Situated halfway between Shetland and Orkney and spanning only 1.5 miles in diameter, you will find Fair Isle – the most remote inhabited island in the UK. The island has no restaurants or hospital, one school and its only shop doubles as a post office.
Living on this island requires a certain commitment to self-sufficiency with many residents holding more than one profession, often training as firefighters or helping to man the island’s airport. Often excluded from maps, you could be forgiven for thinking there was little to be found on Fair Isle beyond its evident natural beauty and popularity amongst birdwatchers studying migrating birds. But despite its modest population – only 60 at last count – the island is renowned for a rather special commodity. Fair Isle sweaters have attracted admirers worldwide and inspired many a designer from Alexander McQueen and Margiela to Céline and Junya Watanabe. And while the term has come to be used to describe any brightly-hued colourwork sweater, the true ‘Fair Isle’ sweater comes only from this little island.
The exact history of the island’s knitwear remains a mystery but is believed to have developed when locals began to experiment with the warm and durable yarn of their island’s sheep. As a unique commodity to Fair Isle, the residents would barter the distinctive garments for necessities with passing ships eventually leading to its commercialisation. It was recorded that 100 of the sweaters were ordered for the famed Bruce expedition to Antartica in 1902 and later in the 1920s, the Prince of Wales was seen sporting a Fair Isle knitted vest while golfing, lead to a surge of interest.
The intricate sweater designs are characterised by a limited colour palette incorporating symbols often of a religious nature including crosses, lozenges, anchors, ram’s horns and flowers reflecting the unique environment of the island. The colours used today include earthy natural (undyed) shades such as Shetland Black and others with lyrical Scottish names including Shaela (dark grey), Sholmit (pale grey) and Mooskit (dark fawn) alongside more contemporary colours. Basic Fair Isle uses only the knit stitch if circular or double pointed needles known as ‘wires’ are employed. However, a modern variation of Fair Isle has been developed where the unused strands of thread are woven into the fabric allowing for larger blocks of colour and room for variations in pattern.
"The French-Venezuelan designer moved from London to Fair Isle in 2007 responding to an unusual advertisement to live on the island"
Demand far outstrips supply with only four knitters producing Fair Isle sweaters commercially on the island and one such practitioner is Mati Ventrillon. Originally trained as an architect, the French-Venezuelan designer moved from London to Fair Isle in 2007 responding to an unusual advertisement to live on the island. There, she discovered the local knitwear and fell in love with the tradition, eventually training with a local Shetland artist. Passionate about preserving this unique craft in its birthplace, Ventrillon launched her own label in 2012. On the subject of finding fulfilment in an unusual place, Ventrillon explains: “Work can’t be something that takes your life away entirely…it’s learning to appreciate and incorporate into one’s life. What’s the point if you’re working 10 hours a day but don’t have time to appreciate anything?”
When asked what makes Shetland wool so special, Ventrillon reveals: “We live in such a fragile environment, the smallest change has the largest impact. So, if we start working with wool from the outside it would change things completely.” While her designs are inspired by 19th century patterns, Ventrillon is pragmatic in her outlook and open to moving away from tradition when creating bespoke pieces. Ventrillon begins by shearing the sheep herself and the wool is then sent by boat to Shetland where it is dyed. Her ambition is to re-imagine Shetland wool as a prized yet practical material: “I’m trying to bring awareness of the craft, in how luxurious and unique it really is. Merino is comparable, but there are differences, for example, it doesn’t have the same resistance to weather. Shetland wool is really water-repellent – an ‘outdoor’ garment whether you’re outside working in the fields or walking in the countryside.”
“We live in such a fragile environment, the smallest change has the largest impact"
Once the wool is returned, she begins work on her orders, preparing the design and hand-punching them onto cards. The individual body and sleeve pieces are then painstakingly joined by hand and the finishing touches such as the rib and collar are added. The completed sweater is washed and dried before being packed carefully for delivery. The process is far from swift with a single sweater taking anywhere between fifteen to twenty hours to make from start to finish. And perhaps therein lies the charm for those fortunate enough to own one. A garment as true artefact – made by hand in situ, its history woven into its very fibres and inextricably linked to its unique place in the world.
Product imagery courtesy of Mati Ventrillon
The genuine article
The pursuit of a genuine, bespoke Fair Isle sweater could place you on a three-year waiting list. If that feels like eternity, Mati Vetrillon also offers intricate design off the shelf.