Fair Isle and Aran Knittingby Deborah V. Gardner
Traditional Knitting from the British Isles
This paper was written as part of the Master Knitting, Level III, program. Last revision, October 22, 2013,
Knitted fabrics are fragile and do not withstand the elements or time. So it is hard to determine, with any certainty, the origins of knitting or various traditional knitting styles. (1) Historians use available documentation and samples to best guess the origins of these styles, often using local lore to fill in the blanks.
Fair Isle Knitting
Fair Isle knitting was developed in the British Isles, specifically Fair Isle. (2) Fair Isle is the third largest of the Shetland Isles and is located between the Orkneys and the Shetlands to the north of Scotland. (3) Its population of about 400 in 1900 steadily declined to about 70 people today. (4)The Shetland Islands were a crossroads for traders from the Baltic and North Seas. (5) As with any crossroads, visitors were diverse--from the Vikings in the ninth century to the Germans in the 18th century. (6)
The sheep that are native to the Shetlands are small and hardy. They are known for their very fine wool, as well as for meat. The breed has survived in difficult conditions and do well in better conditions; they are easier to care for than many of the newer breeds of sheep. (7)
In the mid-seventeenth century, the islands were annexed to Scotland by James II. This is probably when "knitting began to flourish as a cottage industry." (8) Knitting as a cottage industry thrived for many cultures until the Industrial Revolution, which led to cheaper hosiery and stockings, so knitters lost the earnings that came from knitting.
Fair Isle knitting has existed since at least 1681. Coins dating from that year were found with knitting in a peat bog. How did the technique arrive at Fair Isle? Was it from the Moors of Spain? After all, a ship from the Spanish Armada was shipwrecked in 1588. Was it from a traveler or trader from the Baltic States where stranded knitting was more advanced and dyes readily available? (9) A fanciful claim was made by author Heinz Edgar Kiewe. In his book, Creative Dressing, he stated that the Vikings created an early version of the Fair Isle sweater which they copied from the Berber carpets found in North Africa. (10)
The earliest museum pieces of Fair Isle date from 1850 but are not knit with Shetland wool. Later pieces clearly display experimenting with patterns and colors. Though the knitters on the Shetland Islands adapted the OXO, star and tree motifs from other countries, they developed their own shapes and patterns and elaborated with colors. Color change within the design became a hallmark of Fair Isle knitting. (11)
As the 20th century dawned, Fair Isle knitting was still a novelty, something tourists purchased as souvenirs. After World War I and the dawning of the era of the flapper, clothes became more comfortable. People were liberated from stiff collars and corsets and began to wear comfortable, practical clothes. In 1921, the Prince of Wales, (12) later Edward VIII, was presented with a Fair Isle sweater which he wore in public. That one event was probably the most important in the history of Fair Isle knitting. (13)
World War II brought many servicemen from other countries to this little isle on a crossroad. These men had the money to spend and boosted the economy. More artistic freedom and "increased mastery of colors and patterns" were realized. The number of patterns developed increased also. (14)
The oil years of 1970 brought a decline to the knitting industry on Fair Isle. Machine knitted sweaters had little imagination. With the oil boom, workers had more disposable income so the knitters did not need a cottage industry to manage their economic households. Fortunately, in the 1980s hand knitting regained popularity in Great Britain and with it, Fair Isle. (15)
Fair Isle knitting is back in fashion. Amazon.com lists scores of Fair Isle books. Yarn shops have classes in the technique. Articles in knitting magazine abound. TKGA's master knitting program has two Fair Isle components.
To be defined as Fair Isle, there should be no more than two colors per row and these colors should change frequently. Patterns are symmetrical. They contain diagonal lines to produce a firm fabric that is elastic. (18) These diagonal lines distribute the tension over the pattern by varying the points where the yarns are changed. (19) With the exception of yoked sweaters Fair Isle designs generally have little or no plain knitting. Plain ribbing is also unusual. (19a)
The foreground or background colors may change, even within the same pattern. (19a)
Most Fair Isle patterns have an odd number (20) of rows. (21) Peeries are small patterns that can be between one and seven rows and are used to separate larger bands of patterns. Border patterns generally have 9 to 15 rows. Larger patterns usually have more than 15 rows and are based on the OXO design element. Norwegians stars always have the same number of rows and stitches and are primarily used on gloves, mittens and circular yoke sweaters. Seeding patterns are used as "filler" and are very small. Patterns that use shades of color from light to dark are called waves and peaks. Allover patterns consist of blocks or squares repeated continuously. (22)
Knitting Fair Isle
Using circular needles to knit in the round is the "most sensible" way to knit Fair Isle. Since the right side is always facing the knitter, the pattern presents itself and mistakes are easier to avoid. If working from the back, the knitter sees only the floats. (23)
Gauge rears its head with Fair Isle. It is very important to measure gauge after wet blocking the swatch. Wetting and blocking changes the gauge, as well as the look and feel of the fabric. The knitter can also be certain that the colors will not bleed. (24)
It is important to pick up the strands in the same order throughout the project. Place one color on one side and the other color on the other side. If holding a color in each hand, knit the same color with the same hand. (25) Some knitters hold both yarns in one hand. Others knit with one color then drop and pick up the other yarn; this will twist the yarn and slow down the knitter.
