My current work in progress:

Seaforth designed by Alice Starmore, knit in British Breeds 5-ply Guernsey Wool on US 3 needles.


Just Do It!

This comment to yesterday’s blog post from Marina really struck a chord with me:
As someone new to Fair Isle, I had numerous concerns … circular needles, finer yarn, using 2 hands, remembering to change yarns, etc. I started with a Philosopher’s and then Jade Starmore’s Medieval Tapestry where I added more colors. But you know, I wish I hadn’t read some blogs/forums where folks were making it out to be “difficult” and had someone who said “just do it” because really, Fair Isle is not difficult at all.

Amen, sistah! I could not agree with you more.

Back in the dim, dark days before the Internet, I bought Alice Starmore’s Book of Fair lsle Knitting. “Ooh, look at all the pretty sweaters!” I thought as I paged through it. I picked out my favorite one, the Wave Cardigan, and ordered Harrisville shetland to knit it. I knit. I cut steeks. I picked up stitches.

It never occurred to me that cutting steeks was scary, because I had never read anyone’s opinion of the process, outside of Alice Starmore’s description in her book. So I just did it.

All those colors might look a bit daunting at first, but in traditional fair isle knitting, you are only ever knitting with two colors at a time. Those two colors keep changing, but that’s the fun of it — fair isle keeps me entertained because it is always changing.

Granted, it can take a while to complete a garment because you are typically knitting at a gauge of 8 stitches and 8 rows to an inch. And if you have never knitted with two colors in one row, you might want to practice that a bit before embarking on a large garment.

But fair isle is totally not difficult. Honest.

Holly asked:
What is your opinion of knitting a fair isle with plain ol’ wool yarn rather than Shetland wool? I know the yarn wouldn’t grab as well which would influence the steeks. There’s a pretty big difference between the price of J&S and Knitpick’s Palette. But, I might feel like I cheated by not using the real deal…and always look askance at the FO…

Okay, at $1.79 for 231 yards (50 grams), the Knitpicks Palette is definitely cheap!

By the way, if you buy shetland wool directly from Jamieson and Smith in Scotland, you will pay $2.20 per 25 gram skein at the current exchange rate. Which, in my opinion, is still pretty darn cheap for this yarn.

I should point out that Knitpicks Palette is available in 30 colors. J&S shetland is available in 141 colors, I think. So your color range in Knitpicks is quite limited, comparatively.

I have no personal experience with the Knitpicks Palette, but if I’m gonna knit a fair isle, I want to knit it in a wool that has the same properites as shetland wool, mainly, the sticky, hairy quality that makes the steeks knitted from shetland so obedient. You could certainly alter your steeking technique to accomodate the qualities of the yarn you are using. Heck, you could knit a fair isle in cotton and use Norwegian machine-stitched steeks and knit the sleeves separately. Me? I prefer knitting fair isles in shetland wool.

Finally, here is a report on my progress on Mara.

Here she is from the back.


You can see that the armhole shaping is coming along nicely.

From the front, it doesn’t look quite as neat, because the shaping for the v-neck is pulling it in. It’ll be much prettier once the front steek is cut.


And just for grins, a close-up:


My goal is to get the knitting of the body completed over the weekend. After that, I’ll cut the front steek and knit the neckband/front bands. I always like to get that out of the way before making the sleeves.

Lucy is all excited just thinking about it.



  1. I’m not much of a sweater person, but this Fair Isle thing is so pretty I might just have to make an attempt anyway!

    Is there such a thing as Fair Isle socks or afghans or scarves? I’ll have to go look! Yay! Yet another project to add to the list!

  2. Priscilla says:

    Oh! Thanks for the close up! Gosh, this is soooo beautiful. I can’t wait to see pictures of when you actually cut the front steek. Still can’t imagine cutting a piece of knitting in half…

  3. Ooo! Please do take close-up shots of the steek and cutting process. I haven’t done one yet and I love to see lots of pics of things before I do. I’m not afraid of it but I am totally amazed by the process. I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that it won’t unravel on me.

