LERWICK, Scotland — Just about anyone who follows fashion will know Fair Isle sweaters have been trending for the last couple of years.
The iconic fall and winter sweater worn by both men and women alike never really went out of style. Rather, this is more a case of 20-30-something hipsters simply discovering the sweater first popularized in the 1920s by a future king who would go down in the history books for abdicating the throne to marry the woman he loved.
The intricately patterned sweaters get their name from Fair Isle, one of Scotland’s Shetland Islands, a cluster of islands located where the North Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean, about halfway between Scotland and Norway. Folklore says the locals adopted this style of sweater from sailors stranded on Fair Isle when the flagship of the Spanish Armada wrecked there in 1588.
However, unlike Harris Tweed — the handwoven cloth, also from Scotland and synonymous with quality tailored clothing — there are no legal or trademark protections for Fair Isle sweaters.
As a result, few of the sweaters marketed by retailers as Fair Isle on this side of the Atlantic come from anywhere near the Shetland Islands, let alone are knitted out of genuine Shetland wool. Most of the imitators are mass-produced in an oriental sweatshop with wool — sometimes cashmere, but often wool blended with nylon or acrylic — of unknown provenance.
This inspired me to set off last month in search of an authentic Fair Isle of the very kind worn by the Prince of Wales, the man who later became King Edward VIII and then the Duke of Windsor.
Once my flight landed at the airport near Lerwick, the main city on the aptly named Mainland of the Shetland Islands, I had hoped to immediately begin my search for the prince’s Fair Isle.
However, I had the unfortunate luck of arriving in the midst of an epic storm. It rained all afternoon, all night and well into the following morning. I ended up missing a flight on the 8-seat turboprop plane that makes a few trips daily to Fair Isle, which is even more remote than the rest of Shetland Islands.
With limited availability on later flights, it looked as if I had come all this way for nothing, or so I thought when the internet suddenly stopped working in my room at Lerwick’s Queens Hotel.
I went down to the front desk to ask the duty clerk if she could reset the wireless router, as I needed to look up some information.
She told me the internet goes out when there is bad weather because of the underwater cables. Fair enough, I suppose. After all, it’s an island. She then proceeded to ask if there was anything she could answer for me.
I explained my plight only to learn from her of a shop called The Spiders Web, located literally right outside the lobby and across the 18th century street.
This caught me by surprise because I didn’t know Fair Isle sweaters come from across the Shetland Islands. In fact, it turns out many of the knitters are older ladies who learned the artisan craft at a very young age. (Some won’t even knit on the Sabbath!)
While younger Shetlanders have taken it up, demographics are a serious problem.
“In 20 years real Fair Isle sweaters may probably be a thing of the past,” Barbara Mitchell, the proprietor of The Spiders Web, told me.
I asked, “Do you mean, extinct?”
“Yes,” she responded, quite directly.
It doesn’t help that very little money is actually made for the 100 hours it takes for a Fair Isle sweater to be fully hand-knitted, despite a price tag as high as $400. (Machine-made, hand-finished sweaters take half as much time and sell for less.)
I tried on a few of Mitchell’s sweaters, but none fit. She said to come back the following day, as a smaller sweater was just about done. I agreed, but at this point, my search for an authentic Fair Isle wasn’t going too well.
I spent much of the next day touring the mainland, driving down country lanes barely wide enough for a single car let alone two driving in opposite directions. I saw the famous Shetland ponies, came across more sheep than people and took in the impressive sights during a walk across St. Ninian’s Isle and along the seaside cliffs of Eshaness.
I also visited a range of other knitwear shops. Knitwear — and not just Fair Isles — is a major export here, though as with Fair Isles much of what is marketed by famous brands as Shetland abroad isn’t actually made here. I particularly liked Laurence Odie Knitwear (+44 195/043-1215; no website) in the hamlet of Hoswick, which sells lovely Shaggy Dog-style sweaters for a lot less than preppy haberdasher J. Press.
A day later, I was back to see Mitchell, who seemed genuinely surprised by my interest in Fair Isles. She even confessed to never having visited the sweater’s island namesake, which I found to be beyond odd.
She handed me a Prince of Wales patterned Fair Isle, which was just finished the night before by a 90-year-old woman named Barbara Reid.
After trying on the crewneck in the back fitting room, I knew right away it was the one. Sure, it was a tad too long, but the fit of the chest and sleeves was almost perfect.
I had finally found my authentic Fair Isle.
And it was literally mine and only mine because the odds of coming across someone wearing this sweater elsewhere was impossible.
The incredibly high-quality craftsmanship of Reid meant the sweater might even outlast the last of the knitters.
Flybe offers daily commercial flights to Sumburgh Airport from Edinburgh and other Scottish airports. Round-trip fares from Edinburgh were as low as $276 through March of next year with flights from Aberdeen averaging $188, according to searches on the airline’s website.
Saginaw to Aberdeen from Thanksgiving through December starts at about $1,200 with connections on Delta and partner KLM, according to searches on Google Flights. For Edinburgh, airfares out of Detroit are about $1,100, also with multiple connections, again according to Google Flights.
If you have extra time on the bookends, consider the overnight Aberdeen-Lerwick (and back) ferry service.
Be sure to rent a car, which is super-easy through Bolts Car Rental. Rentals include insurance and unlimited mileage. Automatic transmission cars are also available.
Getting to Fair Isle can be tricky, especially if the weather doesn’t cooperate. Still, it’s worth the attempt for those making a sweater pilgrimage. Promote Shetland, the local tourism office, is a comprehensive resource for all things Shetland.
WHERE TO STAY
The worst part of the Shetland Islands is the complete lack of quality hotels, which is unusual considering the steady flow of short-term and long-term workers coming to and going from the North Sea oil rigs off the coast.
I stayed at the Queens Hotel. This very old hotel — it dates to the 1860s — should be an upscale, Old World-style boutique hotel, but regretfully it has been neglected over the years. Staff was friendly, but service was so-so. Rooms, however, were very clean. There aren’t many other hotels on the Shetland Islands, so you might consider one of the many bed-and-breakfasts.
— Dennis Lennox