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Why it's time to dust off your Fair Isle knits

Matthew Goode in 2008's Brideshead Revisited wearing traditional Fair Isle
Matthew Goode in 2008's Brideshead Revisited wearing traditional Fair Isle

Nestling somewhere between “Scottish folk ballads” and “Bagpipes and drums of the Highlands” on my dear, departed granny’s vinyl shelves was a Val Doonican album, resplendent with the Irish heart throb - for the Help The Aged demographic - reclining in what I later realised to be a Fair Isle knit sweater.

Cosy as a tea caddy and sedatery as a bed bath; for years after, every encounter with a Fair Isle sweater - whether re-styled in the ultra-hip environs of Hoxton, of elevated to high fashion on the Chanel catwalk - couldn’t help but bring the Rusk-like blandness of octogenarian listening materials.

Burberry Fair Isle cashmere sweater
Fair Isle cashmere sweater, £425, Burberry

Which is a world away from the high octane interpretation that outgoing Burberry head Christopher Bailey showed recently from this most British of brand, a celebration of what’s one of the most easily identifiable knitting patterns in the world, and one that nods to a rich tradition of British craft and heritage.

What the crofters and crafters of the remote Shetland Island it comes from would have made of the acid brights and cropped proportions, I don’t know, but it’s a testament to its longevity that it’s still one of the most adapted and copied patterns in the world; and all this from an island with a current population of 55.

Joseph Fair Isle sweater
Joseph Fair Isle sweater, £275, Mr Porter

There’s a vast degree of conflicting information in the white noise of the internet about how the distinctive patterns of the Fair Isle knit evolved; some cite the influence of the treasures of a Spanish Armada shipwreck that washed up on the island in the 1500s, others its proximity to Scandinavia.

Purists decry that only sweaters made by the craftspeople on Fair Isle can truly be classed as such. Maybe they’re right, but that hasn’t stopped global fashion titans such as Ralph Lauren and Karl Lagerfeld re-interpreting it.

Belstaff waistcoat
Quilted waistcoat ,£195, Belstaff

If yours has been langouring in some forgotten drawer, perhaps it’s best to gently usher it into the 21st century - Val Doonican gone digital - with some consideration into what to pair it with. Avoid fusty tweeds and corduroys; it’s fine for Balmoral but most of us don’t spend our free time like monarchs of our wee bit hill and glen. Straight-cut jeans, an outdoors jacket and some solid boots will look rustic and outdoorsy, but not too twee. Even if your musical tastes are more Madonna than Mull of Kintyre, you’ll look the part.

Tracking the trend

Royal seal of approval

Bonafide fashion plate the Duke of Windsor was immortalised in a Fair Isle knit in a 1921 painting by John St Helier Lander, which helped push the then flagging sales of Fair Isle through the roof.

Portrait of HRH The Prince of Wales by John St. Helier Lander, 1925 - Credit: John St. Helier Lander/Bridgeman Images
Portrait of HRH The Prince of Wales by John St. Helier Lander, 1925 Credit: John St. Helier Lander/Bridgeman Images

Mulling it over

During his retreats to the remote headlands of Campbeltown in Scotland, Paul McCartney and his wife Linda would go full native in this most Scottish sweater. Although he didn’t wear one of the cover of the eponymous song, images shot by his photographer wife of the time were rarely without a Fair Isle knit.

Paul McCartney - Credit: David Redfern/Redferns
Paul McCartney in his Mull of Kintyre days Credit: David Redfern/Redferns

On the catwalk

Christopher Bailey’s love letter to all things British in his swansong at Burberry featured Fair Isle knits, but not as we know them.

Burberry Fair Isle knit - Credit: Jeff Spicer/BFC/Getty Images
Burberry's interpretation of Fair Isle Credit: Jeff Spicer/BFC/Getty Images
More Dust Off...
More Dust Off...