Beginning to Fair Isle Knit using handspun yarn.

I was introduced to and fell in love with spinning at a craft afternoon at my local library. I then took a class on spinning my own yarn and later on, joined my local Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers.

I felt the need to start a big project and having just started to learn to spin, I thought my newly acquired skill could be put to use.

Let’s start with two books

We need to backtrack a little bit and introduce my inspiration. Since I was a teenager, I have loved Fair Isle knitting. I found that the rhythm and repetition of knitting each combination of stitches is very soothing and the end result looks a lot more complicated than it really is. Life and work often gets in the way of craft and that was the case until about ten years ago when I was drawn to a lovely book while browsing in Waterstones. I had nothing in mind, but the book just called out to me and I knew I would have to take it home.

Alice Starmore’s Book of Fair Isle knitting starts with a brief history of Shetland, Fair Isle knitting and its origins and traditions and explains some of the symbols and designs. An explanation on how to read charts for both circular and flat knitting is given and there are details on how to calculate the number of stitches needed and guidance on choosing each pattern in relation to the next and the previous one.

Then Alice Starmore moves on to discuss colour and how to choose your combinations. She shows some different ideas and where these might be found in the world around us.

There are some techniques to pick up or re-learn specially for Fair Isle knitting and these are described in superb and easy to understand language and pictures. There are now plenty of tutorials on You Tube, but if you’re away in the back of beyond without the internet, then this is the medium for you!

Next in the book comes an array of garment patterns for you to follow.

The sixth and final chapter is the one that really took my fancy: Creating your own designs. This was more like it! I read the chapter as a challenge and from that moment on, I knew I would one day design and make my own Fair Isle garment.

A couple of years later, on a holiday in Shetland, I bought a book of 200 Fair Isle designs by Mary Jane Mucklestone. This book, as well as a short introduction to the history of Fair Isle knitting, details the equipment and skills required for a successful project from casting on to blocking. Mary Jane’s book also shows you how to adjust a pattern to fit in with the number of stitches you need for a repeat, showing you where to add on or take off a column of stitches. The main part of the book is a directory of stitches, broken down by number of rows and number of stitches in the repeat. Four charts are given for each pattern: two in different colour ways and one in black and white for a single line of the pattern and one in black and white for an all-over pattern repeat. There is also a colour photo of a knitted swatch for every pattern. The difficulty was in narrowing down my choices.

In my head, I knew what style to make: a short length cardigan with long sleeves and a collar. Many measurements later, I had the dimensions of the cardigan and now, using Alice Starmore’s book, set about calculating the number of stitches I’d need to go all the way round. I thought there will be a bit of leeway with a cardigan, as I could always add on an extra centimetre or two on the buttonhole rib if needed.

The yarn

Being a bit of a coward when it comes to colour, I decided to use only natural coloured yarn. I chose five different shades of natural fleece tops: Dark brown merino, dark grey Blue Faced Leicester, light grey Blue Faced Leicester, a mid brown Manx and cream Blue Faced Leicester. All were bought from Wingham Wool Work. I found that these offered me enough choice of combinations and I could change one colour in the same pattern to achieve a different look in another part of the cardigan. Here’s one pattern repeated in a slightly different colourway, where the XOXO pattern is better defined.

Spinning this amount of fleece was quite a challenge as I was quite new to this game and consistency of spin wasn’t a skill I’d got the hang of, but having said that, the more I spun, the better I got. Who knew that would happen? I ended up with a nice light two-ply yarn of approximately fingering weight (average 20wpi). It was almost a shame when I had spun enough to make a start on the knitting. The good thing about spinning your own yarn is that if you are getting a bit short of one colour, it’s easy to spin up some more.

New Techniques

The corrugated rib was one new technique I hadn’t done before and I am so pleased with the result, that I had to do it in several different colour combinations on different parts of the cardigan.

The other new technique was steeking. To allow a cardigan to be knitted in the round, a gap has to be left at the front where the button band will go. As you get to the last stitch of the row, your yarn is wrapped around the right needle several times to leave a long loop, then the next stitch you knit is the first stitch on the following row, but with a trailing loop behind it. As you knit up the cardigan, you end up with a vertical line of Steeks (loops) like this:

These need to be cut through and sewn into the back of the work before the button band stitches can be picked up. It was quite a lot of sewing, but worth it to allow knitting in the round.

Choosing Patterns

The best part of this project was choosing the patterns to use. I didn’t want an all-over pattern or theme, but chose my favourite patterns from both books and put them together in combinations of three or five as is traditional, with a small (peerie) pattern at the top and bottom, a large pattern in the middle and medium sized ones in-between. Here are some of the combinations I chose and the work-in-progress.

As you can see, my calculations were a bit rough and ready and some patterns had to be slightly adjusted to fit in with the number of stitch repeats, so that the centre of each pattern aligned with the centre of the ones above and below and the centre back and centre front of the garment. I know I got off centre a couple of times, but that makes it very much my own cardigan and quite honestly that could only be a problem for someone else. The other thing I didn’t always remember was to repeat exactly the colour combinations for the same pattern in that section. There’s one stonking great big colour repeat mistake that I didn’t spot until several rows afterwards. Too bad!

On the whole, the sequence of pattern choices all went well until I got to the sleeves, which weren’t quite long enough, so I had to add on one last pattern before the rib cuff.

This cardigan took me about eighteen months to spin, measure and calculate and knit from start to finish. It was well worth it, except that it’s almost too warm to wear. Double thickness wool doesn’t go well with central heating indoors and is quite bulky under a thick winter coat.

Good job it’s perfect for a Scottish summer.

Please note: I learned and honed my craft in the “sod it, that’ll do” school of knitting. There are many errors and this post is not intended to show a perfect technique or finished garment.

Published by Sarah McAlister Hat Maker and Textile Artist

I make all my lovely hats, caps and textiles by hand.

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