To create the dense, warm fabric, floats should be short. If a float is more than 5 to 7 stitches, the yarn should be twisted around the strand not in use. (26) The maximum number of stitches to float the yarn is 13 stitches and these should be infrequent. (27)
If stranded knitting is worked on every row, the row and stitch gauge should be the same, i.e., 6 rows x 6 sts = 1 inch. This is because Fair Isle knitting produces a dense fabric, making a tighter gauge. Any plain area of more than 2 rows should be worked on smaller needles. (28)
The Future of Fair Isle Knitting
No one can predict the future but knitting trends, like all trends, come and go and then enjoy a resurgence.
Fair Isle will, undoubtedly, be no different. With the myriad of patterns and the beautiful colors and blends
available in yarns today, people will continue to employ color in their knitting. Sometimes, it will be popular;
sometimes it will not; but there will always be knitters who enjoy the challenge and delight of working in color.
Often a historically accurate movie is considered boring by audiences so movie makers produce films that are “based on a true story.” Therefore, productions such as The Alamo (1960) or The Hatfields and McCoys (2012) are embellished with fictionalized elements and are well received by the viewing audience. Knitting history, it appears, has also been embellished to help romanticize the art form.
As a teenager, I enjoyed knitting sweaters. One day, the Yarn Shoppe (a store located on Main Street, Mansfield, MA) had a new knitting book, The Bernat Book of Irish Knits, for $1. I knitted quite a few of the garments in this book and it still graces my bookshelf. In its introduction, we read that “Every stitch originated long ago in the cottages of Ireland's Galway coast and the Aran Islands. Every pattern tells Irish tales, in its symbols of life, faith, family and work; symbols of the sea, the rocks and the hills.” (29) I believed this and I also believed that the patterns of “fisherman knit sweaters,” as we called them, were so unique that a family member could identify her dead fisherman by his sweater when he washed to shore. (30)
The Aran Islands are comprised of three islands located in Galaway Bay off the west coast of Ireland. (31) Though fishing was a major industry of the islands, there is no evidence that Aran sweaters were ever worn by the islands' fishermen. (32)
According to the Aran Sweater Market, which has a shop on the Aran Islands and another in Killarney, Aran sweaters have a long and proud tradition. Each family had its own unique stitches which were jealously guarded. (33) The cable stitch is purported to represent a fisherman's ropes and the wish for a bountiful harvest at sea. The diamond pattern represents the desire for wealth. Zig zag cables depict the twisting paths of the cliffs on the islands. (34)
It seems that the Aran Sweater Market, Ms. Kasman, (the author of the introduction in the Bernat book) and I, as well as countless others, were wrong.