  4. your story reminds me of my first sweater. I was a teenager, and the sweater had a very simple fair isle yoke, and there were sleeve steeks. I wondered a bit about the sleeve issue, but my mother said nonchalantly “oh, you know we just cut holes for the sleeves”, then she took out the sewing machine and just did it. I never knew it was scary or difficult before I read about it on the internet.

  5. Hi Wendy, it’s me again. Geez, you’re like the fastest knitter. I’m knitting a lace scarf and it’s taking like a month. Everyday you update, there is so much progress. I bow down to you knitting Goddess!!

    Anyways, I was also wanting to try fair isle. Do you always mail order your yarn from overseas? And do you have to wait like forever for the yarn to get here? And then how do you substitute? I also have Alice’s book of Fair Isle knitting but dont’ know how to sub……

    Anyways, those are just my thoughts.

  6. I haven’t done much fair isle knitting, only a hat and now some gloves, but now that I’m working on the gloves, I think something bigger would actually be easier, because it’s not so fiddly! I’m using J&S, but I have some Palette in the stash, and while I haven’t knit with it, it does feel quite different. It has some grab, but not nearly as much as the J&S, and it doesn’t have the lovely heathery colours that the J&S does. J&S feels a bit scratchy in the ball, but the Palette is smoother and softer.

  7. You brought up a great point about steeks: you didn’t know they were something most people found intimidating because you didn’t know that people found them so. You just saw it and went for it, with no trepidation. Good for you. That’s a lesson learned for me. Thanks.

  8. Good point about just going in and doing it. And also the whole less fiddly if it’s a garment than a glove or hat… Hadn’t considered that.

    I wish I would be able to wear such a beautiful garment like yours but it’s way too much pattern… I’ll have to figure out a design where it was limited to the shoulders, like the fairly simple fair isle cardigan in stitch n bitch nation. I love teva durham’s designs, I confess, if not for how busy they are and how non ASL friendly they are they’re the ones I would do in a nanosecond.

  9. My first knitted project was an Aran sweater. No one had said that’s not a good first project. Most of the time it seems those that don’t like something are louder than those who do.

    Anyway, your work is beautiful and I enjoy your writing – and your cat. I’m learning things from you and I enjoy that too.

  10. Nancy J says:

    Thank you for saying ‘Just do it!’ The very first sweater I knit was also a fair isle and I changed the colors and the yarn. Worked out just fine! The second one was intarsia. Also fine. I didn’t know they were ‘hard’. I just liked the patterns and followed directions (basically, because I am not known to follow directions blindly!) I am so glad now that I convinced my mother to take a couple pictures while I was knitting the fair isle! Fun!

  11. I totally agree that the best way is to just do it! I picked up AS’s Fisherman’s Knits and I’m just working away on something. Even though I “shouldn’t” do it because it’s “too hard”. Once I actually finish something, I’m going to pick up stuff for your Baby Norgi pattern. I’m excited to learn steeks! πŸ˜€

    I now want to get my hands on some J&S yarn–I’ve seen so many people praise it now.

  12. It’s so gorgeous, nice closeup. It’s always fun watching you make these exciting fair isle projects.

    And I really enjoyed reading your book. I love all the details about your early knitting days and all the stories. I want to make your Grape Arbor Shawl.

  13. I had a similar experience with steeking; I hadn’t heard that it was insane from anyone, so I was more curious about the process than intimidated. Plus I figured if sweaters had been knit that way for hundreds of years, they probably knew better than I did what would work. So I just steeked it.

    It’s still one of my favorite techniques.

  14. On Palette vs. J&S:

    I’m knitting a fair isle in Palette right now, and enjoy the yarn. I do think that one has to go into such a project with different expectations, though. You won’t be able to recreate a Starmore colorway. In fact, it’s very unlikely that you’ll be able to recreate any colorway for a sweater designed for J&S. So you have to be willing to make up your own colorway. Another big difference is that I feel Palette is suited to a tighter gauge than J&S. I’m working at about 9 stitches and 10 rows per inch, and am not sure that I’d want to go looser with it. It works well for my current sweater, as I needed to make it smaller, anyway. But much swatching should be done, to achieve a gauge and fabric that the knitter likes. What works with J&S might not be the same in Palette.

