Thursday, 4 April 2013

Fair Isle – the fourth time around (at least)

Paul in his Magical Mystery Tour sweater
My Fair Isle waistcoat
It's true what they say – if you keep something long enough it will come back into fashion. This is certainly true of Fair Isle sweaters – they were popular in the 1940s, probably because wool (and it was wool!) was in short supply, so odd bits left over from other projects could be used up. I remember knitting my first Fair Isle in the late 60s, from a pattern based on a pullover worn by Paul McCartney, and when I saw The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour, in which Paul sports another of his Fair Isle pullovers, again last year it got me thinking about knitting Fair Isle. Alas, the pattern and the pullover are long gone, but I found an old glove which I know I knitted in the same pattern, charted it and produced this long waistcoat. The basic waistcoat pattern was from a 1970s Falcon booklet. I'm including the chart, you can use it for any plain stocking stitch (stockinette) pattern but remember to centre the Fair Isle design on the pieces and bear in mind that you will probably need to use a size larger needles (or knit a size bigger) as stranded knitting tends to come up narrower than plain, and stretches less.

There are plenty of vintage patterns around for the good old Fair Isle sleeveless pullover, like this one reproduced on the Free Vintage Knitting site, but they are almost always designed to use 3-ply. OK, you could use modern 4-ply, such as Jarol Heritage, which is 50% wool and knits up pretty much like old 3-ply, but most people these days prefer something a bit thicker (and quicker!). 
There was another brief Fair Isle revival in the 80s, when I made a lot of stranded designs on the knitting machine - long since consigned to the garage as being too much trouble – you can't watch TV when you're using it, and the noise makes it pretty antisocial, not to mention the space it takes up.

In the last couple of years Fair Isle has made a big comeback, so if like me you have boxes full of leftover bits of DK in every colour under the sun, this is for you! You do need to make sure that the yarns you use all have similar fibre content, so I tend to stick to 100% acrylic – it's cheap, the colours don't run and it's easy to wash.

This is my basic V-neck sleeveless sweater, using a stitch pattern I used in the 80s in another long-lost sweater (I still have the matching hat!), but you could use any Fair Isle stitch pattern. Sheila McGregor's Traditional Fair Isle Knitting is a great source for patterns, or you could have a go at designing your own. I use MS Excel for charting, there's an excellent tutorial on Marnie Maclean's blog here.

V neck Fair Isle sweater instructions

Oops! forgot to include the centre front decrease instuctions when I posted this - error now corrected!  

Correction to tension 31 May 2013


Woolcraft New Fashion DK and/or Sirdar Hayfield Bonus DK (both 100% acrylic), or any suitable yarn that knits to the same tension:

Allow 150g main colour (dark grey) and 50g of each of 6 contrast colours.

Pair size UK10/3.25 mm straight needles

Pair size UK8/4 mm straight needles

Size UK10/3.25 circular needle or set of double pointed needles


To fit up to 42” (107 cm) bust/chest (actual measurement 44”/112 cm)

Length 25”/63.5 cm


24 sts and 28 rows to 4”/10 cm on larger needles.


Chart shows 12-st repeat plus 1st stitch


K        knit
P        purl
st st   stocking stitch
patt    pattern
tog     together
st(s)   stitch(es)
inc      increase
dec     decrease
RS      right side
WS     wrong side
rem    remaining


Using size 10/3.25 mm straight needles and MC, cast on 133 sts and work 3” in K1, P1 rib.

Change to larger needles and work in st st for 15” (or desired length to armholes), following chart and joining in/cutting contrast yarns as required.

Armhole decrease:

Taking care to keep continuity of patt, cast off 6 sts at start of next 2 rows, then dec 1 st at each end of next 7 rows and following 11 alt (RS) rows (85 sts).

Work straight until work measures 9½”/24 cm, ending with a WS row.

Shape shoulders and neck:

Next row: Cast off 9 sts, work to end of row.

Next row (left side of piece): Cast off 9 sts, P23 (inc loop left after cast off), turn.

Next row: Cast off 3 sts, K to end.

Next row: Cast off 9 sts, P to end.

Next row:Cast off 3 sts, K to end.

Cast off rem 9 sts and fasten off.

Place next 21 sts on a stitch holder for neck ribbing.

Rejoin yarn to rem sts on needle, cast off 3 sts, P to end.

Next row: Cast off 9 sts, P to end.

Next row:Cast off 3 sts, K to end.

Cast off rem 9 sts and fasten off.


Work exactly as for back until the piece is 15 rows shorter than the back to the armhole shaping, thus ending with a RS row.

Divide for neck: P66, turn and work on these sts for left side of piece.

Dec 1 st at start of next and foll 4th rows. At the same time, when you have worked 16 rows from the start of the neck shaping, cast off 6 sts at the armhole edge. Continuing to dec at the neck edge on every 4th row, dec 1 st at the armhole edge on the next 7 rows, then on the next 11 alt rows.

Continue to dec at neck edge until there are 27 sts left, then work straight until front matches back to shoulder shaping.

Cast off 9 sts at start of next 2 WS rows. Work 1 row then cast off rem 9 sts and fasten off.

Place next st on needle (the centre stitch) on a small safety pin. Rejoin yarn and work other half of front to match the side already completed.

Armhole ribbing:

Join both shoulder seams.

With size 10/3.25 mm straight needles, pick up 129 sts evenly along the front and back of the armhole edge and work 7 rows K1, P1 ribbing. Cast off using larger needle.

Neck ribbing:

With size 10/3.25 mm circular or double pointed needles, pick up sts evenly along the neck edge as follows:
Starting at the right back of the neck, 7 sts down slope at back of neck, 21 from stitch holder at centre back neck, 7 sts up slope at left back neck, 76 down left front, 1 st from safety pin place marker on this st – a short length of contrast waste yarn will do the job), 76 up left front (188 sts).
Work 7 rounds K1, P1 ribbing, working S2KP (double decrease) on centre front three sts on every round. Cast off using larger needle, working the double decrease as on previous rounds.


Press lightly according to ball band instructions. Join side seams and weave in ends – it is best to weave in ends after joining the seams so they can be hidden in the seams. Press side seams.

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