Alice Starmore, author of several knitting books, has painstaking researched the history of the Aran knitting traditional and believes one person adapted the Scottish fisher gansey into what has evolved into what we call “Aran sweater” design. (35) Most historians do agree that the Aran sweater is a 20th century invention, possible invented by a group of women to earn income. They adapted the gansey by using thicker wool and modifying the construction, thereby decreasing labor costs and increasing productivity. (36)
The popularity of the Aran sweater is often attributed to Pádraig Ó Síocháin, an Irish journalist and author. He arrived in the 1950s and fell in love with the islands and its people and traditions and recorded life on the islands on film. (37) He helped organize the teaching of knitters to learn to meet international sizing standards and commissioned Seán Keating, an Irish artist, to design marketing brochures for Aran sweaters. (38)
Today, most commercially available Aran sweaters are machine knit using finer wool than hand loomed or hand knits. The most complex patterns can be achieved only with hand knits and command a premium. (39)
Common elements of an Aran sweater are saddle shoulders, a wide center cable panel, narrow side cable panels and filler stitch. (40) Purists think that a “true” Aran sweater should include saddle shoulders; some people think that saddle shoulders make the wearer look like a football player. (41) These designs can include 3-, 4-, 5- and 7-stitch bobbles. The design is usually symmetrical. (42)
The sweater is knit in pieces and seamed together. A classic component of the sweater is undyed, heavy,
cream-colored wool, (43) though other types of yarn and colors are often employed. Light colors are generally used
to show off the patterning. (44) For those of us who enjoy lots of color in our knitting, an Aran sweater might
include some Fair Isle or cables of different colors using intarsia. (45)
My old Bernat book’s patterns were all written instructions. Today, many patterns include both written instructions and charts. When I hear a knitter say that she “just cannot understand a chart,” I gently remind her that at one time she probably did not understand a knitting pattern. Charts give the knitter a visual representation of the stitches and, when accompanied by good instructions for the various stitches, can be much easier to follow.
From the most basic cable to the more complex, we usually think of cables as being composed of stitches always crossing and recrossing to make ropes of cables. The first cable I knitted for Master Knitting Level I was the classic Honeycomb Cable from that old Bernat fisherman knit book. In that pattern, stitches were crossed and then came together to be crossed a few more rows up the pattern.
Closed-ring designs begin and end the cabling on a field of reverse stockinette stitch. Barbara G. Walker’s Charted Knitting Designs has several cables where, after several rows of reverse stockinette stitch, an increase to 5 stitches from 1 is made to begin the cable. To end the design, five stitches are knitted together. The result looks very much like an unbroken circle. (46)
Cable designs can be grafted to create the illusion of an unbroken column of stitches curving back into itself. This might involve weaving purl to purl, knit to knit and knit to purl. (47) Since the Kitchener stitch is a challenge for many, this can take a little practice and pain-staking attention to the stitches.
Plaits and braids are common in Aran sweaters. Plaits are in multiples of three and always cross each other, never moving into the background. Braids are not confined to crossing the same set of stitches and move across a background. These are less denser than plaits. Plaits are often used to separate large elements in the sweater. Braids can be wide enough to use as the center panel. (48)
Diamonds are very popular; I used diamonds filled with moss stitch in my Aran sweater design. They can be narrow or wide. One, two, or three diamonds might be used together. They can be filled with a variety of stitches to add texture. (49)
Bobbles are used in many Aran sweater designs. Bobbles, when used sparingly, can add interest. Many knitters do not like making bobbles or wearing them because they get soiled quickly or get snagged. And bobbles can look sloppy if they do not stand straight but lean to one side, exposing a hole. A neat bobble can be made by increasing the number of stitches using yarn overs instead of knitting in the front and back of a stitch. A 5-stitch bobble can be replaced with a 3-stitch bobble. Bobbles lend themselves to experimentation.
The Future of Aran Knitting
Aran sweaters have been a fixture on the knitting scene for over 60 years. Non-knitters and new knitters are fascinated by the intricate designs and the seemingly complex patterns. Aran designs have been extended to hats, mittens, afghans and pillows.
Many knitters, myself included, enjoy knitting Aran designs. There is a special satisfaction in seeing beauty spring from the needles because of the knitter's skill and not because of the novelty or texture of the yarn.
I believe that as long as people enjoy using two pointed sticks and some thick thread to create fabric, Aran
knitting will not die away.
Fair isle and Aran knitting because I enjoy both forms of knitting and knew that writing about them would only increase my knowledge. Knitting has been around for hundreds of years and even though its origins are covered in the mists of history, the myths and facts surrounding the traditional styles of knitting can only help a knitter understand the importance of her craft.
The knitters of Fair Isle and the Aran Islands have much in common with their sisters in Appalachia who
quilt. Each has taken a time-honored craft in which they were expert and used it to help lift their families out of
poverty. For those of us who now use the patterns and techniques they devised to hone our craft, we are indeed
very lucky men and women to be reaping the benefits of their skills.
Aran Sweater Market. History of Aran Sweaters. Available from http://www.aransweatermarket.com/history-of-aran-sweaters; accessed 31 May 2012.
Kasman, Carleen. The Bernat Book of Irish Knits. Uxbridge, MA: Emile Bernat & Sons Co. 1967.
Knitter's Magazine. The Great American Aran Afghan. Sioux Falls, SD: XRX, Inc. 2003.
