Essential Autumn Clothing: Fair Isle Knitwear

Fair Isle, a tiny island sandwiched between Orkney and Shetland, is renowned for its colourful knitwear. But unlike Harris Tweed, authentic Fair Isle products have no legal protection. Instead, they have to compete against a mountian of foreign-made goods that bear the island’s name. And the future doesn’t look good: the island has just four remaining knitters, who produce about 260 items a year between them.

Would legal protection help Fair Islanders, or would it merely damage the economies of neighbouring Shetland, where a lot of Fair Isle branded knitwear is currently made?

These are all serious questions which I shouldn’t be even attempting to answer. What I should really discuss here is how unsuspectedly cool this traditional knitwear can be and how to style it for such effect.

With summer fast drawing to a close it’s time to start thinking about autumn clothing. It’s nice to see that traditional British fabrics and clothing are continuing their recent upsurge in popularity, especially cold-weather wear. Here are a few essential items to see you through the coming months.

Fair Isle knitwear

The distinctive patterns found on knitwear from the Fair Isle, first shot to prominence in the 1920s when the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) took to wearing Fair Isle tank tops. Expect to see a lot of Fair Isle patterns on the streets this autumn. Some might be a bit on the colourful side, but you can’t go wrong with this tank top from J.Press.

The perfect companion to Fair Isle knitwear are…

Tweed trousers

While Scotland is most commonly associated with tweed, Yorkshiremen – myself included – recommend the wares of Leeds-based mill Abraham Moon. This pair of trousers by Cosaels is made from Moon’s brown herringbone fabric.

To complete the traditional but cool British look there’s no better fit than…

Wax jackets

Wax jackets have an undeserved reputation for being a nightmare to look after, but, as long as they are wiped down after a particularly heavy day of wear and occasionally redressed, they should provide decades of use.

For quality wax jackets look no further than Tyneside-based manufacturer J. Barbour & Sons. Barbour have been making hard-wearing outerwear since 1894, and though traditionally associated with grouse-shooting country types they have recently been attempting to reach a more mainstream market with their slimmer-fitting contemporary and heritage collections. The pick of the bunch has to be the Bedale (above).

If you’re looking for a wax-type jacket, only without the wax, Barbour also make Bedales from a waterproof cotton/polyester mix (above). They are a bit lighter and may be a better choice if you live in warmer climes.

Accessorize the look

Silk ties can look out of place with tweed and rugged wool knitwear, so try pairing a check wool tie, like one of the ones above from J.Crew, with a white button-down Oxford shirt instead.

Wearing Fair Isle tank tops with suits and jackets

The tank top – or sweater vest, as it is more commonly known in North America – is a practical way of keeping warm during the colder months of the year. Its sleeveless design covers the torso while leaving the arms free, making it the ideal companion for an odd jacket or worsted wool suit.

The tank top is also a good way of adding flair to a plain-looking outfit by means of either colour or pattern, or both. The most common pattern for tanks tops is, without doubt, argyle, but there are many others to choose from. One that has seen a recent resurgence in popularity is the Fair Isle knit.

Fair Isle knits are generally bold in both colour and design. For this reason it’s best to keep the rest of your outfit simple. Wear a plain white or blue shirt, plain grey suit (or jacket) and a solid, dark-coloured tie.

The tank top above is a good example of how a simple pattern in shades of one colour can be used effectively. As before, keep your shirt and suit simple. Remember: ties made from wintery fabrics, like cashmere or wool, work well with coarse woollen knitwear.

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