Arts & Crafts
Fair Isle panorama from Buness

Wednesday September 14, 2011

John Best
Stewart Wilson
Boat Building
Straw Crafts
Music and Dance
GW Memorial Museum


While the crofting year has a task for every season, the arts and crafts on Fair Isle is an all year round feature of the isle.

Crafts of all types are represented here on Fair Isle with spinners and knitters, a builder of traditional wooden boats and makers of traditional straw-backed chairs and spinning wheels.

There are also writers, musicians, poets, painters and photographers as well as those using modern technology as a means of expression.

Paintings by J. C. Best

The real ‘Fair Isle’ knitwear

The term ‘Fair Isle Knitting' is now used worldwide for a type of stranded colour knitting with horizontal bands of geometric patterns. But this unique style developed on Fair Isle long ago, when local knitters discovered that fine yarns stranded into a double layer produce durable, warm, yet lightweight garments. For hundreds of years demand for hand-knitting kept Fair Isle women busy. Islanders traded with passing ships, bartering their home-made textiles and fresh produce for goods they couldn’t make themselves. In July 2011, several hand-knitters on Fair Isle revived the tradition of bartering by making and bartering Fair Isle Fisherman’s keps for items offered by the crew of the passing Tall Ship ‘Sorlandet’ from Norway, with remaining keps auctioned to raise funds for an extension to the island’s George Waterston Memorial Centre and Museum.

In times past, the traditional colours of madder (red), indigo (blue), moorit (brown), yellow and natural white, combined with the original patterns, were much sought after for their unique value, but in the 1920s Fair Isle sweaters knitted in the natural wool colours of moorit, shaela (grey), eesit (fawn) and natural white became highly fashionable. Nowadays, the traditional Fair Isle and natural (undyed) colours are still highly popular and are also complemented by more modern colourways.

For further details please contact:

‘Exclusively Fair Isle’
Elizabeth Riddiford

‘Fair Isle Made in Fair Isle’
Hollie Shaw and Catriona Thomson

‘Fair Isle Knitwear’
Mati Ventrillon

‘The Fair Isle Textile Workshop’
Kathy Coull



Straw-backed Chairs


Fair Isle hand-knitting is a very time and labour-intensive activity and throughout generations often involved all the female members of a family, including young children, to help earn an income for the home. Fair Isle Crafts Ltd., a small, workers’ co-operative was then established in 1980 when it was realised that the use of hand frames would allow the islanders to continue to produce their traditional knitwear in a manner which would be economically viable for both the knitters and their customers. After many years of successful trading world-wide, a dwindling number of knitters saw the cooperative finally cease operation in 2011.Today, the only source of the genuine article is still Fair Isle, where a small but vibrant number of Fair Isle knitters continue to produce high quality traditional and contemporary garments on hand-frame machines which are then all carefully finished by hand, washed and dressed. Each knitter designs her own garments using her interpretation of the local patterns and she has the freedom to use either the traditional colours or to make use of the other beautiful colours now available.

Hand-knitted garments are still made on the isle for friends and family whilst a few hand-knitted and hand-woven items are sometimes available for sale.

Each genuine Fair Isle garment made in Fair Isle carries Fair Isle’s own distinctive trademark ‘Star Motif’ or other official authentication mark as the customer’s guarantee of quality and authenticity.


The real Fair Isle knitwear
Fair Isle knitwear

Straw-backed chair
Straw-backed chair by Stewart Thomson

Text and photographs 2010 Dave Wheeler except where otherwise credited. (Logo picture courtesy of Sumburgh SAR)
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