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What is Fair Isle Knitting?

Mary McMahon
Updated: Jan 29, 2024

Fair Isle knitting is a style of knitting which is used to create patterned garments. It was developed on Fair Isle, an island to the North of Scotland between Orkey and Shetland Islands. The knitting technique yields garments with dense multicolored patterns characteristic of the region and also associated with some Scandinavian nations. Demand for Fair Isle sweaters and other garments using the technique is high in many European countries, as well as in North America.

The skills needed for Fair Isle knitting are actually relatively minimal. Traditional Fair Isle knitting is done in the round, so the knitter only needs to know how to make a knit stitch and follow a pattern. Traditional Fair Isle knitting is accomplished with the use of two colors in each row. The knitter knits a stitch in the desired color and carries the other color behind, in a method called “stranding.” Because long strands could potentially catch on things, each block of color in Fair Isle knitting is very small. The result is a densely patterned, colorful garment.

Traditionally, residents of Fair Isle used plant extracts to dye their wool, creating subtle and muted colors of yarn. Knitters who continue to use traditional techniques make garments in subdued but beautiful shades, typically using wool. The introduction of synthetic colors and fibers has resulted in Fair Isle knitting with bright, vivid colors. Some young people prefer more vivid colors for their sweaters, while many older wearers tend to prefer more traditional and staid Fair Isle knitting.

The patterns used in Fair Isle knitting can vary. Simple geometric patterns are the most common, but some knitters also create plant and animal motifs. As a general rule, the pattern repeats itself both horizontally and vertically through the sweater, usually in a light thread against a darker thread. The color of the background thread usually changes through the rows, creating a subtle striped background for the lighter thread to stand out against.

In addition to sweaters, the Fair Isle knitting technique can also be used to produce socks, gloves, hats, and other knitted garments. Several knitting cooperatives on Fair Isle sell sweaters to people who want to support traditional crafts, and numerous off-island knitting communities also produce Fair Isle style garments. Knitters, of course, can also create their own Fair Isle garments, experimenting with different types of yarn and patterns. For knitters who are uncomfortable, a knitting group can help a knitter get started on a Fair Isle knitting project.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By bluespirit — On Oct 06, 2011

I have a couple fair isle knitted sweaters, which I have had for years, and I don't see me getting rid of any time soon. They are so warm. They are most appropriate for the late fall and winter months.

One of my fair isle knitted sweaters is made of wool, so I put a long sleeve shirt under it because I wool is too rough a texture and fabric for me. The other one is a cotton blend, and I love this one because it is so comfortable and I do not have to put a long sleeve shirt under it, unless I want to.

One of my fair isle knitted sweaters is more youthful, going by the article, because the geometric patterns are bright blue and green. My other fair isle knitted sweater is more muted, a dark grey and white patterned one. These sweaters go great with a trendy pair of jeans and boots. I like the fair isle sweaters with different geometric shapes, which is just my preference.

By Azuza — On Oct 06, 2011

@JessicaLynn - I think you could probably knit some kind of Fair Isle sweater in cotton and acrylic blend. If I were you, I'd look for a pattern that wasn't Fair Isle all the way down.

I bet you could find a nice patter for a sweater with a Fair Isle yoke, and it would come out fine in a cotton blend. I do agree that it might be too heavy to knit a whole cotton sweater in the Fair Isle technique though.

By JessicaLynn — On Oct 05, 2011

Unfortunately for me, wool really is the best for this kind of knitting. Wool is very springy, so you don't have to worry about the stranded yarn pulling your garment in weird ways.

I say this is unfortunate because I'm allergic to wool! I've never tried my hand at Fair Isle knitting, partly for this reason. I've seen some Fair Isle knitting done in cotton, and it just wasn't the same. I really like knitting in the round too, so this would probably be a perfect technique for me!

By SarahSon — On Oct 04, 2011

The easiest way for me to learn a new stitch when it comes to knitting is to have someone show me how it's done. This isn't always possible though, so I have learned to use pattern books and watch knitting videos online.

When I wanted to learn this style of knitting I ordered a fair isle knitting kit from Dale of Norway. This company sells kits that includes helpful instruction for this type of knitting.

My first project was a headband. This was a simple way to get the hang of it before going on to something bigger. Once I completed the headband, I made some matching mittens.

I love the patterns and bright colors that are often used in fair isle knitting and am glad I learned out to knit this style.

By bagley79 — On Oct 04, 2011

I have a lot of family history in Scotland, including a working bed and breakfast that is still run by some members of my family today.

A few years ago we traveled to Scotland and I saw many beautiful hand made knitted items on this trip. The art of fair isle knitting is well known here, and I could not leave without buying something.

There were so many unique and beautiful things to choose from, but I finally decided on a sweater. This is the warmest sweater I own and love wearing it on cold days. I get compliments every time I wear this sweater.

It is a wonderful reminder of my trip and those women who spend a lot of time doing fair isle knitting. I have never been a knitter, but really appreciate the time and effort that goes in to this craft.

By angelBraids — On Oct 03, 2011

@Valencia - My mother was into this too, but she never did her knitting from Fair Isle patterns. Instead she had some kind of machine that you fed a special stiff paper into. I remember it had holes punched out - this must have been how it created the design.

I think I still have a few of those creations lying around somewhere! I hardly ever see anyone making these things today, which is a pity. There's nothing like a nice pair of knitted socks to keep the cold out.

By Valencia — On Oct 03, 2011

I grew up in the 1970s and everyone seemed to wear a Fair Isle knit sweater in those days! Sadly I never got into this craft so I'm unable to try it myself. All my baby knitting needs were met by my mother I'm afraid.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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