Why has this misnomer continued? Blame it on the evolution of the English Language. The question remains, do we attempt to re-educate knitters on the correct titles for coloured or just accept the easy way out and call all stranded coloured knitting Fair Isle.
Here’s another fascinating “Tech Talk” article from Jude. He doesn’t mention this, but Fair Isle is a real place, an island in the Shetland group, way off the north coast of Scotland. If you’re a mystery fan, you may have read Ann Cleeves excellent Shetland series in which her main character, Jimmy Perez, is from Fair Isle.
Fair Isle: What’s in a Name
Knitting with two or more colour yarns dates to the earliest times of hand knitting. An example of this was a child’s sock from between 400-600 AD, that was found on a site in Egypt. Coloured knitting comes in a variety of techniques, including stripes, slipped stitch, intarsia, double knitting, embroidery and coloured stranded knitting.
While Fair Isle and Scandinavian are the best known of the coloured traditions, most knitting cultures have developed their own style and patterns. They can be found in regions around the world: the Andes in South America, the Cowichan/Salish in Canada, Albania and Bulgaria in the Balkans, Arabia, Egypt and most European countries.
Fair Isle patterns and garments were popularised in the 1920’s after the Prince of Wales played golf at St Andrews wearing a Fair Isle jumper. According to Richard Rutt in A History of Hand Knitting (1987) Fair Isle become part of the Jazz age. He wrote, “Since then Fair Isle has never gone out of fashion. Today almost any multicoloured knitting is called Fair Isle.” The practice of using Fair Isle as a generic term was well established by 1938 when the American author Mary Thomas wrote “Colour knitting in spite of its long and glorious past has become universally known as Fair Isle.”
The English author James Norbury wrote in 1962, “…although there is a tendency to call all forms of colour knitting ‘Fair Isle Knitting’, to do so is quite fallacious.” American author Barbara Walker wrote in 1968, “This type of knitting is generically termed Fair Isle knitting, although such a general application of the term is decidedly inaccurate.” The use of Fair Isle as a generic term is the reality, despite the best efforts of writers such as Norbury and Walker, the main problem being that many knitting writers perpetuate the fallacy.
Another interesting aspect of the shift in meaning has been the use of terms such as Mock Fair Isle and Fair Isle Technique. Pam Dawson in The Encyclopedia of Knitting (1984) writes “Mock Fair Isle knitting, on the other hand, is as new as the technology which made random-dyed yarn possible. The use of one random-coloured yarn to replace several yarns in contrasting colours is an exciting way of adapting old methods to create new efforts.” Mock Fair Isle is more accurately titled Jacquard knitting. In his recent book, Knitting with the Color Guys, Kaffe Fassett writes that all his two coloured stranded patterns can be knitted with ‘Fair Isle technique’. Many of Fassett’s patterns use this random-coloured yarn technique.
The clearest and most detailed description of traditional Fair Isle patterning came in A History of Hand Knitting by Richard Rutt (1987) “….the early patterns were all strictly horizontal bands of motifs, rarely each more than 15 rows deep. Bands of large motifs were divided by bands of smaller motifs, half or less the depth of the larger one. The separation of approximately circular motifs by four diagonal corners produced the familiar so-called OXO designs. (The X mostly had a vertical line through its centre.) A second early style of small geometrically patches covering the whole fabric has been called ‘diced’.”
Problems and confusion can result from common use of the title Fair Isle for coloured stranded knitted. Until 2011 in the knitting section of the Sydney Royal Easter Show, Jacquard garments were entered in the Traditional Fair Isle class. This resulted in garments being disqualified and removed from the class. A group of knitters approached the organisers in an effort to find a solution to this problem. In 2012 a new class, Jacquard, was added by the Royal Agricultural Society hand knitting section. The Fair Isle Class being described as, “Traditional Fair Isle should be as elastic as a single strand knitted fabric. No more than two colours in one row. Stranding method plus occasional weaving for long floats. Traditional small border and large patterns (horizontal or vertical), or all over patterns.” The Jacquard Class being described as, “Worked similarly to Fair Isle with yarns stranded or woven at the base of the work. Designs can be geometric or stylised natural forms e.g. flowers, animals. Some of the stitches can be in pattern rather than flat stocking stitch.”
Traditionally patterns were not written, but were taught orally and through working samples. The advent of the publication of knitting patterns threw up the challenge of having to give traditional patterns a title. This was not a problem when patterns were handed down by word of mouth. This problem with language has been a real challenge when it came to coloured knitting.
Can all coloured stranded knitting be accurately described as Fair Isle or Fair Style? Obviously not, to do so is to devalue all the other traditions of coloured stranded knitting. As a result of the way the English language evolves, for some knitters and publishers in the English speaking world the meaning/usage of the title, Fair Isle, has shifted. Through common usage the title has become the generic name for coloured stranded knitting. It is a good indication of the slippage of the term in the language.