Rule-breaking, tradition and textile innovation: learning from Fair Isle knitting

15th November 2016
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Although I am a Shetland-based designer, my contemporary knitwear isn’t always immediately recognisable as ‘Shetland’.

Nevertheless I do take considerable inspiration from my surroundings, including the incredible traditions of textile and yarn construction in these islands.



Here I’m going to talk about my own interpretation of a world-famous Scottish design, which was first documented in Fair Isle—a small island 25 miles south of mainland Shetland—in the 19th Century.

It isn’t obvious, but my bestselling knitwear collection, Rigg, borrows a principle from the most familiar style of fair isle (and shetland) knitting.


My Rigg pieces are not influenced by how Fair Isle knitting looks. Instead inspiration came from the construction of these traditional pieces.


In particular I became really interested in how air is knitted into Fair Isle garments, and the way this contributes to warmth and their characteristic, lofty handle.

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air 'knitted in'

Inspired by Fair Isle knitting, my Rigg knitwear uses air pockets to create warm and beautifully lightweight garments.

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Rigg Vaarie Jacket

30+ colours

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Trapping air to create warmth: Fair Isle knitting

The most distinctive feature of Fair Isle knitting—its pattern—is achieved by using two colours of yarn per row. One colour is knitted with while the other is held behind the fabric and carried, or ‘stranded’, along the reverse. Patterns are created when colours are alternated between being knitted and stranded.


This produces a layered textile (often very beautiful on its ‘wrong’ side!), with pockets of air created  within. Garments knitted using this stranded colourwork technique are warm, surprisingly light, and perfectly suited to our climate (of course, there are traditions of stranded colourwork elsewhere, notably in Norway).


Shetland yarn itself enhances this effect of loftiness. The yarn traditionally used in Fair Isle knitting is ‘woollen spun’. This method of spinning traps air between the fibres (the wool from native Shetland sheep is especially well-suited to woollen spinning).  In addition, the finishing and blocking process (soaking and stretching) of the knitted garment allows the Shetland yarn to ‘bloom’, giving further loft to the final piece.

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fair isle knitting

Shetland's Elizabeth Johnston shows the 'floats' of yarn carried over the back of her Fair Isle cardigan

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Shetland colourwork uses not more than two colours of yarn per row.

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Strands of yarn create a layered fabric, trapping air.

Learning from tradition, and breaking the rules to create a new Shetland textile


Inspired by Fair Isle and its use of stranding, and the way air pockets are part of the fabric, of course I began to experiment... and break the rules.


I didn’t want to use a woollen spun Shetland yarn this time. Instead I had lovely, fine ‘worsted spun’ yarn (worsted spinning doesn’t trap air in the same way as woollen spinning, and produces a much more compact yarn).


Because my yarn wasn’t intrinsically lofty, I needed to insert air into the knitting itself...

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Ripples of knit make a gorgeous, tactile fabric

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Tension-creating 'floats' of yarn create pockets of air

knitting with air


In order to put air into the knitted fabric, I had to adopt a few strategies. Firstly, I used a looser gauge than is normal for such a fine yarn, creating wee gaps of air between stitches. Secondly, I manipulated tension to create further air pockets.


Now, knitters will know that it is undesirable to create fabric-puckering tension in your Fair Isle knits! In fact this is very much like what happens in my Rigg pieces. Instead of simply floating, strands of yarn on the reverse of the fabric pull it into lovely irregular ribs and grooves.  

More rules broken.

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rigg cape

The Nielanell bestseller

20+ colours

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your colour is waiting

Rigg garments are knitted in a fine yarn, but at a loose gauge - meaning airiness is knitted in!

A new Shetland classic


After much experimentation, the result was the soft, springy ridges and furrows of Rigg. The name is inspired by the word rig, which is Shetlandic for backbone or spine.

The garments in the Rigg collection are the most popular that I’ve designed. Perhaps it is because they suit everyone—grandmothers and their granddaughters wear Rigg capes, scarves and jackets. Perhaps it is because you can scrunch them into your bag!

But I think it is because the fabric feels so wonderful on. The squashy, air-filled Rigg textile is after all inspired by one of the most enduring knits of the last hundred years: the Fair Isle jumper.

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Wrap up in rigg

Jackets, scarves and more

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A note on the use of air in textiles: what about string vests?


The idea of deliberately trapping air within a garment is really interesting—it’s the same reason that a string vest can keep you warm, or cool.


And while Rab C Nesbitt is not perhaps the most obvious source of design inspiration, his favoured style of undergarment is a tried and tested ‘technical’ garment for use in extremely hot and cold climates. In 1953 the expedition team climbing Everest wore string vests, layered underneath a shirt and a Shetland jumper. Like Rab C, my father was a year-round string vest man: it is a piece of clothing that is firmly planted in my psyche!


Traditional, light weight Shetland lace knitting uses an unbelievably fine yarn. Again, with the air pockets created by the lace pattern, these garments can be surprisingly warm.


Of course animal fur also traps air, which keeps the creature warmer than a super-sleek coat. You might be interested to know that one of the other sources of inspiration for the Rigg fabric came from the natural world— but definitely not Shetland—being the pattern of a crocodile hide!  I’m afraid the design process is seldom neat and tidy, and my influences and ideas come from a wide variety of sources.



With thanks to Elizabeth Johnston of Shetland Handspun for the images of her beautiful Fair Isle work (knitted in her own hand-dyed, hand-spun Shetland yarn).



Louise Scollay of Knit British on Fair Isle knitting, origin and ownership

Katie Weston of Hill Top Cloud on the difference between woollen and worsted spinning

Shetland Museum & Archives has a small archive of online images showing traditional Shetland spinning and knitting

Shetland Textile Museum has information about the history of Shetland Textiles

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The pattern of a crocodile hide also inspired the make-up of the Rigg textile... but that's another story!