Fashion & Beauty

Fair Isle Friends

Not your traditional Fair Isle: a Tory Sport turtleneck in orange rust and a Double J graphic knit with fringe.

By Janet Kelly

IF YOU’RE a purist and a stickler for the genuine item, you could, Covid permitting, travel to Fair Isle in Scotland’s Shetland Islands, where they’ve been knitting colorful, warm sweaters in geometric patterns and specific colors for almost 200 years.

Even then you’ll probably have to be put on a waiting list to actually buy one. There are just a few producers on the island (the population number varies between 48 and 60), and each one only makes about 30 to 40 garments a year.

Luckily, for those for whom patience is not their particular long suit and who prefer not to travel to Scotland, many designers, inspired by Fair Isle patterns, have made their own versions of the iconic sweater, introducing punchy color combinations, roomy silhouettes and puff shoulders and sculpted sleeves. Moreover, “Fair Isle” has evolved to become a general term for multicolored knitwear.

The style has long been beloved by skiers, après skiers and the British royal family (worn by three generations—Diana, Kate and even Charlotte). Lately, though, you’re just as likely to see women wearing these kind-of preppy knits on the sidewalks of New York City as you would on the slopes of Gstaad or Courchevel.

Wear Anthropologie’s pink quarter-zip top as a pop of color with army green cargo pants or layer Mango’s cotton print crewneck under a tailored jacket. For an artsy vibe, pair the pattern of your choice with another pattern—in a similar color way. For the record, wearing any Fair Isle pattern with denim is always a win-win.

It’s hard to pick just one, so here are 15, including two jackets, one scarf, a pair of socks and nine sweaters.

LEFT: Bundle up in Rag & Bone’s Joelle Sherpa Printed Jacket ($650, Shopbop), which takes a page from the traditional puffer and pairs it with cozy fleece in a Fair Isle pattern. The nylon lining filled with 100% duck down should keep you toasty warm.

RIGHT: A blend of acrylic and polyester, Mango’s Print Cotton Sweater ($59.99) is not designed to withstand the winter cold of the mountains of Vermont or the Alps. The unexpected pink, khaki and black combination that will set you apart from all the other Fair Isle-sweater-wearing folks.


LEFT: Warm your tootsies—and your heart, too—in Donegal Fair Isle Socks. For each item purchased, Bombas donates one to community organizations that aid the homeless. These are $16 from Anthropologie.

RIGHT: Quarter-zip pullovers are everywhere, but this one ($160, Anthropologie) in “Fair Isle pink” gets extra points for its eye-catching colors and “I’ll just throw this on” comfort.

LEFT: Made of all-merino wool, which doesn’t irritateor itch, resists odors and wicks away sweat, Tory Sport’s Fair Isle Sweater ($298) is available in this orange rust, as well as in four other colors. Our other favorite has a dark green background that plays nicely with the purple pattern on the yoke.

RIGHT: Made in Italy with maximalists in mind is how Italian label La Double J describes itself. Its bouclé alpaca-and-wool Engadina Sweater ($490, The Yes) is a fun and irreverent take on the classic with its fringe-y hem and playful “Ciao Babe” message that lives up to the brand’s vision and then some.

LEFT: Hats keep your body heat from escaping, but in my opinion, a covered-up neck is also key. Which is why scarves are a winter must, particularly if they’re as pretty as this multi-hued (heather gray, cayenne, coral and berry) Allover Fair Isle one. It’s $69.50 from Talbots.

CENTER: At first glance, this wool-and-alpaca turtleneck looks as if you could find it in a ski clothing catalog. Look closer, though, and you’ll notice a patchwork of Fair Isle patterns intricately sewn together and attention to details like the rib-knit hem and cuffs. Choose elegance with a pair of winter-white slacks. It’s $498 at The Yes.

RIGHT: If only price weren’t a deterrent, this wool-blend cardigan ($890, Moda Operandi) from designer Paco Rabanne would live in my closet. It’s so darn cheerful and the prettiest interpretation of the Fair Isle look we’ve seen. It glistens with metallic threads and gleams with crystal-framed faux pearl buttons.

LEFT: Even the humble henley top gets a feminine tweak from Ulla Johnson. The narrow fair isle stripe patterning adds to the wintery vintage feel of this casual shirt, made from a merino wool blend. Layer it under a heavier sweater; dress it up with leather or faux leather pants; for more informal wear, pair with your favorite sweats. It’s $295 from Intermix.

RIGHT: This Derek Lam 10 Crosby rib knit Grammer Turtleneck Sweater ($395, Intermix) almost makes me want to ski again or at least sit at the bar or by the fire for après-ski drinks and gossip. I’m smitten with the baby blue and white diagonal graphic on the burgundy background. And, the oversize silhouette means there’s room for layering.

LEFT: A peach-and-sky-blue wool-blend sweater updates the classic ski staple with a roomy fit and puff sleeves. It’s $128 from J. Crew.

RIGHT: Why should sweaters have all the fun? The folks at Ralph Lauren have decided they shouldn’t and designed a Fair Isle Print Down Coat ($498) with plenty of warmth (750-fill-power down), a water-resistant shell and zip-off hood.

LEFT:  The familiar gets a refresh on A.L.C.’s silk and wool  Tate Sweater ($495,The Yes), thanks to a disruption in the pattern, the roll neck (a high, close-fitting neck that’s worn folded over) and balloon sleeves.

RIGHT: Rebecca Minkoff’s slouchy-sleeve Lou Sweater is almost sold out—except for the smallest sizes—on both Shopbop and the designer’s website. This handcrafted sweater from Etsy has a similar look and feel.


MyLittleBird often includes links to products we write about. Our editorial choices are made independently; nonetheless, a purchase made through such a link can sometimes result in MyLittleBird receiving a commission on the sale. We are also an Amazon Associate.

One thought on “Fair Isle Friends

  1. Nancy G says:

    So Princess Diana! Love all of these items.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.