"In the 1920s, Fair Isle knitting became very high fashion, thanks to the Prince of Wales, who was sent a jumper" — that's queen's English for "sweater" — "by a local woman here," said Carol A. Christiansen, textiles curator of the Shetland Museum and Archives in Lerwick, Shetland. "Once he wore it at the golf course at St. Andrews, it became very fashionable."
Now, offshoots of Fair Isle's original X and O patterns circle not just sweaters, hats, socks and gloves, but even boxer briefs. The motif lends itself to almost endless twists, including designer Alexander McQueen's signature skulls.
Though it pushes many men's tolerance for pattern, Fair Isle's old-school good looks fit right in with the sophisticated outdoorsman themes rampant on men's fall/winter fashion runways this year. Fair Isle is versatile enough to pair with a tweed jacket, dark skinny jeans and Red Wing work boots.
"Lumberjack plaids, fisherman sweaters and particularly Fair Isle are classic elements that are especially appealing when they are reinterpreted," said Kate Ciepluch, fashion director for shopbop.com.
Where reinterpretation crosses into reinvention is a matter of debate.
Fair Isle originates on a tiny island of the same name in the Shetland Archipelago, near where the Atlantic Ocean and North Sea meet. In the 18th century, knitters on that blustery terrain began creating the colorful motifs, Christiansen said.
"The Fair Isle patterning is very similar to patterning that you see in Norway and the Baltic region, but the way the motifs are put together is unique to Fair Isle."
In Fair Isle tradition, usually two colors of yarn were in every row. The yarns were the natural colored wools of Shetland sheep, white and dark brown — "what we call morrit," Christiansen said, as well as blue dyed with indigo, red dyed with madder, and then a golden color, created from local plant dyes.
"Local knitters were experimenting with lots of different patterns, colors and yarns, she said. They really kind of pushed the boundaries, as it were, of the traditional, which was more of a fisherman's garment and working man's garment."
Coming up on a century later, designers like Rag & Bone and Junya Watanabe used Fair Isle liberally in its fall men's collection. We asked Christiansen to review some of our picks for their resemblance to the island's originals.
"The necktie and the jumper under the jacket on the model are the most true to traditional Fair Isle knitting in terms of patterning," she observed. "The gloves have a Norwegian star motif, which was adopted by Shetland knitters following World War II."
But the purest Fair Isle knits remain a point of pride for the wee island, where knitters continue to produce the traditional jumpers by hand, sometimes from the long, lustrous wool of sheep on their own crofts."You can still buy a garment on Fair Isle, made by a person who lives on Fair Isle, using their own designs," Christiansen said.