Fair Isle vs. Intarsia vs. Stranded Knitting

By: Orvis Staff


Fair Isle Cardigan (left) and Celtic Knot Intarsia Pullover
Photos via orvis.com

Sweater knits create the distinct style and pattern of your favorite cozy winter pullovers and cardigans. Change up the type of stitch, and the weight and type of yarn, and you change up the look, warmth, and drape of a sweater. Add more than one color of yarn to a single sweater and the design possibilities are endless—from subtle motifs to bold patterns to contender for ‘ugliest holiday sweater.’

Aside from office Christmas parties, best to avoid the last. But changing up the patterns of your sweaters can bring welcome variety and vibrance to your cold-weather wardrobe. Read on for a primer on some popular knit patterns and the distinct sweater styles they create.

Colorwork Knitting

If there’s more than one color in your sweater, that’s colorwork. Whether they are knit by hand or manufactured, all patterned knits with two or more colors of yarn are considered colorwork. Variations in the knitting methods and motifs create the different patterns found in both contemporary and traditional sweaters. It doesn’t matter what type of yarn is used—colorwork patterns can be woven into cotton, cashmere, and wool sweaters.

Stranded Knits

One of the most common colorwork methods, stranded knitting is used to create the majority of traditional sweater patterns, including Fair Isle knits, and Scandinavian or Nordic Knits. Stranded knits are made using two or more colors of fine yarn in a double layer, which creates a warm sweater without the bulk. ‘Stranded’ refers to the process of stranding the yarns not in use for the pattern along the inside of the fabric until they are knit into the motif again.

Fair Isle Knits

This traditional knitwear originated hundreds of years ago on Scotland’s Fair Isle, a windswept island in the North Sea. Fair Isle sweaters are beloved for their intricate jacquard-knit motifs. The exact origins of the designs are unknown, but legend holds that seafarers brought patterned textiles from abroad that inspired the women knitters on Fair Isle to create their own designs. There are scores of different Fair Isle motifs, but among the most common ones are ram’s horns, anchors, and repeating XO motifs. Classic Fair Isle sweaters feature rows of these intricate, geometric patterns across the entire sweater, knit in up to five colors. A pattern may repeat at some point on the sweater, but often every row features a distinct motif.

Visitors to the island appreciated the beauty and warmth of the sweaters and a cottage industry was born. In the 1920s, Fair Isle sweaters gained global popularity when future King Edward VIII, then the Prince of Wales, wore the style during several public appearances.

Modern versions play with the motifs, weaving them all over, or only around the yoke, down the arm, or around the hem.

Nordic Knits

Norwegians know sweaters and there’s proof they’ve been perfecting them a long time. In 2013, a receding glacier in Norway revealed an ancient wool pullover that was 1,700 years old. It was well-used, patched in places, and crafted with a simple weave in a simple design. The familiar, patterned sweaters that evolved into today’s Nordic knits first appeared in the 1600s. Like the Fair Isle sweater, Nordic sweaters feature many traditional motifs, but the most iconic is the ‘selburose’ — an eight-pointed rose pattern that evokes thoughts of hot cocoa after a long day on the slopes.

Intarsia Knits

Intarsia is a colorwork knitting technique that creates blocks of color by changing the yarn color completely, rather than stranding the unused color yarn along the inside of the fabric as in stranded knitting. If you turn an intarsia knit inside out, you’ll see a mirror-image of the design on the inside of the sweater.

Argyle, with its repeating colored diamonds, is one of the most popular and familiar varieties of intarsia knitting. Colorblock sweaters and large band stripes are often created using the technique. Intarsia can also be used to create single large images, such as a flower or a dog, resulting in sweaters with dramatic or whimsical styles.

Knit patterns weave fascinating tales of traditional motifs and techniques that evolved in specific locales before becoming popular around the world. So when you reach for your favorite patterned knit sweater, do it justice—head out to create your own winter adventures so you have awesome stories to tell by the fire when you get home.

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