Learn it to make cozy hats, scarves, and sweaters of all kinds.

By Alexandra Churchill
February 14, 2020
Tshum / Getty Images

If you've ever worn a wintry Fair Isle knit, it's easy to understand their appeal: The bold patterns, the rich colors, and it feels even cozier in a warm wool blend. This style of knitting originated on Fair Isle, a small island halfway between Orkney and Shetland off the coast of northern Scotland. Although Fair Isle designs may look complicated because the colors shift within a stitch pattern, no more than two colors are worked in a single row. Sweaters are knit in the round and steeks (from the Scottish word meaning "stitch" or "to close shut") are used to open cardigan fronts, neck edges, and armholes.

Traditional Fair Isle patterns once used the natural browns and creams of the island's sheep, brightened with dyes made from madder, indigo, and lichen. Colors used in commercial dyes began being used in the 1850s. Fair Isle knitting was originally used for hats, stockings, and scarves—it wasn't until the iconic sweater made its debut donned by British royalty. In 1922, the Prince of Wales (later to be known as King Edward VIII) sported a V-neck Fair Isle sweater on the greens at St. Andrews golf course, immediately making the pattern in vogue. Fair Isle knitwear has been a mainstay of fashion since that time, and modern designers use interpretations of the classic design to this day.

Related: Why Lever Knitting Is Called the Fastest Method in the World

While stranded colorwork is traditional in other cultures—Norwegian, Swedish, Icelandic, and Andean—the Fair Isle style is one of the best known. In stranded knitting, more than one color is worked in a single row. At each knit stitch in the Fair Isle style, there are two working colors of yarn; one is drawn through to make the knit stitch, and the other is simply held behind the piece, carried as a loose strand of yarn behind the just-made stitch. The unused colors are carried along the back of the work, forming floats (which is a common term for the strand of yarn that runs across the back of colorwork fabric).

Working circularly in stockinette stitch allows the knitter to see the pattern develop. The result is a seamless tube of steeks. A steek is a vertical column of extra knit stitches that are intended to be cut open when a garment is being finished; this is to create armholes, necklines, and cardigan fronts. Look for a chart, buy some Shetland yarn, and try this technique for a festive winter sweater you can call your own.

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