A Fair Isle sweater sits on a shaping rack

In the ever-evolving world of fashion, certain pieces stand the test of time. Fair Isle knits are among these enduring classics, never losing their appeal, and standing as a reminder that true luxury comes from the skillful hands of artisans.

Fair Isle sweaters have remained a symbol of luxury and style for generations with their expert craftsmanship and timeless design. The perfect item for casual, formal and outdoor wear, every luxury traveler should have a Fair Isle knit in their luggage.

A Tale of Heritage and Tradition

Prince Edward VIII in a Fair Isle jumper, painted by John St Helier Lander

Prince Edward VIII in a Fair Isle jumper, painted by John St Helier Lander. Credit: Wikipedia

Fair Isle knitting originated from a tiny Scottish island of the same name, located in the northernmost reaches of the British Isles. It was on Fair Isle that this iconic knitting style was first practiced, and it has been a source of national pride and tradition for centuries.

Instantly recognizable through its familiar geometric patterns, the sweaters have been knitted commercially since the 1600s, when knitwear with exchanged with passing ships. The sweater has also long been a favorite of the British royal family, first gaining notoriety in the 1920s, when Edward VIII (who later became the Duke of Windsor) wore his in public.

Today the Fair Isle as has a population of just over 50 permanent residents. Plus a few revered Fair Isle jumper producers working from patterns handed down through generations. These include the highly sought after Mati Ventrillon. Take note, you may have to wait up to three years for a truly authentic garment, as demand far outstrips supply.

For travel inspiration: Scotland Destination Guide

A Modern Classic

Authentic fair isle knits from Mati Ventrillon

Authentic fair isle knits from Mati Ventrillon. Photo credit: @mativentrillon on Instagram

The ability to adapt to different fashion trends over the years, yet always maintaining a sense of class and elegance, has kept the Fair Isle sweater in vogue. Often appearing on catwalks, courtesy of fashion houses like Chanel, Ralph Lauren and Louis Vuitton, they’ve effortlessly transitioned from generation to generation.

The term ‘Fair Isle Knitting’ has nowadays unfortunately become generic and is used by many to describe any form of multi-colored knitwear. However, genuine Fair Isle knitwear carries Fair Isle’s own trademark ‘Star Motif’ as a guarantee of quality and place of origin. It is not available in any retail outlet, instead being sold direct to customers visiting the island or by mail-order.

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Expert Craftsmanship in Every Stitch

Authentic Fair Isle knits can take weeks to complete. Credit: @fairislewithmarie on Instagram

Each Fair Isle sweater is crafted by skilled artisans following age-old techniques handed down through generations. The crafting process is meticulous and time-intensive, each piece knitted by hand.

A hallmark of these sweaters is the use of traditional Shetland wool. Lightweight, warm and soft, it ensures a tough and practical garment, capable of keeping you warm and snug in all conditions.

A rare store of patterns has evolved over time. These are then chosen and personally interpreted by each knitter so that each then achieves their own recognizable style. But Fair Isle knitting is not just about the patterns; it’s about precision. The technique requires both skill and experience to create a piece that is as beautiful on the inside as it is on the outside.

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Colors evolving through time

A rainbow photographed over Scotland's Shetland Islands

Traditionally, brightly colored garments were knitted using hand-spun yarns colored in a variety of ways. For example, Indigo would have been sourced to dye blue yarn. Madder root, when mixed with a lichen  known as Korkalett, produced the reds so distinctive of old Fair Isle knitwear.

Today a small amount of hand-spinning and natural-dyeing continues on the island. However the majority of fleeces are sent to the Shetland mainland. These natural dyed yarns are then used by the current knitters on Fair Isle along with a selection of contemporary colors.

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The Lopapeysa: Iceland’s Iconic Sweater

A couple wearing Icelandic lopapeysa sweaters

When talking of iconic and luxurious sweater styles, the Icelandic Lopapeysa also deserves a mention. Similar to the Fair Isle sweater, the Lopapeysa carries a deep sense of heritage and tradition. However it caters for a much colder market. Inspired by Icelandic nature and folklore, designs use subtle colors ad often a smattering of Viking symbols.

The Lopapeysa, quite simply, means ‘unspun wool sweater’. Back in the day, fishermen and farmers wore this garment due to its high water-resistant and insulation properties. The country’s sheep have naturally adjusted and adapted to Iceland’s sub-Arctic temperatures over the centuries, making their two-layered wool one like no other.

Whichever you choose, an exclusive piece of knitwear makes the perfect accompaniment to any luxury vacation. For travel inspiration, take a look at our worldwide collection of small group journeys.