Two color knitting is almost as old as knitting itself. The initial method was accomplished when "a single needle with an eye takes a loop around the crossing of the loop in the previous row," according to one historian of knitting. By the 12th century, the roots of stranded knitting became common first in the Arab world and then eventually across Europe. Knitting probably reached Fair Isle by around the year 1500.
Fair Isle is a tiny island (not even six square miles) in the Shetland Islands, halfway between Scotland and Norway. (Interestingly, the Faroes, also known for beautiful colorwork sweaters, is halfway between the Shetland and Iceland.) More than 5000 years ago, early pioneers from what is now Scotland started settling in the area, soon bringing with them cattle and sheep. Immigration from the south continued during the Celtic period. Norse settlers further populated the island in the 8th and 9th centuries. By the 14th century, the islands were more firmly connected to Scotland and in 1469 fell under the rule of the Scottish Crown.
To find out more about the history of Fair Isle knitting, I turned to the old but wonderful Michael Pearson's Traditional knitting: Aran, Fair Isle, and Fisher Ganseys. As Pearson traces the history of knitting in Shetland, he shows how early two-color knitting was replaced by hand-knit socks as well as gloves, knitted underwear, and caps made for sale. The cottage industry of hose knitters was gradually replaced by a system of frame knitting. Hand-knitters turned to producing beautiful lace shawls during the early 19th century. As the lace knitting became mechanized as well, two color knitting reemerged, this time not only on Fair Isle but throughout the Shetlands. At that point, bright dyes were made from local lichens, leaves, and grasses as well as imported dyes such as madder and indigo. In addition, more muted color variation was gained from the natural fleeces of the indigenous sheep varieties of the area.
Although sales of Fair Isle knitting had been backing off for a time, the Prince of Wales wore a Fair Isle V-necked pullover publicly in the 1920s in order to give it a boost. Princess Mary also wore Fair Isle garments. Soon Fair Isle pullovers and cardigans (apparently not often knit before the turn of the century) were all the rage. And the Shetland Mania was not to end. After World War II, many soldiers took home Fair Isle style scarves, tams, mittens, and sweaters.
As more and more of the world became fascinated with this kind of knitting, the knitters in Shetland increasingly turned to high fashion rather than tradition, melding new colors and non-traditional patterns in their efforts to sell their wares and support their lives.
Now, the term "Fair Isle" often refers only to a style of stranded colorwork knitting rather than the particular patterns, colors, and even breeds of sheep that made up the beginnings of this lovely tradition. In the second part of this investigation, I'll be looking into some of these historic standards.
Cross-posted to Fair Isle February