A few years ago I had the privilege of visiting Shetland, a group of islands approximately 170 kilometres north of mainland Scotland. This northernmost part of the UK has a strong heritage in textile creation, particularly in knitted lace and Fair Isle jumpers. It’s the latter garments this post will discuss, as the interwar period saw this type of knitwear absolutely explode in popularity in England. What I learnt during my visit to the (excellent) Shetland Museum and Archives in Lerwick was that this sudden popular appeal of Fair Isle knitwear had a big impact on the financial independence of Shetland women.
Fair Isle itself is a small island located to the south of the main Shetland archipelago; in 2020 it had a population of 65 individuals and is only accessible by intermittent ferry and flight services. It is here that a new style of knitting was developed in the 19th century, one characterised by bold use of colour and patterns. The practice was soon adopted across the Shetland islands, initially to produce accessories such as caps and stockings. A true Fair Isle garment uses a limited number of colours, usually four or five. Only two colours are used in each row of knitting, which are built up into stars, crosses, zig zags, and other motifs.
The patterns and colours used in Fair Isle knitting make it a time-consuming and expensive way to produce garments. Shetland women (obviously) also produced more standard knitting items such as jumpers and stockings, either for use within their own household or to trade. From the middle of the 19th century until the 1920s, Shetland women were dependent on something called the Truck System, “a trading arrangement which involved payment in kind.” Rather than being able to sell their knitwear to shops and traders for money, instead women were obliged to trade the garments for things like coffee, tea and sugar. Women had little control over how much they would get traded for each garment; and whilst it was no doubt useful to have staple foods for their household, the Truck System meant that women were not able to put aside and save money for longer term investments.
By the end of the First World War, women on Fair Isle and the rest of Shetland had started producing full jumpers in the Fair Isle technique. Then, in a stroke of marketing genius, Shetland hosiery dealer James A Smith gifted a Fair Isle jumper to Edward, Prince of Wales. The Prince of Wales was an immensely popular society figure and bona fide style icon. He decided to wear the Fair Isle jumper whilst sitting for a portrait painted by John St. Helier Lander. In line with the increased importance of mass-communication and consumption of this period, the portrait was reproduced by the Illustrated London News.
Suddenly, Fair Isle jumpers were the must-have fashion item for fashion-conscious socialites. Although jumpers had initially only been made for men, parallel developments in women’s fashion that favoured relaxed fits and dropped waistlines meant that soon, women were also keen to have their own Fair Isle jumpers. This craze for genuine Fair Isle products inevitably had consequences for the women making these garments. Where they had previously been dependent on the Shetland merchants and traders to take their stock, now women were able to bypass the Truck System and liaise directly with wealthy English buyers. As these buyers sat outside the local economy, they naturally paid in cash which allowed the Shetland women greater financial independence. Eventually the Truck System collapsed completely by the Second World War.
Of course, buying a handmade Fair Isle garment from Shetland was still prohibitively expensive for most people. Very quickly, the exclusive garment worn by the Prince of Wales spawned mass-produced knitting patterns which allowed amateur knitters to make their own garments at home. These remained popular into the 1940s, and Fair Isle garments more generally have become a wardrobe staple for period dramas set in this period. Fair Isle jumpers and vests have periodically regained popularity ever since, and there continue to be knitwear designers on Shetland who are evolving the style. The original 1920s jumper that started it all has not been forgotten; you can purchase an exact replica of the Prince of Wales’ jumper from various Shetland merchants, such as here and here.
 Although to this day, only garments actually produced on the island of Fair Isle can carry the Fair Isle trademark
 He popularised amongst other things: a particular type of collar (still known as the Prince of Wales collar); a particular way of tying ones tie; the Prince of Wales check motif and plus-fours trousers