    It’s not something I’d use all the time, but it does make a nice substitution if you’re willing to work with its limitations. I chose it because I wanted to knit another fair isle, but was on an extremely tight budget. I chose a pattern that I could make work with the colors available. It feels different than J&S, and the resulting project will be a lot different. There are many projects on my to-do list that I wouldn’t even consider using Palette for. But for this project, it’s been a great yarn.

  15. Oh, I couldn’t agree more! Fair Isle is not difficult, once you get the hang of it. I cut my first steeks while watching TV. I didn’t let what I read influence me, and everything went smoothly.

    Just do it!

  16. Okay, I sure hope you photo-document that steek cutting, because I think it sounds fascinating. Better yet, video-blog it! πŸ™‚

  17. You’ve almost sold me on it. I’m seriously considering a traditional fair isle now. Thanks for the inspiration!

  18. It’s one of the reasons I’ve always been glad I discovered Maggie Righetti and Elizabeth Zimmerman at the beginning of my knitting career–they helped me not be afraid of anything. (Well, knitting-wise, anyway!) My feeling is that if you want to do something badly enough, because it’s so beautiful or it’s just something you’ve always wanted to do, you should go for it. It’s just yarn, right? How can yarn be scary?

  19. Those are stunning colors, beautiful knitting and design! Lucy’s tail looks especially long in that picture πŸ™‚

  20. My GAWD, that sweater is beautiful!!

  21. It is just amazing! You continue to inspire!

  22. The beginning of your post reminds me of an old Garfield cartoon where he and Odie are sitting on the branch of a tree that is obviously pretty far of the ground and Garfield says something like “It’s amazing what one can do when one doesn’t know what one can’t do”! Your fair-isle is simply stunning. (P.S. New blog and e-mail address, same person πŸ™‚ ).

  23. Mara is just goregous! And I agree wholeheartedly, for a LONG time I didn’t knit Fair Isle because I thought I had to use two hands, and I’m not great with knitting with the left hand. Now that I use my right hand for BOTH colors, it is actually pretty simple and I wish I’d started sooner!

    On another note, I’m using Palette for some Fair Isle Mittens and it is reasonably “sticky” and I think will become more so once washed and blocked.

  24. Thanks for your opinion on yarn substitution! I’m glad to know about ordering from J&S. Maybe I’ll use the Palette for mittens and J&S for Meg Swansen’s Fair Isle Cardigan and see what I think!

  25. Mara is gorgeous! I’m a pretty new reader so I’ve never had the pleasure of watching you knit Fair Isle before. It’s such a treat.

  26. You’ve inspired me! I have way too many projects on my to-do list for this year, but for next year, I’m going to make it my goal to finish one fair isle sweater! I’m so fascinated with them and they are so beautiful; I just have to make one!

  27. Not to be a pooh pooh-er but it sickens me to see how fast you are knitting this up. My Philospher’s Wool sweater took me months. You’ve completed this stuff in a matter of two weeks? Ugh….

    Once again, proving you are the Queen of All Things Knitting…LOL

  28. I recently began a Fair Isle Odyssey, and after taking a 60 minute class on how to hold the yarn and get an idea about tension…etc.

    I was delighted to discover that it wasn’t hard, it’s a bit unwieldy learning to hold the yarn.

    I’m starting with a hat (thanks for your advice and inspiration!) and now am hopelessly hooked!

    I’d say I’ll be ready for Starmore’s Henry VIII by 2008. πŸ™‚

    Thanks Wendy!

  29. Judith Crossett says:

    Agreeing with the just-do-it: my first sweater had cables; my second was intarsia. Then I learned some more and haven’t done steeks (yet). But neither cables nor intarsia ever or still seem intimidating. Kitchener stitch, that is intimidating, but toe-up is getting me back into socks.

  30. Not to annoy you with questions I could probably look up in a book, but since you’re changing colors all the time, what do you do with the ends? Are you joining them with the new colors or just dropping them off at the steeks? I’ve never seen a steeked sweater in person, so I have no idea how it works.

    It really is gorgeous. Once I get over this lace obsession, I can see how a fair isle one could develop soon after.

