What to look for to get an original Fair Isle sweater
Banana Republic straight houndstooth skirt, Hipstik tights, Harley Davidson booties, Eddie Bauer 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.


original Fair Isle sweater post banner

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 produced with yarn 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 either knitted in a round on circular a two pointed needle that has a flexible plastic middle and holds all the meshes of the sweater or one five double pointed needles. In this technique four needles hold about a fourth of the meshes and the fifth serves to knit the next quarter of a round. Both ways this technique limits how much can be knitted in a given color.

Example of Fair Isle sweater variation
This Eddie Bauer sweater is a Fair Isle sweater in the loose sense. It was produced with the technique, but it was not produced on the Shetlands.


To avoid loose strands or that buttons get caught in the strands, the knitter catches the yarn not in use by the yarn in use in such a way that it is invisible on the outside. Typically, this 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.

Not every Fair Isle is a Fair Isle

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 Fair Isle or Shetland sweater only refers to the origin of the knitting technique, but not to 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 that it refers to the pattern and technique, not the place of manufacture (see outfit inspiration photo).  Cheap mock versions of Fair Isle/Shetland sweaters have the pattern stitched onto the knit.

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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