I remember receiving my first real Fair Isle sweater from my dear godmother; she had brought it back from a visit to the Shetlands in the early 80s. It was yellow and had a beautiful eyelet yoke pattern (something along the lines of the one in the upper left of this photo). It was clearly in a different class from the so-called Fair Isle sweaters I also admired in the L. L. Bean catalog. I treasured that sweater throughout high school and college, and when I grew out of it, my mother happily “appropriated” it for her own use. I never dreamt that I would actually be able to make one! It was another ten years before I thought I could attempt a Fair Isle sweater, and when I did, I felt as if I had come home. I immediately took to the small size of the needles & small gauge, two colors per row (my preference: one in each hand), frequent color changes, knitting in the round (who couldn’t love steeks?), and the amazing palette of colors available in 2-ply jumper-weight yarn...all continue to appeal to my hands and heart fourteen years along.
After discovering that my gauge is significantly looser when using the needle size generally recommended in Fair Isle patterns, I became somewhat obsessed with making swatches. After the second or third pattern, it was clear which needle size I needed to achieve 8 stitches per inch with 2-ply yarn, but I continued to swatch anyway. I’ve even made swatches after the fact; they seem to have become a way of documenting projects, especially when the projects go to recipients who live far away. But I also swatch to try out new colors, designs, motifs, even patterns (because colors in print do not necessarily correspond to colors in person), so I’ve accumulated quite a few (as pictured above). The swatch at the center top was one I made after I had finished Rona (below).
So what to do with all the swatches? I have read that Kaffee Fassett crocheted together all of his swatches to create a blanket. Alice Starmore used to (and probably still does) design exclusively with swatches, rather than knit up entire garments (read her story here). She traveled with a number of single swatches, which if I recall from my Starmore workshop experience, were about 12 inches square. She advocates swatching in the round using steeks so that you don’t have to risk altering your gauge while purling the pattern on the reverse side. I think I’d like to patch together all of my swatches to create a jacket, but I don’t want to feel like Joseph & his many colored coat. Perhaps I’ll knit the squares together with a dark color in between, with the aim of treating them like stained glass or cloisonné.
This past week, I’ve made a new swatch that is completely frivolous. Trying to celebrate both a knitting technique and the beauty of uncials (in manuscript, printed & electronic form), I charted out an obvious message using some key Fair Isle techniques. Enduring and widely-used, uncial letterforms were not inherently Celtic. Still, they were a preferred style in the earliest writing of the British Isles, and were used in such masterpieces of Celtic manuscript as the Book of Kells and Book of Durrow. Although not Scottish in origin, uncial letterforms became the basis for early medieval writing styles throughout the British Isles. Thus they seem to convey a sense of history and tradition analogous to Fair Isle knitting itself.
I looked at early manuscript examples, and at the electronic font, Omnia, and charted the design by hand on graph paper. If I had had this idea earlier, I would also have looked at the work of Victor Hammer, who created a number of metal uncial fonts for letterpress printing. Another way to knit letters in color would be to create an image file and process it through KnitPro for an auto-generated chart.
Back to the swatch: I began & ended with a corrugated rib—a 2x2, two-color rib in which knit stitches are in a darker color and purl stitches in a lighter (or brighter) one. I wasn’t entirely consistent throughout with color changes, but I generally used four colors for the background and four for the foreground, saving the lightest & brightest for the center stripe, in keeping with Fair Isle tradition. My digital camera doesn’t seem to capture reds very well, but the colors were inspired by the winterberry tree (photographed last November, above). I’ve wanted for some time now to use its beautiful grays and reds for a Fair Isle sweater. For some reason, the gray yarns I chose turned out to have a slightly greenish cast, which did a nice job of highlighting the foreground/background contrast, as red sits opposite green on the color wheel. On the wrong side, strands carried behind produce a reversed version of the pattern, which you can see. The strands of color carried across the back also double the fabric’s thickness. Ordinarily, Fair Isle designs follow a logical pattern of odd-numbered stitch repeats that often produce zig-zag lines and the signature XO shapes, but knitted letters don’t quite allow that to happen. They required a lot of weaving in of strands behind the scenes (once an inch or every 8 stitches in this case, when not called upon in the design), something ordinarily to be avoided in Fair Isle knitting. I tried to fill in around the letters with some Fair Isle-ish designs cribbed or adapted from those provided by Sheila McGregor in Traditional Fair Isle Knitting.
Yarns used were (with one exception) Alice Starmore’s Campion, which is no longer produced. I have provided color equivalents (using the chart developed by Anne Featonby of She Ewe Knits) to Jamieson’s Spindrift yarn, which is still readily available. Chart here
- #31, Corn (Spindrift 183 Sand)
- Rowan Donegal Lambswool Tweed in Lightweight DK; color is 472 Marram, close to Lichen (below), but slightly greener & as if crossed with Juniper (Spindrift 766 Sage)
- #48, Fog (Spindrift 272 Fog)
- #72, Lichen (No Spindrift equivalent)
- #16, Burgundy (Couldn’t find this on the Campion chart—very similar to Spindrift 580 Cherry, but slightly lighter & brighter)
- #25 , Claret (Spindrift 580 Cherry)
- #149, Sunrise (Sprindrift 187 Sunrise)
- #776, Madder (Spindrift 587 Madder)
- Donn, Sarah. Fair Isle Knitting: A Practical Handbook of Traditional Designs (St. Martin’s Press, 1979)
- Feitelson, Ann. The Art of Fair Isle Knitting: History, Technique, Color and Pattern (Interweave Press, 1996)
- McGregor, Sheila. Traditional Fair Isle Knitting (Scribner, 1981)
- Starmore, Alice. Alice Starmore’s Book of Fair Isle Knitting (Taunton Press, 1988)
- Yarns International’s Shetland 2000 Series by Ron Schweitzer
- Fair Isle technique (Wikipedia)
- Fair Isle technique and many, many very useful tools from Knitting Beyond the Hebrides, Resources page
- Fair Isle Knitting (Shetland Museum)
- Regional Knitting in the British Isles (V & A Museum, London)
- Japanese Fair Isle Knitting Gallery
- She-Ewe Knits Fair Isle 101
- Knittydotcom’s Kitchner Stitch Grafting
- Beth Brown Reinsel’s Fair Isle Construction Class
- Corrugated rib, using Norwegian purl
- Two-handed color knitting
- Two-handed color knitting
- 2-color knitting with both color yarns in left hand
- 2-color knitting with both color yarns in the right hand
- Cutting a steek
- Cutting a steek
- Cutting a steek with verbal explanation
- Eunny Knits : Steeking Chronicles
- A variety of fonts tagged uncial (but which are not necessarily uncial)
- Omnia, a bonified uncial
- Uncial OT, from Crazy Diamond Design Historical Fonts
- American Uncial, the classic Victor Hammer uncial
- Also, his Neue Hammer Unziale
- Victor Hammer’s home in the U.S.: Wells College, Aurora, New York
(home of the Hammer Book Arts Center)