^ Commercially-knitted Fair Isle bobble hat, early twentieth century, wool; acc. no. TEX 8944
© Shetland Museum and Archives

Like Shetland lace’s origins in knitted stockings, Fair Isle knitting developed from practical garments made for fishermen from or visiting Fair Isle. Its early patterns and colours were affected by locally-available wool and natural dyestuffs, but also by influences and goods from Scandinavian and Baltic countries whose ships used the busy sea routes of the North Atlantic.

The Fair Isle-patterned beret, or tam o’ shanter, below dates from the late 1860s, and is one of the oldest pieces of traditional Fair-Isle-patterned knitting in existence. The wool has been hand-spun, hand-dyed in typical ‘Fair Isle’ colours and hand-knitted.

Beret, Fair Isle, 1860s, wool
© Shetland Museum and Archives

^ Pair of Fair Isle-knitted gloves, 1910s, naturally-coloured wool; acc. no. TEX 1994.358
© Shetland Museum and Archives

The early twentieth-century gloves pictured here are made with naturally-coloured wool and show a popular motif used for gloves and socks.

Fair Isle-knitted sock, 1910s, naturally-coloured wool; acc. no. TEX 1995.100
© Shetland Museum and Archives

^ Knitting sheaths, Shetland, early twentieth century
© Shetland Museum and Archives

These brightly-coloured objects were once used by Shetland knitters to help them to knit faster. They were made by seamen in their spare time, a product of their rope-splicing skills. In earlier times sheaths were made from bundles of straw bound with twine and called ‘wisps’, since ‘wisp’ is a word for loose straw. The braided sheaths were gradually replaced by leather knitting belts at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The narrow end of the knitting sheath was tucked into the right side of the knitter’s skirt or apron, and the knitting needle was inserted into the open end among the quills. This freed up the knitter’s right hand and enabled them to knit much faster.

Bartering of knitted items by islanders with those who visited Fair Isle in the nineteenth century led to the growing appeal of brightly-coloured and intricately-patterned garments as souvenirs, particularly large geometric designs in reds and blues. The scarf in the centre is a traditional Fair Isle scarf, knitted in 1915. The other two examples were knitted on the Shetland Mainland around the same time and are Shetland-patterned scarves, but clearly influenced by Fair Isle.

^ Scarf from Fair Isle (centre), 1915, and two Shetland-patterned scarves, c. 1915, wool
© Shetland Museum and Archives

Fair Isle knitting’s fashionable status is attributed to Edward, Prince of Wales (1894-1972), who wore a jumper as part of his golfing attire at St Andrews in 1922. As a nod to its popularity and island origins, Stanley Cursiter painted the model Roberta Farquharson in The Fair Isle Jumper in 1923, and the Prince of Wales’ 1925 portrait by John Saint-Helier Lander (1869-1944) depicted him, with characteristic informality, wearing the jumper he had made famous.

^ Stanley Cursiter, The Fair-Isle Jumper, 1923, oil on canvas; acc. no. CAC250/1964
© Estate of Stanley Cursiter. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2020.
Photo Credit: Museums & Galleries Edinburgh – City of Edinburgh Council

Two soldiers from the British anti-aircraft unit stationed on Fair Isle are pictured with Miss Agnes Wilson of Shirva, sister of the Methodist lay preacher, who is sitting in a Fair Isle straw-back chair. A finished jumper hangs above the fire. This photo appeared in The New York Times, 10th November 1943, with the caption, ‘A fireside chat at the “Edge of the World”‘.

^ Miss Agnes Wilson with British soldiers, Fair Isle, 1943
© Shetland Museum and Archives

^ Jumper, Fair Isle, 1920s, wool
© Shetland Museum and Archives

^ Knitting pattern, THULEKNIT Genuine Shetland Fair Isle Slipover, 1950s; acc. no. TRA 1997.158
© Shetland Museum and Archives

While genuine Fair Isle refers to knitwear made on the island, it has become a generic term for designs of this type. Like Shetland knitted lace, Fair Isle patterns were also published all over the country so that skilled knitters could produce their own versions at home.

The demand for Fair Isle meant that hand- and machine-knitters throughout Shetland were producing garments commercially, often to supplement their income. It was also becoming usual for Fair Isle-knitwear to be commissioned, with requests for items that islanders might not find appealing themselves.

^ Women hand-spinning and knitting, with Fair Isle jumpers being stretched on jumper boards behind. From left to right: Chrissie Summers, Grace Cogle, Jessie Cogle née Robertson, Lizzie Robertson, Katie Williamson and Christina Anderson, photographed by E. Sinclair
© Shetland Museum and Archives

View the 1932 film In Sheep’s Clothing about Shetland knitters here at the National Library of Scotland.

By the 1960s the knitwear industry was partly-mechanised, with machine-made bodies and hand-finishing being both popular and economic to produce.

^ Jumper, Fair Isle, 1960s, wool
© Shetland Museum and Archives

^ Knitted garment label, Shetland
© Shetland Museum and Archives

It was also usual to stitch labels into garments before sale in Shetland or elsewhere to indicate its genuine provenance.

^ Kathleen Niven (née Jamieson), knitting on a machine at her home in Levenwick, Sandwick parish,
photographed by C. Williamson
© Shetland Museum and Archives

^ Interior of Judane Knitwear, Lerwick, with a man working at a knitting machine, 1980s
© Shetland Museum and Archives

Fair Isle Knitting – interview with Maggie Ann Nicholson
Keiba Films