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Knitting across the Isles

Throughout my journey researching the origins of knitting I have begun to notice an interesting trend. Beginning with the Middle East, continuing through Scandinavia, and then on into the British Isles, it seems to all come down to stockings. Knit stockings and socks must have created a much better fit than what was available at the time and that encouraged people to make the switch to knitting these items. Knitting gained popularity in the British Isles after Queen Elizabeth was gifted her first pair of knit silk stockings in the early years of her reign. The upper classes quickly followed her example and stockings knit of wool became popular with the lower classes. Utilitarian objects like mittens and hats were also commonly knit by the lower classes. As in other parts of the world, knitting was an important cottage industry providing additional income for the household. Knitting schools began to pop up in 1588 and were considered essential in providing a viable skill to the poor.

A cup of tea to the left of a map of the British Isles with a green knit pinecone lace shawl and knitting needles.

Much like elaborate embroidery, fine knitting became a popular skill for upper-class women to learn. Finely knit and decorated pin balls and pin cushions represented a move from knitting as largely utilitarian toward knitting that was considered refined and appropriate for ladies of the gentry of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. These items used finer quality yarn and were more ornate in their stitches.

Well Known Knitting Styles of the British Isles

Fisherman’s style sweaters also known as Gansey, Jersey, or Guernsey sweaters are well-known today for their combination of cables and highly intricate knit-purl stitch combinations. Traditionally, fishermen of the islands wore this style of a sweater to keep them warm while out on the water. The fronts and backs were identical providing even wear, sleeves were knit a little short to keep them from getting wet, and underarm gussets were featured to provide ease of movement. While today’s fisherman-style sweaters feature all-over cable and knit-purl patterns, traditionally these decorative stitches were focused near the yoke to provide both warmth and to save on yarn consumption. Highly decorative sweaters were knit by the whole family and sold to provide income, while less decorative ones were used by the local fisherman.

Multistranded color work surrounded by yarn in light green, dark green, oatmeal, coral pink, and redish brown.

The Shetlands are famous for both their beautiful and impossibly fine lacework made popular by Queen Victoria and their stranded colorwork commonly known as Fair Isle. Shetland Lace is traditionally knit of very fine wool, finer than what can be commonly found today, and worked on very thin needles. Traditional lace shawls are approximately six feet square and constructed in such a way that there are no bind-off edges. Once the shawl has been aggressively blocked, the work opens up to reveal the patterns created by the yarnovers and decreases. Completed shawls are so finely knit that they will fit through a wedding ring. Fair Isle knitting is a form of stranded colorwork. Even though it has become a term that identifies many forms of stranded knitting, true Fair Isle knitting follows certain rules. It must feature an OXO motif, be worked in the round on four needles, pattern bands consist of seventeen or nineteen rows that are stacked, the pattern must contain diagonal lines, and only two colors are used per row and must switch often within the row.

Next month we will travel eastward and explore knitting in Asia.


Knitting Around the World: A multistranded history of a time-honored tradition by Lela Nargi

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