Knittingincolor.blogspot.com. “Knitting in Color.” Available from http://knittingincolor.blogspot.com/2006/02/margene-asked-me-to-do-blog-entry.html,, Internet; accessed 22 October 2013.
Lambert, Gail Ann. The Taxonomy of Sweater Structures and Their Origins. Available from http://repository.lib.ncsu.edu/ir/bitstream/1840.16/174/1/THESIS.pdf. Internet; accessed 16 May 2011.
Leapman, Melissa. Mastering Color Knitting. New York: Potter Craft, 2010.
Neatby, Lucy. Knitting Gems 4. Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada: PowerPost Productions. 2007.
Shetland Islands Council. “History.” Available from http://move.shetland.org/history, accessed 30 May 2012.
Stanley, Montse. Reader's Digest Knitter’s Handbook. Pleasantville, NY: The Reader's Digest Association, Inc., 2003.
Starmore, Alice. Aran Knitting. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 1997.
_____. Fair Isle Knitting. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 1988.
Taylor, Nancy. Fearless Fair Isle Knitting. Newtown, CT: Taunton Press, 2011
Vance, Carolyn, Co-Chair, Master Hand Knitting Committee. “Level III Submissions.” Letter to Deborah Gardner, 2012 August 23.
Victoria and Albert Museum. Regional knitting in the British Isles & Ireland. Available from http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/r/regional-knitting-in-the-british-isles-and-ireland/. Internet; accessed 8 June 2011.
Walker, Barbara G. Charted Knitted Designs. New York, NY: Charles Scribner's Sons. 1972
Wikipedia contributors. “Amigurumi.” Fair Isle, The Free Encyclopedia. Available from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fair_Isle; accessed 8 June 2011.
_____. “Aran Islands.” The Free Encyclopedia. Available from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aran_Islands, accessed 30 May 2012.
_____. “Aran Sweater.” The Free Encyclopedia. Available from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aran_sweater, accessed 31 May 2012.
_____. “Fair Isle.” The Free Encyclopedia. Available from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fair_Isle, accessed 9 June 2011.
_____. “Shetland (sheep).” The Free Encyclopedia. Available from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shetland_sheep,
accessed 9 June 2011.
2. Leapman, pg. 22.
3. Victoria and Albert Museum.
4. Wikipedia, "Fair Isle.”
5. Mountford, pg. 116
6. Shetland Island Council.
7. Wikipedia, “Shetland (sheep).”
8. Mountford, pg 116.
10. Starmore, Aran Knitting, pg. 25.
11. Mountford, pg. 116.
12. The Prince Edward was much like Princess Katherine of today in that when he wore a garment it because an instant must-have by stylish people.
13. Starmore, Fair Isle Knitting, pg. 22.
14. Ibid., pg. 26.
15. Ibid., pg. 28.
16. Stanley, pg. 163.
17. Taylor, pg. 2.
18. Mountford, pg. 119.
19. Starmore, Fair Isle Knitting, pg. 34.
20. Nature surrounds us with odd-numbered elements: the three-leaf clover, the five-petalled pansy. Odd-numbered patterns arouse interest in humans.
22. Starmore, Fair Isle Knitting, pg. 38.
23. Stanley, pg. 163.
24. Taylor, pg. 3.
26. Starmore, Fair Isle Knitting, pg. 9.
27. Starmore, Fair Isle Knitting, pg. 34.
28. Starmore, Fair Isle Knitting, pg. 164.
29. Kasman, pg. 1.
30. This wonderful story may have been from the 1904 J.M. Synge’s play, Riders to the Sea, according to the Wikipedia article on Aran Sweaters.
31. Wikipedia, "Aran Islands.”
32. Starmore, Aran Knitting, pg 41.
33. It is very easy to deconstruct a pattern so one may wonder how these patterns were protected
34. Aran Sweater Market.
35. Szabo, pg. 1.
36. Wikipedia. “Aran Sweater.”
37. Wikipedia, “Aran Islands.”
38. Wikipedia, “Aran Sweater."
40. Szabo, pg. 5.
41. Ibid., pg 63
42. Ibid., pg 5.
43. Starmore, Aran Knitting, pg. 46.
44. Szabo, pg. 9.
45. Ibid., pg 10.
46. Walker, pg. 112.
47. Knitter’s Magazine, pg. 55.
48. Szabo, pg. 19.
49. Ibid., pg. 19.