The Best Yarns for Fair Isle Knitting

fair isle knitting

The Dublin Pullover is a Fair Isle pattern worked in Shetland wool in 7 colors.

It’s officially springtime now, and though it may not be warm in the islands north of the Scottish mainland, up there by the Arctic Circle, we can start dreaming about colorful wildflowers in sloping fields overlooking the North Sea. For that is where, in a chain of islands called Shetland, our beloved Fair Isle knitting was born.

Fair Isle knitting is the very particular use of two colors per round, in small stranded colorwork motifs that are usually symmetrical and repeating. You can create your own fabric of wildflowers with this nifty technique! Check out this workshop to get started knitting Fair Isle, then try this one to master different ways of managing multiple colors at once.

fair isle knitting

These Shetland sheep are shedding their fleece naturally, which not all sheep breeds can do. Most sheep have been bred to NOT naturally shed, but older breeds like the Shetland can shed, if left to their own devices. Photo: Moorefam | Getty Images.

In traditional Fair Isle knitting, knitters use fingering-weight Shetland wool. The Shetland sheep is a native to the same isles as the knitting technique, and is a spunky little sheep that makes fine wool. This wool has been very important to the Scottish textile industry; it’s used in woven tweeds as well as Fair Isle knitting and Shetland lace knitting.

When choosing a yarn for Fair Isle knitting, you want a fingering-weight wool that comes in LOTS of colors. I rounded up some good options and swatched with them; and below I’ve described the 7 yarns I think are best for Fair Isle knitting. Order a bunch of colors and play around with the patterns in this book; it’s a great way to experiment with color and master the technique.

fair isle knitting

1. Elemental Affects Shetland Fingering

This delightful yarn is an American take on the traditional Shetland wool. The fiber comes from purebred Shetland sheep raised in Montana. It’s then processed in the United States (with some help from solar power), and hand-dyed in small batches. The yarn has the expected Shetland feel, but also has a bloom and rustic luster that’s quite appealing. Offered in more than fifty colors, the skeins comes in 118-yard put-ups, ideal for projects that need many colors, but not a lot of each.

2. Jamieson’s Shetland Spindrift, distributed by Simply Shetland

From the Scottish islands where Fair Isle originated comes this beloved yarn. With the Shetland feel (distinctly “sticky,” with a tendency to cling to itself), this yarn comes in more than 220 colors and can be cut without reinforcing the steeks! The colors in the line are carefully designed to work for radiant patterning, with colors so close to each other that you can slowly shift foreground and background colors for that painterly effect we so love about Fair Isle knitting.

Lisa designed the Bandelier Socks using 7 colors of Brown Sheep Nature Spun Fingering. Get the yarn and pattern in one easy kit!

3. Brown Sheep Company Nature Spun 

This yarn comes in several weights, including fingering and sport. The yarn is a smooth plied wool that doesn’t have the “hairy” character of traditional Shetland wools, making for clear patterning and a softer hand. The sheep are grown and the yarn is milled in America. Offered in more than eighty colors, including heathers, it’s a great option for affordable Fair Isle—and the balls have great yardage.

 

The Norwegian Mittens are worked in Rauma Finullgarn in 2 colors.

4. Rauma Finullgarn, distributed by The Yarn Guys

This Norwegian wool is a light sportweight that comes in 100 colors. It works better on a larger needle than some of the other yarns in this category, making for quicker knitting, while the 191-yard put-up and affordable price point make it a great option for any colorwork project. The knitted fabric has a lot of body and a woolly feel, but it isn’t as sticky to the touch as fabric made with Shetland fiber.

The Ivy League vest is worked in Harrisville Designs Shetland in 6 colors.

5. Harrisville Designs Shetland

A woolen-spun fingering-weight yarn made in America, this yarn has character and rustic woolly appeal. With a heathered coloring to the skeins, stranded patterns worked in Shetland have a lot of depth, while the airy woolen-spun strand keeps the fabric light, even with floats across the wrong side. Shetland comes in more than sixty colors.

6. Knit Picks Palette

This smooth fingering-weight Peruvian wool knits up plumply on size 2 needles and makes for lovely even colorwork. The palette comes in 150 colors, including heathers. This yarn is a great affordable option for projects that require multiple colors (and therefore many balls).

7. Jamieson & Smith Heritage, distributed by Shetland Wool Brokers

A collaboration between Jamieson & Smith and local Shetland historical organizations, Heritage was developed as a re-creation of original Shetland yarns from the nineteenth century. At 71⁄2 stitches to the inch (2.5 cm), it’s finer than fingering-weight yarn. This yarn is beloved for its depth of color, historical significance, and soft worsted-spun strand. Knit a piece of history with your next project.

One of my favorite things about Fair Isle knitting is watching the patterns develop as I progress through the rounds. It can be addicting! I encourage you to try colorwork; it’s really fulfilling, and it’s an important part of our knitting heritage.

Lang may yer lum reek,

(That’s Scottish for “may you live long and keep well.”)

—Lisa


Featured Image Credit: David Tipling / robertharding | Getty Images


Essential Fair Isle Knitting Resources