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The Origins and Development of Fair Isle Knitting
A bright green spot like an emerald on the wide ocean, this place is quite a little world in itself; covered with grass of a most vivid luxuriant verdure.'
The words of Catherine Sinclair in her book, Shetland and the Shetlanders (1840), are a perfect description of our first sight of this beautiful island. Fair Isle is one of the 100 Shetland Islands and the most isolated of the 20 which are inhabited. There are several possible Norse translations: 'Farey' meaning Sheep Isle, 'Fara', the fair Isle and 'Foer' meaning far off or distant.
Although the island lies on the same latitude as Greenland the winters are less severe than those of Scotland due to the passing Gulf Stream. The surrounding waters are treacherous but the island is well equipped with two lighthouses to warn the passing ships of the very real danger. Jerry Eunson's book, The Shipwrechs of Fair Isle tells us that 88 vessels have been wrecked or sunk since 900 AD ; but how many more have gone unrecorded?
We set out for Fair Isle on 'The Good Shepherd', a 46ft cruiser that delivers visitors, supplies and mail to the island twice a week. My husband gave up trying to take pictures after the first half hour, and joined me for the remainder of the 3 hour crossing clinging to the winch in front of the wheel house. Although the crew assured us that our crossing had been 'quite calm' we made the return journey by air — a trip lasting 10 minutes!
Fair Isle varies in colour through the four seasons with flowering blue squills, red and white campion, roseroof willow and scurvy grass, with carpets of sea pinks. The heather-covered moors look wild and only the Great Skuas have made their homes here. The adults continue to make ferocious 'dive bomb' attacks on intruders, even after the young birds have left the nests.
As well as the many birds which inhabit the island there is a large population of rabbits and its increase has become a matter of some concern for the islanders. Grazing land is precious and the question of whether or not the rabbits are putting as much back into the soil as they have taken out is one for careful consideration. The only other wild mammal is the island's own variety of mouse, 'The Fair Isle Mouse'.
Since Fair Isle was bought by the National Trust in 1954 the living conditions have been greatly improved. Electricity and sanitation have been provided but it is unfortunate that this restoration has demanded the sacrifice of some of the traditional characteristics of the buildings. Two of the old structures which remain are the churches, housing the two faiths: Church of Scotland and Methodist. It is a strongly religious community and this has been connected with the knitting craft of the island:
Spiritual men and women, working together to produce the religious symbols and abstract forms, come nearer to their one God and closer together in their community.'
H. E. Kiewe's book, The Sacred History of Knitting
Although the Shetland Isles have been part of Scotland for the last 500 years the people are more like the Norwegians in appearance, having fair hair and tanned skin. They speak with a very gentle accent, unlike that of the Scots, and their speech still includes much Norse.
During the 18th and 19th centuries there was much suffering under the tyrannical Scottish landlords. The people were paid less than two shillings for each 100 cwt of fish which was sold at a vast profit by the landlords on the Scottish market. In desperation they tried to sail or row their small boats across the dangerous waters to get a better price for their fish and to sell their knitting.
Although one of the earliest woollen garments found dates back to the 6th century BC, it is possible that knitting began even earlier than this as there is strong evidence to show that sheep were domesticated as early as 10,000 BC.
The earliest piece of knitting to bear any resemblance to Fair Isle designs is a pair of knitted patterned socks, found in a 4th century BC Egyptian tomb. However, it is generally thought that these were made in India for export to Egypt as the patterns are similar to Indian cotton prints from the same period.
The great traders of the world at this time were the Arabs, travelling east to Tibet and west to Spain and other Mediterranean ports. It is thought that Arabian knitting must have influenced the multicoloured Spanish and Florentine silks of the 12th — 16th centuries. Patterns and fabrics similar to those of Fair Isle can still be found among the Basques in Northern Spain.
There is a popular belief that sailors from the ship El Gran Griffon', wrecked off Fair Isle during the Spanish Armada in 1588 brought the art of patterned knitting to the island. The 300 men stranded on Fair Isle spent seven weeks under dreadful conditions of cold and hunger. This makes it somewhat hard to imagine the convivial meetings of the Spaniards and the Islanders discussing knitting patterns and methods of dyeing wool. However, it is possible that a few Spaniards settled on the island, so passing on the moorish' influences to the Fair Isle designs and the methods of making fast dyes from the native plants and lichens.
Another popular theory is that the Norsemen brought the art of patterned knitting with them.
