Sunday, 14 December 2014

Fabulous Fair Isle Catherine Johnson

Girl in a Fair Isle Jumper by Stanley Curbister, City of Edinburgh collection
I am opening my blog with this stunning portrait painted at the height of the Fair Isle craze in 1923. I love her outfit. I hadn't intended to open with this painting, this was a moan about my lack of Christmas preparedness and began, initially like this;

I have not started my Christmas shopping. I have bought three books - for me - and begun two knitting projects for close family. Only ten days to finish one double moss stitch jacket and a pair of fair isle mittens.... (excuse me for sounding like Ruby Ferguson's Jill).


But what really got me fired up was this;  Keira Knightley in The Imitation Game. I haven't seen it yet, but check that cardigan!
Keira in The Imitation Game
Anyone who knows me is aware of my knitting fixation. I have practically bought my ticket just on the stills for that film. Authentic pattern and colour! Beautiful.
I have been a fan of Fair Isle and other 20th century knitting patterns since college. I used to knit up for a designer called Patricia Roberts and sold Fair Isle patterned tams at Portobello Market.  

I love war time set telly almost exclusively for the knitwear as the shows themselves are often disappointing. For example,  The Bletchley Circle, which should have been marvellous if judged solely on the quality of the cardigans, let itself down badly.

Anna Maxwell Martin in The Bletchley Circle
Fair Isle was popularised by Prince Edward, when he was Prince of Wales. He was given a jumper by the world famous Lerwick wool merchants, Jamesons in 1921. He was soon photographed in them on and off the golf course and as one of the most fashionable people of his generation started a massive trend. This trend for handcrafts - now only affordable by the elite - took off at the same time as mass produced ready to wear clothing and the end of a horrific war seems to signify a yearning for a kind of British nostalgia that still exists, Laura Ashley, cycling spinsters, cricket for tea....
Prince Edward Prince of Wales in 1921
Traditional Fair Isle patterning is actually much easier to do than it looks.  Although colourful and heavily patterned, most never have any more than two colours in a row and can be knitted on two needles rather than the usual four if desired. The patterns are generally variations on an X O theme. Crosses and circles, large and small. Each island family had it's own recognisable patterns, and each knitter made sure to include at least one imperfection. This was vital to stop the Devil admiring the knitting and snatching the wearer, and his precious jumper, down to hell. It is said the patterns were handed down from the Spanish sailors, part of the Armada in 1588, whose ship ran aground on the island, but there's so much attributed to those Spanish sailors they must have been terribly busy.

Jeremy Irons in the BBC production of Brideshead Revisited
Fair Isle sweaters were originally designed as fisherman's jumpers. Knitted seamlessly, like a gansey, from bottom to top and arms from the shoulder down with double thickness welts, the pattern rendered a double thickness fabric, twice as warm as that of a 5 ply gansey.  

Of course the sweaters were first knitted in natural undyed wool, but the as soon as mass dyed wool became available they went psychedelic. I do think that during those long dark winters a beautiful brightly patterned jumper must have been a hugely welcome injection of colour.
From the Shetland Museum 1920s Fair Isle
Anyway if anyone out there does need a knitting consultant, I'm your woman. Happy Christmas.



Here's some I made earlier




Catheirne Johnson's last novel was SAWBONES, winner of the 2014 Young Quills award for historical fiction. In 2015 her story The Liar's Girl (recently included as one of the most boring stories ever) is part of LOVE HURTS an anthology of love stories out in February.


14 comments:

Sue Purkiss said...

I once knitted a Fair Isle jumper. It took forever. I made it with Paton's Fiona, which had very pretty colours and was nice and soft. But I hadn't realised that the threads being carried over at the back would make it so thick, and also pull it tight. I think I only wore it once - it was so hot!But it was a thing of beauty.Lovely post, Catherine.

Joan Lennon said...

Makes me want to knit again! Maybe 2015'll be the year!

Catherine Johnson said...

Sue they are pre central heating wear. And you reminded me my first pulled tight too! But so pretty until the moths get them.

carol drinkwater said...

Catherine, I LOVE the cardigan Keira K is wearing and the Girl in Fair Isle Jumper portrait is stunning -the hat and scarf too.
My mother used to knit after the war when she first came to England, to keep them while my dad was completing his studies. She was rather exceptional and her woollens were displayed at Streatham Ice Rink from where she received commissions.. She was paid by the ball of wool, not the hour.
I had some fine cardigans and floral dresses in All Creatures but nothing as lovely as Keira's cardigan… splendid costume wear.
Is that really Jeremy Irons? I hardly recognise him.

Katherine Langrish said...

Love this post, Catherine! Makes me feel all cosy and warm, just like the sweaters!

booksandbassets said...

I love this post! It sounds as though you are as obsessed with knitting as I am. Although I love the color and patterns from that era, I refer my vests and sweaters a little longer than they knit them, so I tend to alter the pattern slightly. I knit regularly and love knitting fair isle,a although at the moment I am really interested in traditional Scandinavian patterns. So much good history in knitting.

Leslie Wilson said...

I enjoyed this very much. Thanks!

Ann Turnbull said...

What lovely photos! I used to do lots of fair isle knitting, which as you say is very easy - and also liked doing damask patterns, which produce a lighter garment. There is indeed a lot of history in knitting.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Fab post, Cat! You *almost* got me excited about sweaters! ;-)

Penny Dolan said...

Just absolutely FULL of admiration. Catherine, as I couldn't even manage the simplest knitting. The stitches always seemed to turn themselves the wrong way, even with the simplest knitting. How lucky all your gift-getters will be!

As these pics show, Fair Isle does have such beautiful patterns though I suspect they'd make me look more like a formidable Wodehouse Aunt than a stylish Keira. :-)

catdownunder said...

So why are you knitting that shawl? (Yes, I know - knitting is addictive, almost as addictive as writing!)
Must admit I love FI too - something to do with my Scots ancestry perhaps? And look what Alice Starmore did for the knitwear industry with her FI patterns!

Celia Rees said...

Love those cardis and pullies! Wish I could knit...
Great post, Catherine!

Christina Koning said...

Loved this post - and I speak as a non-knitter! Currently writing about the 1920s, so it's useful to know when and why the Fair Isle craze started...

bibliotechie said...

No Carol it isn't Jeremy Irons. It is Matthew Goode who played the same character as Irons in the remake of Brideshead Revisited. Matthew Goode is also in the Imitation Game.