Fair Isle boom leaves islanders out in the cold

Knitters seek protection for patterns that have taken high street by storm.

By Susie Mesure
Sunday 12 December 2010 01:00

Christmas should have come early for Fair Isle. The patterned woollen jumpers that take their name from the remote Scottish island are having a moment. Retailers from Gucci down to Primark can't keep up with demand for the colourful knits.

But this season's ultimate homespun look comes with a catch: the Fair Isle knitwear that is flying out of the shops is machine made elsewhere. Locals fear the glut of me-too patterns is devaluing the island's heritage.

Worse, islanders are not benefiting from the Fair Isle boom, partly because the scant handful of local knitters already have more orders than they can ever hope to meet. Tavish Scott, who represents Shetland in the Scottish Parliament, said: "Fair Isle has been used as a generic brand to sell retail products that have nothing to do with the island."

Teresa Fritschi, a campaigner who runs the Scottish luxury-goods website Thistle and Broom, said: "Fair Isle is being knocked off, which brings no economic value to the islanders." She wants the designs, characterised by repeated patterns in two or more colours against a plain background, to have similar legal protection to Harris tweed to stop retailers from ripping off Fair Isle designs.

Mati Ventrillon, who runs Fair Isle's craft co-operative, said: "Our problem is with the mass production of so-called Fair Isle garments with no consideration of the patterns. The skill is being devalued by the high street." She knows the islanders face an uphill battle to seek protection for their craft, which is reputed to date from the 16th century when a Spanish Armada galleon was shipwrecked on Fair Isle; locals copied the Moorish designs on the sailors' garments.

Kathy Coull, a local knitter whose designs sell for up to £900 for a handspun, hand-knitted sweater, thinks it is already too late. "Fair Isle had been adopted as the generic name for coloured stranded knitting." But she said the flipside was global recognition. "We're actually quite lucky that Fair Isle was the term adopted, because it keeps the name in everybody's minds." Alistair Carmichael, Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland, warned that the prospect of legal protection was "about as realistic as saying you could only get jerseys from Jersey".

This is good news for retailers, which were quick to latch on to the trend after fashion houses such as Dolce & Gabbana and Prada dressed models in the designs for their autumn-winter catwalk shows. Anna Aagaard, a designer at Topshop, said Fair Isle knits had done "particularly well" this season. "They seem to have a greater appeal in this current economic climate when we all turn our eye to tradition," she added. Mithun Rathmanandi, menswear buyer at Selfridges, said customers were going for "the look rather than heritage". Its Fair Isle knits have sold out three times already.

The other problem the islanders face is that the knitters are not getting any younger. Ms Fritschi said her "ladies" range from 72 to 85 years old. And the Shetland Council recently cut knitting classes in schools. Mr Scott said: "We need to show that the knitting economy can not only survive but grow, and I think protected status would help."

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