However, Faroese patterns are heavier and geometrically constructed, bearing more resemblance to Norwegian and Scandinavian designs. Fair Isle designs are composed of ancient religious and national symbols intertwined with varied bands of delicate patterning. There are about 160 different designs and no individual pattern is ever repeated on the same garment, each band of patterning being different in some way.
When I visited Fair Isle, I took with me a sample knitted in a design from a 12th century Egyptian sock. I left it with Mrs. Annie Thompson who liked it so much that she said she would work it into one of her all over' jumpers. Mrs. Thompson pointed out that it could, in a few years time, become a traditional' Fair Isle design! (This sample is shown on page 42). The sample bears an incredible resemblance in its basic construction to a number of existing traditional Fair Isle designs also shown in this book.
Rise in Popularity
Wool has always been one of Fair Isle's most important natural resources. By the 16th century the knitted garments had become the main item of barter and the demand has been sustained throughout the years.
It was Elizabeth I of England who first encouraged knitting as a pastime for women. In 1589, when William Lee invented the first knitting machine, the men gave up hand knitting altogether and since then it has been a female-dominated occupation.
Shetland knitwear was first marketed in London in 1839 and by the middle of that century the cardigans made from natural undyed wools were popular with the clergy and were recommended by the medical profession, indeed Fair Isle designs have often been promoted by royalty. The Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) wore a Fair Isle pullover whilst playing golf at St. Andrews in 1921.
Now there are only five women left on Fair Isle who still knit, and only Mrs. Annie Thompson knits the all over' jumpers. Since the war, very few girls were born to the islanders, but happily, in the last few years their number has increased and the women are confident that their craft will survive. When there are, once again, enough lichens and plants growing on the island, the women are keen to re-establish the art of dyeing their own wool.
Knitting machines were introduced to the Shetlands in 1930 but Fair Isle designs cannot be satisfactorily produced on machines and they continue to be made by hand. Many of the factories in England and Scotland ceased production of woollens during the War and this proved to be a time of great prosperity for the islanders as the women found value for money when they bought Fair Isle jumpers with their clothing coupons.
Fair Isle garments are as popular as ever and the increasing fame and excellent quality of the goods means that production will never be able to meet the vast demand.
There have been sheep on the Shetland Isles since prehistoric Stone Age man. The long dark winters, bitter wind and poor pastures meant that only the hardiest animals could survive.
A number of sheep plus one ram are kept on top of Sheep Rock which is a remarkable piece of grazing land nearly 400ft high and about 10 acres in size. This is the best pasture on the Island, due to the shelter provided by the sloping land, and the upward deflection of the winds impinging on the straight cliffs of the craig. Up to the middle of the 17th century access was by junction with the land which has since fallen away, now the men climb to the top by way of a fixed chain and hoist the sheep up after them.
Over the centuries evolved the finest, softest sheep's wool found anywhere in the world and until 50 years ago all of it was spun by hand by the women. It was teased and then oiled with fish oil (kreesh) and rolled into small balls ready for spinning. Today, however, all the wool is spun on the mainland.
Until a few years ago, the women dyed their own wool, using the cherished secret methods of making fast dyes from the Island's native flowers, leaves, roots and lichens. now there are not enough ingredients left to continue dyeing so the garments are made in the natural colours of the Island's Shetland sheep — soft brown from the Moorit sheep, black from the Black sheep, natural white, grey and fawn, and a beautiful pinky beige, which is a mixture of moorit and white.CHAPTER 2
The layouts in this book are designed to be as clear and simple as possible. The charts relate to the photograph, key and list of colours accompanying each chart so that all the necessary information can be viewed together.
One of the first pullovers I made was for a friend's two year old son and this didn't take too long to complete. After this I had gained enough confidence to make one for my husband. I was now addicted! My third was comfortably finished within two weeks.
Once you have knitted the first half of your garment you will find that you know the design almost by heart! Some people remember the designs in a series of numbers eg. 1 — 3 — 5 — 3 — 1 etc. Others remember by seeing' shapes eg. lines, squares, triangles, diamonds etc. Either way you must remember that each stitch in each colour, and each group of stitches in any one colour relates to the one above, below and to either side.
Fortunately, Fair Isle knitting is not as complicated as it may seem, but if, when you first start, you find you are getting a little confused then study the photograph and chart further. You will probably find that you have made a mistake. Do undo a few rows if this is the case. If you leave it, the whole progress of the design will be disrupted and just won't make sense.
At first you will have to concentrate very hard, so set aside a few quiet evenings at home. After a while it will become easier and you will be able to listen to the radio or watch the television at the same time.
