Fair Isle, a Beautiful Style of Knitting

Knitting is more than a passion for me; it’s an addiction. One style of knitting that I’m still mastering is Fair Isle knitting. Fair Isle is a traditional knitting technique used to create patterns with multiple colors. It’s named after Fair Isle, a tiny jewel of an island, in the north of Scotland that rests between the Orkney and Shetland Islands. Fair Isle is famous for its birds, historic shipwrecks, and style of knitting.

Fair Isle is a remote area where the environment is harsh and the weather is brutally cold. The average temperature in July is 12°C (53°F) and in January it’s 4°C (39°F), so the demand for toasty warm wool sweaters, hats, scarves, and mitts is high. Their fleece comes from a hardy breed of Shetland sheep that have adapted to living there. The fleece is washed, carded, and then spin into the desired thickness. But, don’t think you have to use pure wool to create Fair Isle patterns. I personally cannot wear wool, so I make my patterns from yarn that meets the stitch gauge.

man wearing a fair isle sweater petting a horse

Traditionally, Fair Isle patterns have a limited palette of five or so colors, are knit circular, and never use more than two colors in any one row. Most patterns are made of small motifs that are repeated throughout the garment. But, there are many patterns that include animals, flowers, and so forth.

Knitting Fair Isle isn’t actually that hard, it just requires practice and patience. The biggest issue when working with more than one ball of yarn is how easily they will get twisted and tangled. I like to have one ball on my right and the other on my left so I can address any tangles quickly. But, you’ll figure out a system that works well for you.

Working from a chart can be a bit intimidating at first. I love working from a chart or graph. I find it easier and much faster than following a written pattern. Written instructions for these busy patterns would be extensive, perhaps confusing, and definitely messy. If you’ve never worked from a chart before, start off with an easy, small and simple design like the one below. You always start from the bottom and work your way to the top row. Most charts will number the rows and stitches. Don’t forget to place a stitch holder at the beginning of the row, so you know where placement in the graph. Incidentally, I got this chart from a free hat pattern online.

Watch your tension. One rookie mistake is thinking that the yarn floats need to be tight across the back. Never do this! The strands of floating yarn at the back of your work should be moderately loose so that your garment will remain smooth, stretchy, and the correct width. You need to allow enough slack so your garment lies completely flat when standing. If you’re a tight knitter like me, check your tension by knitting a swatch first. Then if needed, adjust your needle size until you get the right tension. A good way to avoid a tight-knit is to make sure the stitches on your right-hand needle are spread out and not bunched.

If you notice that your fair isle rows are tighter than your stockinette rows, adjust your needles for these rows. This will help you avoid that ‘squeezed’ looking section that does not match the rest of the gauge. Another method is to knit with the work inside out. This forces the yarn to be drawn along the outside of the cylinder of knitting, rather than along the inside of the cylinder. This means the floats will be longer by default.

Going back to the floating stitches, it’s suggested that floats should not span across more than 7 stitches, but my preference is for no more than 3 stitches. If you do have long floats, you can always ‘catch up’ or anchor in the center of the span.

Practice, practice, practice. It can be a bit disheartening at first because your stitches are a bit uneven or lumpy. But getting comfortable with the way you hold your yarn strands is the key. There isn’t any right way, you’ll have to practice holding either one or two yarn strands at a time and feel which works best for you.

I like to finish my projects off by blocking them; it improves the overall appearance and the stitches lay flatter. If you love to knit but haven’t ventured out of your comfort zone, give Fair Isle a try. You may find you love it! There’s an abundance of free fair isle patterns, charts, and graphs online.

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