A Cozy History of the Ugly Christmas Sweater
The quaint and lively Fair Isle knit, adorned with funny little colorful hats, quickly became a novelty and the perfect souvenir for visiting Dutch fishermen in Shetland during the 19th century. With the advent of regular boat and postal services by 1870, Shetland experienced a surge in trade and tourism, making it an attractive holiday destination for avid huntsmen and bird shooters. Demand for the famous Fair Isle pattern grew rapidly, leading to its availability in various items such as stockings, gloves, scarves, and eventually pullovers.
Prince Edward and the Rise to Popularity
The true breakthrough for the Fair Isle knit came in the 1920s when a portrait of Prince Edward showcased him wearing a Fair Isle v-neck and tartan flat cap, reinforcing the style's association with sportsmanship. Coinciding with the changing fashion trends for women, the Fair Isle knit gained widespread popularity.
The idea behind the vivid color palette of the Fair Isle knit was to ensure visibility for skippers on land or at sea.
But how did functional workwear evolve into one of fashion's most enduring designs? The answer lies in its growing appeal to tourists. Dr. Carol Christiansen, curator and community museums officer at the Shetland Textile Museum, explains, "They started to become a tourist item" as fishermen from Norway and the Netherlands arrived in Shetland for herring fishing during the 19th century.
Fast forward to the present day, and the Fair Isle style still holds its allure. Even A-list celebrities like Jennifer Lopez and Hailey Bieber have been spotted sporting Fair Isle-style knits, affirming its timeless charm.
The Enduring Legacy of the Fair Isle Knit
Hailing from Scotland's Shetland archipelago, the Fair Isle knit's roots can be traced back to 18th and 19th-century fisherman's hats. The distinctive two-strand pattern not only showcased artistic prowess but also provided enhanced warmth due to doubled textile mass. The classic Fair Isle knit incorporates an 'OXO' pattern, featuring geometric 'O's followed by 'X's repeated throughout the garment.
The Fair Isle knit has become a winter classic, defying time and remaining perpetually in vogue.
Luxury fashion houses, including Ralph Lauren, Chanel, Balenciaga, and Versace, have all integrated their own versions of the heritage knit into their collections, further cementing its status as a staple on runways worldwide. Molly Goddard, a renowned London-based designer, has masterfully combined structured Fair Isle-style knits with flouncy tulle skirts to make the pattern her signature style.
Although trademarking the craft of Fair Isle knitting proves challenging due to its wide popularity, the pattern's enduring appeal continues to captivate fashion enthusiasts. Efforts to preserve its cultural significance persist, and collaborations with local Scottish spinners and manufacturers ensure the tradition lives on.
A Symbol of Belonging and Nostalgia
Emma Brooks, senior knitwear designer for British label Toast, acknowledges the Fair Isle knit's timeless appeal with its motif-adorned yoke and flattering silhouette. The design provides a pop of color without overwhelming the wearer and invokes a sense of belonging to a particular place and time.
"There's something about a knitted jumper and a motif around the yoke that is flattering. It's a pop of color without being too overwhelming, I think that taps into a lot of people's way of dressing," says Brooks.
In the mid-20th century, Fair Isle knitting became a symbol of familial bonds, with mothers knitting matching Fair Isle pieces not only for themselves but also for their husbands and children. This tradition turned entire families into walking testaments to the enduring charm of the Fair Isle knit.
While efforts to trademark and protect Fair Isle knitting remain challenging, its rich heritage lives on through its global popularity. From humble beginnings as workwear for fishermen to becoming an emblem of fashion on runways worldwide, the Fair Isle knit represents tradition, convention, and a sense of wholesome living that resonates with designers and fashion enthusiasts alike.
"That's just how it is, it's global fashion," remarks Dr. Christiansen.
As we enter sweater weather, the Fair Isle knit retains its place as a beloved fashion item that transcends generations, making it as relevant today as it was in the past.