Every year since I started knitting things other than dishcloths I’ve set myself a little goal to learn a new technique. Two years ago it was lace, last year it was cables and this year it’s stranded or Fair Isle knitting.
Fair Isle knitting originated on the remote island of Fair Isle – a tiny jewel in the ocean lying midway between the Orkney and Shetland Islands to the north of Scotland in the UK, at the point where the Atlantic Ocean meets the North Sea. The origin of the traditional knitting patterns is now not known, but their similarity to Moorish patterns has led to the, rather romantic, notion of a link to the Spanish Armada ship, El Gran Grifon, which was shipwrecked on Fair Isle in 1588 or the skill may have been developed from the Vikings who settled there in the more distant past. It seems most likely that at some date a piece of patterned knitting was bartered into the isle from a passing ship in return for fresh food and water. Much of this trade was with ships from the Baltic nations and this is from where the knitting could well have originated. The isle women, who were probably already skillful producers of plain knitting, eventually developed the patterns into a unique form of knitting. By the mid 19th century all-over patterned garments were being traded off the isle and the evolution of the intricate patterning has continued ever since. Crosses and lozenge shaped hexagons containing symbols, often of a religious nature, formed the basic OXO pattern. A range of other, smaller, patterns – such as anchors, ram’s horns, hearts, ferns and flowers – were also used, all of which reflected the life and environment of the isle.
The traditional wool used in Fair Isle knitting is from the Shetland sheep, introduced to their close neighbours, The Shetland Isles, by the Vikings in the 9th century. Neutral colours were the most common, dictated by the variations in the natural colour of the fleece, but native plants, and those bartered from passing ships, introduced more colours in to the palette. Today the yarn is commercially spun and dyed in Sandness on the Shetland mainland, although the sheep on Fair Isle are mostly still sheared by hand using clippers.
In genuine, traditional Fair Isle knitting made on Fair Isle, two colours are used in each row with an average of four colours used throughout the whole garment. Blocks of patterns are not repeated. The term ‘Fair Isle Knitting’ has nowadays unfortunately become generic and is used worldwide to denote any form of multicoloured knitwear.
So that’s a quick run down in the history of this type of knitting. Two things always put me off trying stranded knitting. The first was thinking about managing two or more colours and balls of wool at the same time; and the second was all the project notes I’d read on Ravelry that said that their item ended up too tight and had to be ripped out. In order to combat the fear of more than one colour on the go, I knitted two mosaic sock patterns towards the latter half of last year, see 2015 In Wool post, August and November. They worked out well and gave me confidence to look into colourwork further. The second issue was more worrying. In traditional colourwork the yarn not in use for a few stitches is carried along behind the working yarn creating “floats”, or “strands” of unknit wool on the back of the project. Get these strands too tight and they pull in the garment, making it unwearable as it doesn’t block out. There are techniques to help you keep the floats loose, but it all seemed a bit intimidating for a beginner colourworker.
One of the sock knitting challenges on Ravelry that I like to participate in had stranded knitting as part of their January challenge so I decided to knuckle down and, armed with lots of info about what to do and what not to do, give it a go.
I choose what looked like a simple pattern that stated it was good for beginners and looked through all the projects already made to give me a starting point, Fair Isle Flower Sock by Candice DeWitt. I ended up picking a plain cream yarn and a multi coloured contrast yarn for the patterned part. That way I would get a colour variation without constantly changing yarns.
This is how my sock started out
The pretty yarn on the left is Lorna’s Laces, and as pretty as it is it’s killed every pattern I’ve tried with it because of the short colour runs. Pairing it with the cream plain yarn not only tamed it but allowed it to shine.
I ended up really liking the technique, the floats turned out to not be an issue, I think because I constantly checked them and made them as loose as I could. I can see more gap lines between the dpns that I would have on normal socks but I was very happy for a first attempt. So happy in fact that I started modifying the pattern.
I have a lot of notes for my modifications on my Ravelry page for this project if anyone is interested in making their own. And these socks turned out to be the springboard for more stranded projects. But more on that another time.