of an Original Fair Isle Sweater

To get an original, hand made Fair Isle sweater from the Shetland Islands look for the knit pattern and the tag. The pattern has yarn in the back to bridge between meshes that use the respective yarn. Its material consists of undyed sheep wool of different colors.

Have a look at another outfit with my Fair Isle sweater. You may be also interested in the fashion history posts on trench coats or duffle coats.

Photos: G. Kramm

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