Knitting From Fair Isle by Mati Ventrillon

Reviewed by Hayley Anderton

There are a few new knitting books, annuals, or journals in the offing that deal with Fair Isle or Shetland lace, but this is the first one to come out this season and has set the bar high. This isn’t a surprise coming from Mati Ventrillon who is clearly a woman of parts. Prior to moving to Fair Isle in 2007 she had been working as an architect in London. She joined the Fair Isle Crafts Co-Operative and spent the next four years learning the traditional knitting techniques and motifs. In 2011 the Co-Operative dissolved so Ventrillon decided to start her own label.

It’s gone from strength to strength with some high-profile projects, and collaborations. Her distinctive use of colour and pattern is both traditional and contemporary – which echoes the tagline of the book – ’15 Contemporary Designs Inspired by Tradition’. As Ventrillon says, every knitter brings their own style to the things they make, and her particular combinations of motifs and colours have a dedicated following of fans.

Something I’ve really liked about Mati Ventrillon’s work as I’ve followed it is how she highlights the time that goes into making a handknitted garment, especially a jumper. It helps to put the price in context; when you understand how many hours go into making a thing, as well as the quantity of yarn used, they start to look cheap. As the only way I’m going to afford one of these anytime soon though is by knitting my own I’m glad to have the instructions to hand to get started, especially in this lockdown year.

Fair Isle is a small community – only about 25 people live on it and knitting has long been an important part of the island’s economy and identity. The first really nice thing I noticed about this book is how careful Ventrillon is to credit the people who taught her, and how much inspiration she’s got from the museum collection. The second really nice thing is how well credited her test knitters are – they are named in every photo their work appears in, and the book closes with images of their hands knitting their garments. It might not sound like much but producing a book like this is a collaborative effort, so it’s inspiring to see that recognised.

The fifteen patterns take in fingerless gloves and mitts, wrist warmers, hats – including a traditional fisherman’s kep, three jumpers, an all over vest, a poncho, scarves, and neck warmers. It’s a decent range of projects; the wrist warmers and fingerless mitts are great for beginners, and as good a way as any to swatch for tension and colour combinations. Hats and neck warmers are the obvious next step, scarves demand a bit more time and commitment whilst still being an easy thing to make – and then it’s on to jumpers.

The vest is exactly the sort my partner likes, and the simplest of the 3 jumper patterns is exactly what I’ve been looking for, so whilst both will be something of a learning curve I’d have bought the book for these alone. There is another really valuable thing it does though, and one which I haven’t seen much of before. Each pattern comes in three different colour ways, the first is a two tone combination in natural shades, the second shows a very traditional Fair Isle combination, and the third changes for each section (Admiral, Ombre, and Stripes).

The sections are broken down into ‘Inspired by Tradition’, ‘Playing With Backgrounds’, and ‘Past and Present’. The single thing I have found hardest about getting to grips with Fair Isle is how to combine colours and motifs. This book provides some really useful guidelines for doing that, and again, I’d buy it for this alone. There’s no need to stick to Ventrillon’s colours but seeing how she does it has been incredibly helpful.

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Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader.

Mati Ventrillon, Knitting from Fair Isle (Kyle Books, 2020). 978-0857837486, 144pp., softback.

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