Saturday, 24 February 2018

Book Review - The Art of Fair Isle Knitting

The Art of Fair Isle Knitting, by Ann Feitelson:  Loveland, CO, Interweave Press, 1993, 183 pages, ISBN 1-883010-20-9, $34.95.  Reviewed by Donna Estin.

Having a marketable product that the mass population links exclusively to you is the key to financial stability.  While no one knows the thought process behind the first Fair Isle design, Ann Feitelson begins her book with a historical journey examining the coalition of home based hand knitters and merchants who created a unique product that allowed Fair Isle and the rest of the Shetland Islands to flourish economically.

This book is divided into thirds; history, technique and patterns.  The history is crucial for understanding the importance of a simple, repeating design, (i.e. speed = quantity = money). Appreciation of the coordinated efforts of a group of islanders that raised sheep, created a style, hand knitted garments, promoted their product and created a sustainable economy for decades gives depth to the art of Fair Isle.  It leads you to knit with more knowledge and a deeper grasp of the art form you are continuing.  You must understand a tradition wholly, in order to carry it on, otherwise it becomes diluted, cheapened and forgotten.

Enlightened by the history, the author leads you by the hand into the science of selecting colors with the goal of teaching you to design your own Fair Isle sweater.  For the color-challenged knitter, this book gives sample color palettes in appealing combinations.  And if the comprehensive color shading, technique and design are just too much to absorb the first time around, the rest of the book provides over twenty patterns ready to knit. 

I thought I knew Fair Isle, but this book illuminated all that I didn’t know and challenged some of my preconceived notions.  The book trained my eye to look upon a sweater and see not a random collection of colors, but a well-thought out scheme of complimentary colors shaded from light to dark with opposing contrasts between background and pattern.  And what I thought had been originally designed centuries ago to look artful, delicate and complex, was really designed to be simple, easy to memorize and knittable at great speeds to ensure commercial success.

Some of the looks are dated but in all fairness, many patterns are twenty years old.  For me, the return to varied, undyed wools and neutral colors is the most appealing.  Like a tide coming in and out, the popularity of this design has moved in and out of fashion.  But the flexible, warm fabric knitted to withstand weather seems to be forever connected to harsh weather climates and like the changing tides, is constant and always with us.  I have a new appreciation for Fair Isle and a much deeper understanding.  This book deserves to be read twice and holds answers to the how and whys of Fair Isle knitting that would benefit every knitter embarking on this style.

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