IT’S one of the most famous types of knitwear, a gift from Scotland to the world, but like so many Scottish innovations, the Fair Isle technique has benefited companies and individual knitters much more than the people who created it.

The product of knitters on the Fair Isle, the most remote inhabited island in the UK, lying between Shetland and Orkney, the colourful patterns were said to have been introduced to the island by the survivors of the wreck of the Spanish Armada flagship El Gran Grifon which foundered in the Stroms Hellier cove on Fair Isle in August, 1588.

Others say the patterns are linked to the Norse people who once controlled Shetland and Orkney and who inhabited Fair Isle for centuries. What is certain is that the distinctive patterns found on Fair Isle have been developed over many decades and are still used by the handful of women knitters remaining on Fair Isle, where the population has dwindled into double figures from a peak of 700.


THANKS to a remarkable piece of research over numerous years by Edinburgh University’s honorary professor in social policy, Bronwen J Cohen, who lived in Shetland in the 1970s, many patterns have now been found and preserved.

Cohen once lived on Whalsay, which has the same knitting heritage as Fair Isle.

She wrote: “What’s in a name? Dugs Lugs, Daisy, The Crested Wave, and The Curly Wheel were just some of the names of Fair Isle patterns I was given back in the 1970s when I was living with my family on Whalsay, a small island fishing community lying to the east of mainland Shetland.

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“In summer 2019, I described in the New Shetlander my search to discover more about them, and to understand better why pattern names are so seldom referred to in the many books published on Shetland Fair Isle knitting.

“Delving into the history of knitting in Whalsay, and my notes on island life, I concluded that the Fair Isle pattern names I had been given were in keeping with other naming traditions found in Whalsay, and, although often only fully meaningful to those who may have shared the naming process, offer valuable insights into the world of Whalsay knitting, and the language, life and humour of the island.”

Her research being a labour of love rather than part of her academic work, Cohen’s most significant discoveries were the patterns preserved by Valda Grieve (below).

The National:


THE long-suffering second wife of Christopher Murray Grieve – better known as the poet, author, journalist and political campaigner Hugh MacDiarmid – Valda Trevelyn hailed from Cornwall.

While she enjoyed the literary circles MacDiarmid moved in – and could more than hold her own in any discussions – she backed his decision to move to Whalsay with their infant son Michael where the solitude saw MacDiarmid produce some of his finest work.

What is rarely reported is that Valda Grieve became an expert Fair Isle knitter. She was already known for her crochet work, but mastered the Fair Isle technique and was known for “her good hands” as one observer put it. Cohen was contacted by Dorian Grieve, grandson of Chris and Valda: “He told me that he had just come across a jotter of his grandmother’s knitting patterns, dating, he thinks, from her time on Whalsay, with some additions later.

“The battered and faded 18-page notebook has a mixture of dotted out patterns on lined (but not graph) paper, combined with scribbled line-by-line descriptions of the colours to be used.

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“The garments include Fair Isle gloves, allowing for various sizes, a Fair Isle jumper, and Norwegian mittens. Named patterns that are referred to and (sketchily indicated with specified colours) are Indian Acre, The Wave, Three Waves, Hour Glass, Fancy Diamond, Greek Key, Diamond, Star, and three versions of The Daisy. The newly discovered jotter demonstrates that Valda Grieve did indeed learn to knit on Fair Isle and has also preserved some more Fair Isle pattern names as well as variants of others.”


IT was well enough known until the early 1920s when its popularity exploded overnight after the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VIII and later Duke of Windsor, took to wearing Fair Isle jumpers. Other knitters and woollen wear manufacturers jumped on the bandwagon and the term Fair Isle became generic, being applied to any coloured strand knitting regardless of whether it was knitted on Fair Isle or elsewhere in Shetland.


NO one individual does so. The Fair Isle Marine Environment and Tourism Initiative points out: “The only source of the genuine article is still Fair Isle, where a small but vibrant number of Fair Isle knitters continue to produce high quality traditional and contemporary garments on hand-frame machines which are then all carefully finished by hand, washed and dressed.

“Each knitter designs her own garments using her interpretation of the local patterns and she has the freedom to use either the traditional colours or to make use of the other beautiful colours now available.

“Hand-knitted garments are still made on the isle for friends and family whilst a few hand-knitted and hand-woven items are sometimes available for sale.

“Each genuine Fair Isle garment made in Fair Isle carries Fair Isle’s own distinctive trademark ‘Star Motif’ or other official authentication mark as the customer’s guarantee of quality and authenticity.”

Every Scot should have one.