The Last Authentic Fair Isle Sweaters on Earth
Fair Isle knits are thick on the ground these days. (Off the bat, we count items from Pantherella, Raf Simons and Epaulet, and a whole season’s worth of goods from Howlin’ by Morrison.) But there’s surprisingly little love for the tiny Scottish island where the pattern comes from.
It makes sense. With six square miles and under 100 permanent residents, they were never going to churn out enough volume to fill a Rugby store. But with the help of a few hand-carved spinning wheels and a genuinely frightening quantity of sheep, some residents have managed to bring back the traditional ways of knitting the sweaters. That means sheep’s wool that’s never left the island, dyed and knit on site in the pattern that made the isle famous.
Naturally, we’re a little excited.
First, let’s talk a little bit about how unlikely this is. It isn’t just the lack of manpower (although most of the locals are busy growing turnips). The island’s a two-and-a-half-hour flight from anywhere resembling civilization, and the only thing that regularly makes the trek is an eight-seater prop plane, working against winds that average 35 mph. It’s just not that easy to get on and off the island.
Which brings us to Mati Ventrillon, the woman behind Fair Isle Knitwear, the only outfit still making knits on the island. Using hand-framed looms in the antique style (carved by the frightening man above), she’s working with roughly the same materials islanders had back in the ’20s, when the style caught on. It’s a folk pattern, made with small-scale folk production methods—the way it should be.
The result is more expensive than the mass-market version (all that shipping ain’t cheap), but infinitely more authentic. And since she’ll never make enough to fill up the racks at Urban Outfitters, you don’t have to worry about them getting trendy anytime soon.
- — Russell Brandom