Fair Isle and Family


Copyright L. Steinmann, 2016

When I look at this sweater I feel that I am asked to remember. I remember that it was knit for me and my sisters (we shared our clothes) in the 1960’s. It was knit by a great aunt from Edinburgh, Scotland. My grandmother had five sisters and they were all knitters. Packages of sweaters wrapped in brown paper, tied with string arrived regularly by post. The handmade gifts were really for their niece, my mother, a young parent of four girls. The Scottish aunties knew that Minnesota had remarkably cold and snowy winters and so they applied the skills and materials remembered from generations past to keep us warm. We wore our Scottish sweaters under nylon snow jackets purchased from JC Penney.


Mom and cousin at Cramond in handmade coats and tams. Copyright L. Steinmann, 2016.

I remember stories about my grandmother and her family. She was born in 1903 and grew up in Leith, a village at the edge of Edinburgh, right on the Firth of Forth (where the Forth River flows into the North Sea). The matrilineal line of her family came to Leith from the Orkney Islands. Leith, perhaps because it was a port, was a place for ocean-going folk from the Orkney and Shetland islands to settle. Leith in my grandmother’s time was known for its slums but also for its progressive education and health programs. My grandmother and her siblings were well educated and many of them went into healthcare professions. My grandmother received a long distance proposal of marriage from her childhood schoolmate, my grandfather, who found work in Canada after completing engineering school in Scotland. They married when she stepped off the boat in New York. He eventually got a job working for St. Paul Foundry and they settled in the Twin Cities. My grandmother died in 1951, before I was born.

My aunties, as we called them, kept the connection to my grandmother and her homeland significant in my life. They would come to Minnesota for visits and stay for weeks. They spoke with genteel Scottish accents, wore Edwardian jewelry and smelled of perfume and cigarettes. The handmade items they faithfully supplied were a reminder of my grandmother who also sewed, embroidered and knit whole wardrobes of sweaters, leggings, coats, caps and tams for her daughter and nieces and nephews. The tradition of knitting may be old but the Scottish sisters knit in yarns that took their fancy and in patterns they liked. They were ladies that came of age in the roaring 20’s. They were known for their homemade but fashionable clothing.


The Fair Isle jumper. Copyright L. Steinmann, 2016

The style and pattern of this little sweater is called Fair Isle from an island half way between Orkney and Shetland. The body of the sweater is in a light weight but scratchy wool (the aunties’ sweaters were always properly scratchy, the mark of real wool). I imagine that it is in fact wool from a Shetland sheep, a breed native to the Northern Isles and so adapted to the geography that the sheep graze on seaweed. The wool is known for its range of natural shades, soft texture and light weight. I have always loved the color of this sweater’s wool, a pale, grayish brown known as musket. Most of the words related to sheep, fleece and wools from the Northern Isles come from the ancient language Norn, a Nordic language, close to Icelandic, that was once spoken on the islands.


Fair Isle tam from our collection. Copyright L. Steinmann, 2016

My sweater, like a traditional Fair Isle knit, has two colors in each row with four colors used throughout the whole garment. The modern accent yarns are perhaps a bit too bright but still recall the ancient colors dyed from local plants and trade indigo blue. I visited Orkney in the 1980’s. When I look at the sweater I am strongly reminded of the North Sea island landscape. The touches of color recall the contrast of orange lichen on gray rock, bands of ocean, sky and cloudy blues and clumps of pink sea thrift on the beach.

Spring star

The pattern itself is called spring star, a common one in Fair Isle knitting. The band of stars created from multiple strands of colored yarn creates a decorative outer pattern and a soft inner weave that effectively doubles the layer of threads making it a sturdier and warmer garment.


My sister Julie in all hand knits and me in pom pom bonnet. Copyright L. Steinmann, 2016

Having treasured these clothes for many years now, I have memorized a lot of family history. My sisters and I have passed these items back and forth so that all of our children have worn them. We are all bound up in the same yarn. I have learned that wherever one lives, and the family diaspora within memory has cast us far and wide, there is comfort, history and a legacy of creative energy in our clothing.



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