Saturday, 31 July 2010

The dying art of Fair Isle

Photo courtesy of

It's funny what you can find out when you get up VERY early in the morning. Like today, when I caught a fascinating documentary about Fair Isle this morning, on Radio 4.

Fair Isle knitting, as a technique, originated in and has been important to the economy of the Northern Isles for generations. Its links with Shetland wool production, and the skill level involved, mean that its status has long been protected so that the tradition can continue. The documentary I heard, which you can listen to via this link, was prompted by the news that knitting will no longer be taught in local schools.

An interesting argument that was put forward by one of the Fair Isle knitters was that garments produced in this specialised and traditional way should be granted Fair Trade protection. To produce a jumper at around minimum wage levels would incur a price tag of around £700. This provoked a discussion about the challenge of educating the wider public on the pricing of traditional skills, whether knitting should be left to re-emerge simply as a hobby or gifting skill, or whether artisans should expect to have to take another type of part time work in order to subsidise the production of traditional garments. These are things I think about all the time when I'm knitting, so I was delighted to hear it voiced on national radio. It's only a shame that it was discussed shortly after 6am, when anyone with a choice in the matter is still catching up on sleep.


dropstitch said...

That sounds like a great documentary, though I was enjoying being asleep at that time... Not sure if I would have swapped! I saw an interesting thing about knitted guernseys (another time-consuming knitted skill) on TV once. Apparently each town knitted their own unique combination of patterns into the jumpers, so a bobbled pattern meant the town had a shingly beach, for example, and a zig-zag pattern meant the town had a cliff (and was also a safety reminder to walk down those steep cliffs in a zig zag rather than a straight line). They also knitted the fisherman's initials into the jumper. This meant that if a fisherman drowned and was washed up on shore, they would use his guernsey to identify both him (by the initials) and the town he came from (by the patterns) so they could inform his next of kin. I wonder if there are any messages/communications in fairisle knitting too?

Kim Caro said...

ya pricing things is so hard when it comes to crafts n art. I say the same thing, whatever you decide to do, do it and if people complain they can go elsewhere. if they decide to sell less like me, i shouldnt complain. :) I dont take forgranted the hard work people put into their work cause its pure talent, a gift from God. I cant do this. these people deserve what is given to them, if they get bumped up awesome.

Girl_Industries said...

Hi Laura,

I didn't know about the history of knitted guernseys, but I love the idea of a code or set of information being knitted into a garment. Last night's episode of Sherlock meshes really nicely with this idea, too.

Welcome, Kim. I agree, pricing is probably the most difficult part of selling handmade items. Maybe it's a skill on a par with the actual making part?

Paperbuzz said...

I really enjoyed my knitting lessons at school. Sometimes there was a very long queue to get to the knitting teacher if you got a bit stuck, but on the whole it was really good. I made some lovely fair isle fingerless gloves and lots of other not so lovley things as well!