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Fair Isle Sweaters: From Tradition to Trend

7 minutes

You’ve seen them before, but you might not have known the style has a name. Fair Isle sweaters are a type of knitwear that features a traditional colorwork technique characterized by the use of multiple colors in small, repeating patterns. It’s time to know more about them because they’re one of the hottest winter trends for 2024. Fashion class is in session!

The Rich History of Fair Isle Sweaters

Originating from a small island in the Shetland archipelago, Scotland, Fair Isle sweaters have been part of the traditional craft in the Fair Isle community for centuries.

The knitting style and patterns were popularized in the early 20th century when the Prince of Wales (who later became Edward VIII—the original fashion influencer?) started wearing Fair Isle sweaters in public in the 1920s. This led to a surge in popularity, and Fair Isle knitwear became fashionable and sought after. Here we are a hundred years later and Kate Middleton now makes headlines when she wears a Fair Isle sweater.

Since then, Fair Isle sweaters have remained a classic and enduring style, appreciated for their craftmanship and unique patterns by the likes of Jennifer Lopez, Katie Holmes, and Reese Witherspoon, to name a few. They are never not in style for for women, men, and children. Even my two pugs rock Fair Isle sweaters!

Key Characteristics of Fair Isle Sweaters

  • Colorwork Patterns: Fair Isle sweaters are known for their intricate colorwork patterns, often featuring small motifs, geometric shapes, or nature-inspired designs. The patterns are created by alternating between two colors within a single row of knitting, resulting in a rich and visually appealing fabric.
  • Limited Color Palette: Traditional Fair Isle designs typically use a limited color palette, often consisting of natural colors found in the Shetland landscape. These colors may include earthy tones like browns, greens, blues, and grays.
  • Fine Stranded Knitting: The distinctive feature of Fair Isle patterns is that only two colors are used in any given row, with the unused color stranded along the back of the work in small floats. This technique creates a warm and durable fabric while maintaining a relatively smooth surface on the front.
  • Circular Yoke Construction: Many Fair Isle sweaters feature a circular yoke construction, where the colorwork pattern forms a circular band around the neckline. This construction adds visual interest and contributes to the overall aesthetic of the sweater.
  • Wool or Natural Fibers: Fair Isle sweaters are traditionally knit with wool or other natural fibers, providing warmth and insulation. Shetland wool, derived from Shetland sheep, is a common choice for its softness and durability.
  • Cultural Heritage: The Fair Isle knitting technique has a rich cultural heritage and is associated with the traditional craft of the Shetland Islands. The patterns often reflect the local environment and history.
  • Modern Interpretations: While traditional Fair Isle patterns have been popular since the beginning of time, modern designers often incorporate contemporary colors and motifs into Fair Isle sweaters, creating a fusion of traditional and contemporary styles.

How We Style Fair Isle Sweaters

If you have a ski vacation planned, I insist you pack a Fair Isle sweater. They are absolutely iconic for the slopes. If, like me, you’re staying at zero elevation this season, you can still get in on this trend. Whether you prefer a classic, casual, or more polished look, here are some tips on how to wear Fair Isle sweaters:

Fair Isle Sweater Available to Rent at Armoire
  • Casual Chic with Jeans: Pair your Fair Isle sweater with a classic pair of jeans for an effortlessly casual look. Choose a slim or straight-leg denim style to balance the volume of the sweater. Complete the outfit with boots or sneakers.
  • Skirted Elegance: Elevate your Fair Isle sweater by pairing it with a skirt. A pencil skirt or an A-line skirt works well for a polished and feminine look. Tuck in the sweater slightly to define the waist and create a flattering silhouette. Finish the outfit with tights and knee-high boots.
  • Layered with Leggings: For a cozy and relaxed vibe, pair your Fair Isle sweater with leggings. Choose leggings in a complementary color to create a streamlined look. Add a pair of slouchy boots or stylish sneakers.
  • Turtleneck Fair Isle: Opt for a Fair Isle turtleneck sweater for added warmth and style. Pair it with tailored trousers or wide-leg pants for a sophisticated winter look. Add heeled boots or loafers.
  • Dress it Up with a Dress: Layer your Fair Isle sweater over a dress for a playful, layered outfit. Choose a solid-colored dress to allow the sweater’s pattern to stand out. Pair with opaque tights and ankle boots or knee-high boots.  
  • Monochromatic Styling: A cohesive color scheme is always stylish. Create a monochromatic look by choosing a Fair Isle sweater in colors that match your pants or skirt. Complete the outfit with neutral accessories and footwear.
  • Cropped Fair Isle Sweater: Pair a cropped Fair Isle sweater with high-waisted jeans or a skirt to balance the shorter length. Accessorize with a statement belt if you want to add some flair.
  • Cozy Layers: Embrace the warmth of layering by adding a long cardigan or a coat over your Fair Isle sweater. This layered approach not only provides extra insulation but also adds dimension to your outfit. Pair with your favorite denim or leggings and stylish boots.
  • Casual Dress-Down with Joggers: Choose joggers in a neutral color to balance the pattern of the sweater. Complete the laid-back look with sneakers or slip-on shoes.

Our Top Picks

Boden’s Fair Isle Interpretations

Boden is a British clothing brand that specializes in high-quality, stylish, and often colorful clothing. In a word, the brand is “playful”—and their Fair Isle sweaters fit right in within their collection. 

Boden’s Alpaca Blend Crew Neck Sweater is available to rent at Armorire in either navy or dusty rose. Boden has a loyal customer base among Armoire members who  adore its unique take on fashion, its commitment to quality, and its ability to deliver stylish and versatile clothing. 

“I loved this sweater! It was roomy enough and soo cozy!,” said Fiona, an Armoire member. Leah, another member, said, “Adorable, thick sweater. Very heavy, great for a Colorado casual date night. Flattering to the midsection.”

Another Boden Fair Isle sweater we love here is the Alpaca Blend Festive Fair Isle Sweater, available in the navy multi or the festive “fa la la la la” version.

Boden Fair Isle Sweaters in Blue Multi and Fa la la la

“Super cute sweater! Perfect for the holidays. Absolutely love wearing it to Christmas markets in Canada,” said Lindsey. Emma shared, “So much fun! Wore it with jeans and boots to go pick out our tree and decorate for Christmas.”

French Connection + Fair Isle

Another well-known British fashion brand that’s popular here at Armoire is French Connection, which has an edgy rep. Like many of their designs, their Fair Isle sweaters feature a mix of classic and contemporary elements. This vibrant Neya Fair Isle Cardigan is a favorite among Armoire members.

“This will be hard to part with. Such a gorgeous sweater. Loved the colors so much. I wore it a lot,” said Erin, while Rachel said, “Love this sweater. It gives me Native American, Fair Isle, and rainbow vibes in one. It’s super soft and has a nice cuff so the sleeves hit the right spot. The length hits at the waist, it’s not long. Cute to dress up or down. Can’t wait to wear it in new ways.”

French Connection Fair Isle Sweaters to Rent

The Mock Neck Wool Blend Knit Sweater from French Connection also gets rave reviews. “This sweater is winter perfection. Oversized, cozy, good length. I kept it forever! Definitely will rent again,” said Anina. Jennifer said, “This sweater is the best. Hard for me to return. Wore it several times and received many compliments each time.”


Honorable Mentions

We’re carrying Fair Isle sweaters this season from a number of beloved brands including Steve Madden, J. Crew, Lucky, Garance Paris, and more. 

The Jenn Fair Isle Cardigan from Alice + Olivia retails for $597 and earned a 4.5-star rating from Armoire members who adore it for being cozy and thick.

From Rag & Bone, we carry the Willow Fairisle Wool Printed Turtleneck Sweater in both yellow and purple, among other Fair Isle styles from this popular brand. This sweater has a $475 retail price and a 4.5-star rating.

At these prices, renting is a no-brainer. You can rent a whole case of Fair Isle sweaters for a fraction of the price of purchasing one. Plus, you can leave the wool cleaning to us. Laundering and dry cleaning are included. New to Armoire? Get started here.

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