One word of warning! Try not to boast too much about all your hard work or you will find yourself knitting for all your family and friends!
How to use the charts
Each symbol represents a colour as indicated in the key. Work from top to bottom, (including motifs or symbols which are placed upside down' on the chart).
When knitting on the round, the total number of stitches used is an exact multiple of all repeat nos. of the patterns used and the following instructions will not be necessary.
Opposite the chart are details of the repeats. Some designs have bands of patterning with different numbers of stitches in their repeats, you will have to deal with these separately.
Follow this procedure carefully:
1. Count the number of stitches you intend to use before beginning the patterning. If this number is an exact multiple of the number of stitches to the repeat you will be able to knit from end to end of the chart exactly.
2. If this is not so divide the repeat number into the number of stitches you are using. eg. repeat over 8 sts — 37 sts on needle:
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This means you will knit the whole repeat four times with five stitches left over.
3. Draw a line in pencil between fifth and sixth stitches in, from left side of chart.
4. First row: Begin at first stitch on left side of chart.
Work to the right across the whole repeat four times, then knit last five stitches as first five stitches from left side of start, ending row at the fifth stitch.
5. Second row: Begin row with the fifth stitch. Work back to left side of chart (five stitches), go to right side of chart and work across four whole repeats (last stitch will be first stitch on left side of chart). Repeat these two rows throughout the design.
You will find this whole process of where to begin and end unnecessary as you become familiar with the design. You should also remember that any change in the number of stitches on your needle will also change where you begin and end the patterning.
If you decide to choose your own colour scheme, try not to pick too many — and make sure that each colour does not react badly to any of the others (eg. bright green and lemon yellow would be seen for miles, bright green and bright pink would be blinding). Two light colours of the same tone could become indistinguishable when knitted together — pale olive green and pale blue, or pink and beige.
Every design has dark and light colours in certain areas and if these are changed around a completely different, although sometimes a very exciting, result emerges.
A good method of choosing your colour scheme is to find two colours of the same tone that you like together. Then find the same two colours in a lighter or darker shade. Choose a fifth colour that contrasts with the other four, and of course a base colour. You can use varying shades through the bands of patterns to provide more depth and interest.
All the designs repeat over a set number of stitches and the exact size of the main body piece largely depends on this repeat number. All the designs that are to be used must repeat exactly all the way around to avoid an ugly seam at the beginning and end of each round. However, this does not apply when knitting the sleeves due to the number of decreases down to the cuffs.
The number of stitches used for the main body piece must be an exact multiple of all the different repeat numbers of the designs you wish to knit. For example:
A= 6 sts
B =28 sts
The tension is 9 sts to 2.5cms (1in), and the size required is to fit 91.5 - 96.5 cms (36 — 38ins). The ideal total number of sts would be 9 x 37ins=333 sts (chest measurement).
Pattern A=6 sts x 56 = 336
Pattern B=28 sts x 12 = 336
Patterns C & D=24 sts x 14 = 336
336 is, therefore, an exact multiple of all the above repeat numbers and is a satisfactory total. 336 sts divided by 9 sts to 1in = 37.3ins.
If one or more of the repeat numbers does not wholly divide into a satisfactory total, you will have to make a compromise. Either change the needle size or change the design slightly, by either taking away or adding stitches to the design, preferably in the spaces on the base colour, so increasing or decreasing the repeat number.
Knitting on the round
The women of Fair Isle and Shetland still use the ancient method of knitting in rounds, with up to five needles at a time, and with the help of a knitting belt or pouch.
Christ's seamless robe, for which the soldiers cast lots, would have been made in this way, as were the Egyptian/Arabian socks of 4,000 BC.
All the garments are made completely seamless in a very simple way, considering the complicated patterns. Basically a jumper is made cylindrical up to the shoulders, folded flat, and the shoulders grafted together either side to the neck. The armholes are cut, turned under and sewn. Another more efficient way is to wrap all yarns in use on each round, around the needle 10 or 12 times where you wish to divide for the armholes to be dropped. This procedure is repeated on every following round. When the body piece is completed to the shoulders, the loops are then cut, tied and sewn in to the back of the fabric for approximately 2.5cms (1in). The same procedure applies for the front openings of cardigans and jackets.
I have combined both ancient and modern methods, the main body piece being knitted on the round to the base of the armhole, then knitting front and back separately, in rows. However, this is just my personal preference and you can experiment to see which method you will find most efficient.
Excerpted from Fair Isle Knitting by Sarah Don. Copyright © 1984 Sarah Don. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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