Textile Society of America


Date of this Version

Spring 2004


Textile Society of America 9th Biennial Symposium, (2004).


Presented at “Appropriation • Acculturation • Transformation,” Textile Society of America 9th Biennial Symposium, Oakland, California, October 7-9, 2004. Copyright 2004 Textile Society of America.


The beginnings and "invention" of knitting has long fascinated knitters and amateur historians. Only recently has it come to be studied seriously, and there is still much folklore and fantasy repeated and published as history.

This paper (and discussion) considers some of the best known and most popular stories about the origins of Shetland and Fair Isle knitting and compares those with more recent considerations of color patterning in northern Europe, especially in the Baltic states and eastern Europe.

Fair Isle color patterning has been explained for many years as having been inspired by a wreck of the Spanish Armada on the tiny island in the North Sea. While Fair Isle and Shetland knitters certainly developed the patterning into a beautiful and distinctive style (now imitated all over the world), it can be argued the origins are in northern and eastern, not western Mediterranean, Europe. Some of the original motifs may have their origins in Italian embroidery.

The tradition of small repetitive color patterns is readily recognizable as worked in Shetland, and is still very popular around the world. But its true origins can tell us more about trade patterns and dissemination of handwork techniques if examined carefully and without the sentiment that has long gripped knitters' imaginations.