Colgate Couture: Fabulous in Fair Isle

Colgate Couture: Fabulous in Fair Isle

Lisa Maschianti

We have all seen them, be it at the ski lodge or on Grandpa at Christmas: those chunky patterned woolen sweaters. Richly adorned with an arrangement of diamonds, stars, squares, circles, snowflakes and even the occasional reindeer knit in contrasting or complementary col­ors, these sweaters are a seasonal classic for fall and winter. But, throughout their history and despite their ubiquity, it would be difficult to classify them as truly trendy – that is, until now. This season, the world of high fashion has adopted this piece and made it its own.

The distinctive print that defines these sweaters is known as “Fair Isle.” This is because it has its origins in a small island called Fair Isle located 250 miles north of Scot­land where women have been knitting such multicolored patterned sweaters for centuries. The island has a history of Norwegian occupation prior to becoming Scottish terri­tory, causing it to assimilate the vaguely geometric patterns typical of the Scandinavian aesthetic tradition into its own cultural artisanal repertoire. Fair Isle is a rugged, perpetu­ally cool and incessantly damp environment, meaning the desire for a hearty knit piece is never-ending (a preference further encouraged by the enormous supply of sheep). Thus, the prototypical Fair Isle sweater, very much a prod­uct of these precise circumstances, was born thick, wooly and busily patterned.

Designers have really taken to this traditional form. The boldness of the loud pattern is a point of attraction, some­what reminiscent of the showy ethnic prints that have been in vogue in recent seasons. And while there has been some use of fabrics like cashmere, wool has largely been the textile of choice, providing the bulkiness that is very much in favor of late. But, despite their relative loyalty to traditional pat­tern and material, designers are experimenting with the style of the Fair Isle sweater. The classic crewneck is occasionally being used, yet brands have also really gotten creative with the cut. Fair Isle is turning up on turtlenecks and cowlnecks. It graces puff shoulders and short flowy sleeves. It can be seen on button-up and tie-waist sweaters alike. It is making an appearance on cropped sweaters, sweater dresses and everything in between.

Sure, you may be skeptical; the Fair Isle knit does seem a bit more cozy than couture. But remember, the look was particularly prominent on the runways of Rag & Bone as well as D&G. Paparazzi have spotted such prim celebrities as Victoria Beckham sporting the style. So clearly it can be done right without looking frumpy or cutesy. How? Again, it is all about counterbalanc­ing. Pair it with something a little rougher around the edges, like sleek black jeans or some boots with a bit of hardware. Really, the important thing is not to get too matchy with the sweater. If the pattern is a little much for you, go for earthy tones, which will also serve to update the look due to this season’s affinity for neutrals. Or, just add a touch of Fair Isle to your outfit, like a scarf; the sweater is not necessarily the only way to wear this print. No matter where it is or in what quantity, it will add a point of visual interest to your look.

So, go give Fair Isle patterned knits a shot. When it is chilly, you will look cool without feeling cold.