To knit or not to knit?

Malachy Tallack wrestles with his desire to knit, a practice synonymous with his Fair Isle home.

A strange and unnatural urge has come over me this week . . . I am thinking about knitting a jumper.

For the past two years, a knitting machine has occupied the corner of our kitchen, and I have barely looked at it for most of that time. But suddenly I find myself compelled to create something on it; a desire that is neither sensible nor entirely explicable. Particularly since, for the brief period when I did use a knitting machine, not long after we first moved to the island, I was terrible at it. And it nearly drove me mad.

For most people, Fair Isle is synonymous with knitting and knitwear. The brightly coloured, banded patterns that are now associated with the island first came to prominence towards the end of the 19th century, though their origins are less clear. Because of their alleged similarity to certain aspects of Moorish design, legend had it that the patterns were borrowed from the Spanish sailors who were stranded here in 1588, when the Armada vessel El Gran Griffon wrecked on the island. But that is not a theory that is given much credence these days.

In fact, original Fair Isle patterns bear an uncanny resemblance to the traditional patterns of certain other sub-arctic regions, which makes some sense, though it is not obvious why the patterns here should be so different from traditional patterns in Shetland. It is not a puzzle that is likely to be solved easily.

What is clear though is that all of the raw materials – soft, strong wool from sheep, as well as plants and lichens for dyeing – have been available on the island for millennia, and that people have been making good use of these materials for a very long time indeed.

The trade in Fair Isle knitwear has also been long-running, though its history as a fashion item began just around 150 years ago. By the 1920s, when the Prince of Wales was pictured in a (Shetland-made) Fair Isle patterned sweater, teeing off at St. Andrews, the style had become well-known enough that islanders were appealing to the Board of Trade to trademark the name ‘Fair Isle’. They were trying to protect what might these days be termed ‘cultural property’, particularly from the much larger Shetland industry.

That attempt proved unsuccessful unfortunately, though islanders were allowed to over-print the Shetland trademark with the words ‘Made in Fair Isle’. Since then, of course, the patterns have become public property. It is now possible to buy a ‘Fair Isle-style sweater’, machine-knitted in China, which bears only the slightest resemblance to the original island patterns. Top fashion designers too, such as Alexander McQueen, also make use of the Fair Isle ‘brand’.

The only place where authentic Fair Isle garments are available these days is in Fair Isle. A co-operative group, Fair Isle Crafts Ltd., was launched in 1980 to try to preserve the dwindling knitwear industry on the island, and to ensure a reasonable wage for the knitters. They are still producing ‘hand-frame knitted’ garments today.

It is no longer possible to buy hand-knitted sweaters here, but they are still being produced in Shetland, where knitters generally earn about 50 pence an hour. Consumers are simply not willing or able to pay a fair price for a garment that can take up to 120 hours to produce.

When I first came to Fair Isle, I joined Fair Isle Crafts and learned to knit. In the time I was a member I was noted for both my lack of productivity and my lack of skill. The other members were probably just as relieved as I was when I eventually gave it up.

I think I will manage to resist the temptation of the machine for a little longer.

Photographs by Dave Wheeler