It is time for the Longs Peak Scottish Irish Highlands Festival in Estes Park. One of the largest highland gatherings in the U.S., the festival is a fun celebration of all things Celtic. Bagpipes fill the air, and the town is festooned with colorful kilts. It gets me in the mood for knitting sweaters with Fair Isle patterns or hats and scarves full of cables. Since I am such a fan of classic and modern Fair Isle designs, I decided it was time to do a little digging into its origins. Is there an actual Fair Isle, and how did the technique develop?
Fair Isle is in the northernmost region of Scotland and is located between the Orkney and Shetland Mainland. Part of the Shetland Islands, it is only 1 ½ miles wide and 3 miles long, yet the beauty and culture of the island are as rich as the intricate knitting patterns they inspire. In addition to colorful sweaters, the Shetland Islands are also famous for Shetland lace. Some historians have speculated that the inspiration for Fair Isle patterns may have come from the extensive trading with Scandinavian, Nordic, and northern European countries in the 1500s, where stranded colorwork was common.
If you have looked for colorwork patterns, you have probably noticed some similarities between Nordic, Fair Isle, and Scandinavian designs. Fair Isle knitting is actually a technique; several colors are knitted together in a complex pattern. It is characterized by the use of two colors of yarn at a time, which are carried for a few stitches, thus resulting in short floats. You will recognize the common "OXO" motifs of Fair Isle designs, which are inspired by nature. Although only two colors are worked at one time, Fair Isle patterns can include overall designs of many colors. The pattern that I am knitting has four colors, but I have seen patterns that have more than 10. One such pattern, Leftovers Cowl by Wendy D. Johnson is in my queue. Notice, that although there are many colors, only two are used at a time. If you have leftover yarns, you can stretch your creative muscle by incorporating them into a Fair Isle pattern.
If you are interested in seeing and learning a little bit about the knitting culture of Fair Isle, check out this video. FAIR ISLE KNITTING: A Benjamin Burton Short Documentary. It might just inspire your next project. The film producer in this short film is dressed for the cold damp weather that frequents the area. Enjoy!