Fair Isle is a knitting technique that is used to create patterns with multiple colours. This technique owes its name to Fair Island, a tiny island in northern Scotland, part of the Shetland Islands.
Traditionally, for a pattern to qualify as Fair-Isle, it must meet the following criteria:
- There must be only two colors used on a single row: as you have to carry the yarn that is not used at the back of the work. If you carry more than two yarn on the same row, the fabric at the back may be uneven and too thick. Moreover, most patterns have no more than 7 stitches of the same colour on a row in order to have a regular change between the colour of the pattern and the main colour of the knitting.
- The pattern must have diagonal lines so that the tension is well distributed. In this way, the work is firm but elastic.
- Traditionally, fair-isle is knitted in the round, with circular needles and this is more advantageous because this technique is easier, quicker and therefore more effective.
- As you work with the right side of your knitting in front of you, you can see your pattern all the time.
- You knit only with “knit” (and not purl), which gives a tension more equal to your knitting
- Your project is seamless, making the finishes much more beautiful!
* How to read a Fair-Isle pattern?
The patterns are written on a paper with small squares, where each square represents a stitch and each line represents a row. The squares of colours represent the colours of the fair-isle pattern, while the white squares represent the main color of your knitting. The colours to use when and where are always explained in the caption. It is necessary to read the grid starting from the bottom right, where the number 1 is usually written, and knit from right to left. (and from left to right for each row on the wrong side, which is not the case if you knit in the round).
* Which colours should you choose for your Fair-Isle?
- Choose your yarn colours in natural daylight and start with a bunch of colours you like.
- Separate into a group of light colours and a group of dark colours.
- Place each colour group from darker to lighter.
- Choose three colours from each group: a darker colour, a medium colour and a lighter colour.
- Select a couple of more pitchy colours that you may want to use as occasional accents and position them to the side.
- Align your choices next to each other. Is there enough contrast between groups? The darkest colour of the light group should be lighter than the lightest colour of the dark group. Designate one group as pattern colours and the other as background colours.
- Once your colours are chosen, try them out. Whether in pencil or felt drawings, or with samples. This will give you a better idea of the result.
- Tip: To check that your colours contrast well enough, you can take pictures of your yarns next to each other and put them in black and white. One colour should be darker than the others.
- If your fair-isle pattern is mixed with the main colour of the pattern (as on the Lighthouse sweater by Carrie Bostick Hodge), the main colour must really contrast with the colours of the fair-isle, otherwise they will mix. This colour will appear different from the others on your B & W photo.
- If your fair-isle pattern does not use the main color of the project but another (as on the Riddari sweater), the colour most used in the pattern must really contrast with the others. For example on my project, navy blue really contrasts with light blue and mustard. If I had chosen a lighter color, the colours would have mixed.
* Which technique should I use to knit Fair-Isle?
In knitting there are mainly two techniques very frequently used :
- English knitting, when you hold your yarn in your right hand
- Continental knitting when you hold your yarn in your left hand
To knit Fair-Isle, it is therefore interesting to combine these two methods, holding one colour in the left hand and another colour in the right hand. Another technique, more difficult, also consists of holding the two wires in the right hand.
However, if you are not able to perform these two techniques, you can hold your thread in your right hand, and drop it to take the other color every time.
* How to carry your unused yarn at the back of your work?
To carry the yarn that is not knitted at the back of the work, it is necessary to fix it to the one your are knitting. To do this, pass the unused yarn at the back of the work over the yarn that you are going to knit. It is then caught in the stitch, but it does not appear in front.
* Here are some tips to have a good Fair-Isle result
1. Use the same brand of needles for all your project: your tension may change if you switch between bamboo or metal needles.
2. Know that generally, when knitting Fair-Isle, our gauge is often tighter than knitting simple stockinette stitch. Feel free to adjust this using 1/2 larger needle size (or 1 size). This will avoid your Fair-Isle section to be tighter than the rest of your project. Some patterns will mention it, and others not because they assume you already know it. If you do not like the results you have, do not be afraid to undo and start over. If changing the needle size does not work, try changing your tension (either too tight or loose).
3. Always hold the yarn loosely at the back of your work. Tension is what is most important in Fair-Isle : if your work is too pleated, it means that your tension is too tight, and that you run your yarn too tightly at the back. It is better to have a tension a little too loose rather than too tight. When a knit has a good tension, it must be easily stretchable, without holes. It should have the same tension everywhere, with the yarn running at the back, in straight lines.
4. Whatever technique you choose: one thread in each hand, two threads in your right hand, or just holding one at a time in the left hand (stranding), the goal is that you are comfortable to knit.
5. When knitting two yarns, be careful to always keep a colour on top, and a colour underneath, and take them that way all the time. That way your balls will not get tangled.
6. When you knit in two colours, one colour will appear more than the other one. When a background colour and pattern colour are worked in the same row, the lines in a color will appear larger, more dominant, than the other colour. More specifically, it is the yarn that passes under the other one that will appear the most. The yarn that covers the other one will be less perceptible, or non-dominant. So choose the colour that you want to be seen more, and knit it under. If you knit in continental, take your background colour in the right hand and your dominant colour in the left hand.
7. If one of your yarn is not used until the end of the row, follow it along your main colour. In this way, your knitting will remain the same thickness and you will not notice the difference: do not forget that running a yarn makes the work thicker, so you would see the difference if you only used one color at the back.
8. It is advisable to carry the yarn unused every three stitches and no more, in order to keep a good tension. If your design consists of 2 yellow stitches, then 5 white stitches then 2 yellow stitches, carry your yellow thread after 3 white stitches: if you wait to have to reuse the yellow colour, the thread will run on 5 stitches, which could affect the tension of your knitting.
9. When you need to add a colour in a row, tie a loose knot at the beginning of the row to hang your new colour (even if you will only knit it in a few stitches).
10. For your colours to line up at the beginning of the row : Start your new color, knit a full row, then on the first stitch of the second row of the new colour, lift the stitch from the row below, put it on the left needle and knit two stitches together. (Source Meg Swansen’s Knitting)
11. During your project, you may feel that the result is not very uniform. Know that blocking is a very important finish, especially in Fair-isle. However, it is nevertheless necessary that your knit is elastic as I have already mentioned above.
12. And above all, be proud of yourself even if it does not seem perfect! Fair-isle is a technique that requires quite a lot of training but you will see that by trying a few times, your knits will be more and more beautiful!
Sources : “Book of fair-isle knitting” by Alice Starmore Meg Swansen’s Knitting TinCanKnits website “Working with Two Yarns” par Beth Brown Reinsel Fearless Fair Isle by Mary Jane Mucklestone (from Interweave Knits)