Fair Isle Knitwear

From time immemorial its Arctic Circle location and the barren, glacier scourged land has made scratching out a living in the Shetlands Islands difficult. Knitting has long been a staple to the economy of the Shetland Islands, the other being fishing.

Everyone should understand there is only one legitimate place from whence Fair Isle knitwear comes and that is the Shetland Islands, Scotland. The knitwear is named for a tiny rectangular shaped island which lies in the southern edge of the Shetland archipelago measuring but three miles long by one and a half wide. Reputedly influenced (doubtful) by Spanish Moors shipwrecked on said island in 1588, by the 1850s the knitters throughout the Shetland Islands were famous for their exquisitely crafted, brightly coloured, banded knitwear of geometric patterns. Knitwear is still made by eight of the largely ex-patriot population (French-Venezuelan, Americans, Swedes, Norwegians, English) of Fair Isle numbering 68 and available through their co-operative, Fair Isle Crafts, and also by two more entrepreneurial ladies whose work commands as much as £1000 per garment.

Thistle & Broom does not offer Fair Isle knitwear from the Fair Isle Crafts cooperative. Nor do we offer hand-frame knitted garments of Fair Isle (if you are thinking about purchasing from another resource do confirm what it is that you are purchasing). Rather, Thistle & Broom offers authentic hand-knit Fair Isle created by septu and octogenarians Shetland ladies whose families have inhabited the Shetland Islands for hundreds of years and who learned from their aunts and grandmothers before them. That we offer authentic hand-knit Fair Isle at all came about because of a single story told over a generous tea provided by an artist I was visiting one mid-winter evening on the Shetland Isle of Unst.

As a newlywed in the 1970s the young groom found himself standing in the Made in UK gallery of the veritable London luxury goods purveyor Harrods as he described 'sight-seeing'. He and his bride subsequently discovered a Fair Isle jumper bearing a price tag of £175.00 along with the label of their local knitting cooperative. Once back on Unst (current population about 700) he tracked down his knitting neighbour only to discover that she had been paid a mere £15.00 for nearly a month's worth of knitting and the cost of her yarns. I'm sorry no middle man in the world can justify that kind of profit over the cost of goods once it is made! I welled up with tears and righteous indignation caught tinder and has burned violently within me since.

Nearly twenty years ago now, the government in trying to do the right thing, put in place a mandate that the knitters had to be paid minimum wage. So labour intensive are hand-knit Fair Isle garments that in turn the Shetland yarn mills that employed the knitters were very nearly bankrupt in the process (so much for government intervention) and the result was they ceased to be offered 'commercially' and forced the loss of all related income. Largely the way Shetlanders have gotten around this legislation is that when you walk into a shop in Shetland the garments you see, and may ultimately purchase, are offered on a kind of cooperative basis - the knitters are paid when their labours sell (whenever that might be). Prices are ridiculously cheap. The locals will say over and over that they feel people 'deserve' a bargain if people are coming all the way to Shetland - no, sorry, they don't! The knitters deserve a fair wage. The disparity between what the knitters are paid and what the perceived value to a Harrod's customers (as above) and the luxury goods marketplace have both done equal measure of creating an attitude of ambivalence within Shetland toward the continuation of its iconic legacy.

A Shetland woman (or man) applying more than sixty years of expertise and spending more than 110 hours hand-knitting a full size jumper and 12 hours on a pair of gloves still earns about £65 for the pullover and £11 for the gloves on the islands when their garment sells. Yet, walk into Harvey Nichols (Scotland's flagship luxury goods purveyor) and a machine-made, in Italy, merino wool Fair Isle inspired pullover (i.e. knock off) under Alexander McQueen's label sells for upwards of £240! What's equally important is that the purchase of Mr. McQueen's, or any other label, of 'Fair Isle style' fails to provide any economic benefit to Shetland. Both circumstances are equally abhorrent. As a result of the endemic poor compensation, the native population undervaluing their most globally recognised product and upscale clothing designers being inspired but not ethically compelled to source locally, instead of hundreds of legacy knitters of multiple generations continuing this iconic art form perhaps two hundred remain.

In totality this is exactly the reverse of how luxury goods houses create demand. Saville Row tailors and Bond Street cobblers, despite struggles, continue because their customers wait for perfection to be created for them and pay dearly for the privilege of ownership.

If authentic hand-knit Fair Isle was to have a chance to survive then waiting, as a connoisseur of an Hermès of Paris crocodile Kelly handbag waits, would need to be part of the business model. To bring cachet to Fair Isle knitwear demands that you are one of a finite number of people on a global basis each year who might own a bespoke effort of a Shetland hand-knitter and subsequently wait and pay accordingly. The bulk of that price, rightfully, belongs to the knitter who because of decades of knitting has honed her craft to an art form worthy of reverence. Of course with any luxury good there will be imitations. Unlike Harris Tweed which enjoys a certification process and an Act of Parliament to define it, Fair Isle Knitwear has become a generic term used by designer and High Street alike to sell ridiculously expensive to pathetically cheap knock-offs. The likes of Victoria Beckham and Rihanna are essentially wearing fakes... equal, in my humble opinion, to the 'designer' tat that is sold in boot sales, flea markets and on folding tables from street corners in urban centres all around the world. The 22,000 souls who call the Shetlands their home (including those residing on Fair Isle proper) do not enjoy the corporate legal power available to Ralph Lauren, Dolce and Gabbana and Alexander McQueen and the like to go after infringement and royalties. ANY hoodie, glove, scarf, mitten, polar fleece, cardigan, jacket, baby blanket or sweater you see at the local mall or in a catalogue is 'fair isle inspired' and NOT authentic Fair Isle. I assure you brilliant ad campaigns to the contrary it's not bringing any economic value to Scotland on the whole and especially not the Shetland Islands or Fair Isle directly. Since 2003 Thistle & Broom has maintained (and voiced to any that might listen) that Fair Isle Knitwear needs to become like Harris Tweed and those Products of Designated Origin, PDO, such as Champagne, Parma Ham, and Pecorino Romano. In "our" perfect world royalties would be paid by designers and High Street retailers alike to a Shetland based trust for provide for quality assurance, certification, cataloging, educational programmes, industry marketing and legal protection each time the term "Fair Isle Inspired" was used to market their products. The truth is, from an intellectual property perspective, it's a nearly impossible legal battle to fight and win. So brand awareness and education seems to be the greatest hope we (though my opinion is not widely solicited as I am not a Shetland native, I speak for all individuals involved in this cottage industry) have to stem the further decline of an irreplaceable piece of Scotland's rich cultural heritage. That is precisely why Thistle & Broom commenced its Fair Isle Knitting Project and why we're incredibly grateful when Scotland on Sunday, The Economist, The Independent, Daily Mail and The Times of London decide to offer a few columns to heighten awareness.

The Fair Isle Knitting Project is designed to ensure the preservation of authentic hand-knitting of Fair Isle. To create financial incentive to subsequent generations of knitters 66% of the retail price is paid up front via EFT as orders are placed through our website. Their art features authentic Shetland long staple wool yarns processed within Shetland, two colours in each row forming amazingly intricate patterns of Peeries, XOX, Borders, Seeding, Waves and Peaks, Norwegian Stars and Allover. Passed from generation-to-generation and knit for hundreds of years of naturally occurring or paint box coloured Shetland yarns each extraordinary in workmanship, colour theory and hand craft which is entirely deserving of your appreciation and your patronage.