The History of Your Favorite Knits: Fair Isle and Aran

The best part of the impending holiday is the familiarity of it all. Whether it’s the carol you play on repeat or your no-fail cookie recipe, the comforts of the season offer a reassuring warmth.

The same is true for your favorite sweaters. Certain ones stay in rotation—and in fashion—simply because they are easy, relaxed, welcoming to the wearer.

Aran knits were inspired by fisherman in the British Isles

Aran and Fair Isle are two enduring knits. Both originated in the British Isles. The fishing trade inspired the warm wools that soon became a staple of the populations’ wardrobe. Cottage industries sprouted up to supply the sweaters to locals and to supplement unstable or inadequate pay in rural coastal communities.

While the traditionally intricate or ornate patterns of the knits long kept the Industrial Revolution from mass producing them, eventually machinery did catch up. But in the far-flung outer reaches of places like the Dales, Northumberland and the Hebrides, knitters kept the craft alive by making homespun jumpers. The humble beginnings of both sweater styles have only aided their rise to popularity. Today, these two heritage knits enjoy a permanent place in many closets.

A Fair Isle knit sweater by Prabal GurungFair Isle recently made headlines when CHANEL issued an apology to artisan knitwear designer Mati Ventrillon for designs in their Métiers d’Art show that very nearly copied her creations.

And while luxury retailers have adopted the knit, the colorful Fair Isle jumper was borne out of thrift. Knitters combined leftover yarns to recreate a stunning range of shades and patterns. The Scottish landscape provided plenty of plant-based dyes from naturally occurring shades—something that commercial dyes found difficult to replicate. Designing with limited amounts of particular yarn led to the development of refined patterns. When done well, strange color combinations have a luminous ordered glow.

The patterns found in both woven and knit textiles tend to fall into three categories, representational, abstract and geometric—preferences vary regionally. The instantly recognizable, relatively small stranded geometric patterns found on Fair Isle knits prevented pesky loops from forming on the wrong side of the fabric while creating an insulating double layer. The diminutive, repeating patterns enjoyed widespread popularity when the Prince of Wales took a liking to them in the early 1920s, often as part of a golfing ensemble. The term has since loosened to mean any sweater that features color play and geometric motifs. Once again, touches like fringe, textured yarns and tie-dye modernize the preppy staple.

SHOP: Fair Isle sweaters

An Aran knit sweater by ValentinoJust as iconic, creamy winter whites define the Aran, a richly textured stitch. Twisted, cabled patterns evoke the nautical life. Commonly called fisherman’s sweaters, a grim urban myth held that each family had a recognizable combination of patterns (sort of like a family plaid) that would help identify unfortunate sailors who washed ashore. Certain other prevalent patterns (honeycomb, diamond, basket weaves) served as talismans for luck in life. Other designs represented religious icons.

Modern designers are expanding the Aran tradition of off-white pullovers. Some confine the pattern to the front of the sweater so they can slide easily under leather jackets. Others extend the line to create tunic length dresses. Some distort the usual symmetry or add dimensional fringe or colorful patches for even more texture. What remains consistent is the braided and complex interlaced weaves of these insulating sweaters.

The comforting knit and purl will continue, regardless of the dictates of fashion. So invest in a beautiful, traditional sweater this season, and wear it for decades to come.

—Cirilia Rose

Cirilia Rose is a knitter, designer and the author of  Magpies, Homebodies and Nomads: A Modern Knitter’s Guide to Discovering and Exploring Style