Wednesday, September 14, 2016

A Shetlander's Fair Isle Graph Book In Colour

This is the second book from the Shetland Guild of Spinners, Knitters, Weavers and Dyers, and the first think to say about it is this: keep them coming ladies. The first one was A Legacy of Shetland Lace which is a tremendous book for anyone with even the faintest interest in knitting or the history and culture of Shetland.

'A Shetlander's Fair Isle Graph Book' is a somewhat different proposition, basically it's a facsimile of 2 original graph books of patterns with slightly obscure beginnings. Guild member Kathleen Anderson had been given them some years earlier by the son of the knitwear manager for Anderson & Co. As someone who primarily knitted lace she hadn't given them much attention until the guild started talking about producing a book on Fair Isle. When the guild as a whole got a look at the books with a view to incorporating some of the patterns into the original Fair Isle project it seems the decision was quickly taken that they deserved their own book.

The preface promises that a collection of guild members Fair Isle patterns is still in the pipeline - which is something to look forward to, but meanwhile this book is a treasure. it's also something quite unique.

Unlike Shetland lace patterns - which if they were recorded, were recorded in the briefest of written abbreviations - charted collections of Fair Isle patterns have been around for quite a while, but generally they're in black and white giving no clue to what the garments might have looked like.

These graph books are in full, glorious, colour. They date primarily from the 1930's and 40's and had belonged to Bill Henry who was in charge of hosiery at Anderson and Co in the mid 20th century. It's not clear if he collected the patterns himself, but they would have reflected the kind of Fair Isle knitting the company bought from self employed knitters. Nor is it clear what they were used for, its possible that they were intended as specific instructions for knitters (though in that case knitted samplers, which were commonly used, would seem more practical). It's also possible that the books were a record of interesting patterns or colour ways that passed through Anderson & Co, or simply a creative exercise. To me they look like someone's working notebooks, somewhere to try out ideas before committing them to wool.

The great thing about Fair Isle, (or stranded colour work if you prefer) is that at its most basic level it's quite easy. The basic level is rows of small patterns where the maths remains simple. As the patterns get bigger and more intricate so does the maths to make everything hang together, but it's nothing a bit of forward planning can't deal with.

What I have found complicated is working out how to use colour, and I'm not alone in this. It's always fascinating when designers like Kate Davies, Donna Smith, and Ella Gordon (chosen because I read their blogs, it could, and should, be a much longer list) share the thought process behind their colour choices, it's also really helpful.

I had thought colour would be something I would find easy. My artistic education might have been patchy but between an A level in art, and a degree in history of art, I have a fairly comprehensive grasp of colour theories, and I'd always been quite confident in the colour palates that appeal to me. It went for nothing.

Seeing the patterns here is a revelation. There are traditional combinations of colours which would have been available with natural dyes, and straight off the sheep, but as by the 1930's pre dyed wool in all manner of colours was cheaply available there are some eye popping combinations here which are really going to give me something to think about next time I look at a vintage black and white photo.

The Norwegian star motifs are particularly interesting in this respect, they are devices which would probably have been familiar to Shetland knitters long before WWII, but the influx of Norwegian sailors during this time really boosted their popularity. The versions recorded here are - well they're stunning, and far more colourful than I would have imagined.

Dr Carol Christianson's introduction is excellent for putting the graph books into context, and holding this book I feel like I've got something really significant in my hands. As a design source book it's a lovely thing to have, and one which is certainly going to encourage me to be bolder with some of my colour choices. It's also really helpful as a guide for how to put patterns together. But it's more than just a source book, it's also an incredibly vivid historical document which gives an insight into how one small part of the past might have looked. I hope I'm managing to express just how exciting I find that!

It's also further convinced me that there's a real need for a comprehensive illustrated collection of historical Fair Isle colour ways and patterns - please, somebody, take on that project!

A Shetlander's Fair Isle Graph Book is available to order from The Shetland Times Bookshop Here


  1. This looks like a book that I would enjoy even if I didn't use it. I have no idea how I managed to miss your post on A Legacy of Shetland Lace! I shall go, immediately, to read it, thank you.

  2. I didn't do the lace book justice, it's well worth having both as a how to book and as an insight into the work of a remarkable generation of knitters. This one is also special, I think I will use it because I really enjoy Fair isle and love the idea of being able to use colour and pattern combinations from the 30's and 40's, but it's worth having just as a document. The introduction makes it clear that a collection of patterns in colour is unusual (so far it seems to be unique) and it looks to me like someone's working notebooks which makes it particularly interesting. I might start colouring mine in!