Weaving A Legacy

Text by Claire Henry
Photography by Dylan Thomas

Everyone recognises Fair Isle knitwear. It is as quintessentially British as a hot buttered crumpet, a peaty malt or a leather satchel. But unless you own a piece yourself, you might not be aware of quite how special it is. A rich heritage, subtle and complex design and unique physical properties make a genuine Fair Isle garment something to be coveted and cherished. French-Venezuelan Mati Ventrillon has come a long way, to this most remote island in Britain, to promote Fair Isle knitwear in the place where it was conceived. She has made her home here, breathing new life into a waning tradition and putting her own signature on the Fair Isle legacy.

Fair Isle is the most remote inhabited island on the stepping stone archipelago of the Shetlands, flung into the sea off the rugged north coast of Scotland.

Fair Isle Knitwear weaving a legacy

“When you fly from mainland Scotland to Shetland on a clear day and you pass over Fair Isle you realise why it is so special. A tiny island in the middle of the ocean, twenty miles away from the nearest land, that continues to strive in the 21st century.”

The name, from the Norse ‘Fridarey’ means island of peace, but the surrounding waters are noted for being anything but peaceful. Many vessels have been wrecked on the Island’s craggy coastline over hundreds of years. With few natural resources, Islanders have been reliant on sea fishing to make their living. And this is where the origin of Fair Isle knitwear lies: with the women who first made it in the 19th century, to clothe the sons and husbands who went out to fish in treacherous seas, and to supplement the meagre income from fishing and crofting.

Fair Isle Knitwear weaving a legacy

The Fair Isle style, a type of stranded knitting based on working two colours of yarn together in one row to create intricate patterns, has been widely adopted beyond the Island, with many places developing their own adaptations. The process of running two colours together creates an inside insulating layer to the garment, making it especially warm to wear. To be authentic each piece must be made from Shetland wool and based on traditional patterns.

This was the legacy Mati Ventrillon entered when she arrived on the Island in 2007, with her husband and young son. A determined and passionate woman, she threw herself into Island life and joined a small crafts co-operative, producing traditional Fair Isle garments to sell to visitors and cruise ships. She had come from a background in architecture but she had left that life behind. In describing her story, she scarcely mentions her past life. Incomers to the Island are warmly greeted. If there is a hierarchy it is based on how long you have inhabited the land, not your past achievements or qualifications. Life here, for Mati and her family, is what they choose to make of it.

Read more in N˚5: Arrival.