  31. It is funny to think back to my days of pre-steek awareness. My first exposure to steeks was from Alice [Starmore] herself. She toured the US teaching classes. I had never heard of her but decided to sign up. She was wearing the Oregon cardigan (of course in the original colorway — it WAS the original!). I stared at it all day long. I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was. She was fantastic, with her cute Outer Hebrides accent and wonderful stories. I was taking a colorwork class and she commented that she had never seen anyone cut a steek with such glee. It was years before I actually attempted a sweater, but they really are not that daunting. Give it a go!

    PS — she is still teaching classes, but you have to go to her.

  32. One of the best quotes about knitting is from June Hiatt’s PRINCIPLES OF KNITTING. Talking about Arans, she said “They are not difficult, merely tedious.” I’ve found that to be a good way to explain some of the more complex knitting – arans, fair isle, lace – it’s not hard, per se, it’s only a question of how much attention you want to pay. (Why I usually keep both a simple and a complex pattern going.)

    On Palette – it’s a very soft yarn, I don’t know if I would choose it for a steeked pattern. I am doing the Square Black Shawl from the Folk Shawls book and really loving it, however. (My current simple project.)

  33. That sweater is absolutely gorgeous! Your skill and speed never cease to astonish me. I don’t like to watch TV that much, but I think even I could watch that sweater come together over a few weeks!

  34. I was curious about the Palette product but did notice the limited colors. I didn’t use it for a traditional fair isle but I did use it as a substiture for Daletta in the Rosendal pattern. I am VERY pleased to report that I obtained appropriate gauge and the end product is very nice. I would recommend Palette as a good substitute for Daletta. Knitpicks needs MORE color range before I’d try a complicated fair isle.

  35. I can’t wait to see it on you!

  36. Hi Wendy- I’m so happy that so many people read your blog, and will realize that it isn’t hard at all. In fact, it is the most exciting branch of knitting out there. Colors, patterns, nothing is more impressive.
    I am a true devotee of Shetland yarn, not just for FI, for aran as well. I like something with body and substance.

  37. thank you, thank you , thank you. You were one of the first knit blogs I found and you are like a life-line for me. I was really stressed about my first steeking project but, as I usually do, I consulted your archives and you made it seem so simple. Dangerous, yes, potentially risky, maybe – but do-able by the average person. Because of that, I jumped right in and, you were right! I love steeking, now, and I go ‘ugh’ at patterns that have a front, a back, and sleeves. I want to knit in the round and steek them all. Now, you tempt me with the fair isle. Maybe colorwork isn’t as frightening as it seems?

  38. Thank you for the closeups (or, as they say it in the movie Sunset Boulevard, “I’m ready for my closeup, Mr. Demille”) –I love the pattern! It’s a pleasure to see it develop from day to day. RE cutting steeks – I say, don’t be afraid – it’s not an episiotomy(sp?)… Have a great weekend and Love to Lucy!

  39. I taught a woman I worked with to knit. At that point I hadn’t done Fair Isle or even intarsia. Her first project was knitting a sweater for her son. She thought it looked boring and decided to knit an intarsia sailboat in the middle of it. Total novice, and she “just did it.” Jumping in with both feet works.

  40. That Marina is a smartie. I’d say the same thing about lace too. I started with a fairly complex pattern and it was easy. Then I started reading about how ‘difficult’ it was. It’s not that bad.

  41. Wow, Mara is really coming’ve inspired me to pick up my Poetry In Stitches project and finally finish her. Thanks Wendy!

    Hmm..I just noticed that Mara looks just like the cover of Alice Starmore’s Book of Fair Isle Knitting…am I seeing that right? I think it is…

  42. Hey Wendy, as always I’ve gotten such enjoyment out of your blog, but this latest Fair Isle session may be what pushes me over the edge and gets me knitting my own Fair Isle sweaters… Thanks for this post especially. I’m going to have to get some Shetland Wool now just because I’m curious about the differences… you bring up a great point about stickiness, I can see how that would be helpful.

    Keep on bloggin’… and knittin’… which I know you’ll have no problem with. Have a nice weekend. πŸ™‚

  43. Lisa, Mike, Jack, Della says:

    So beautiful–it looks painted. I’m sorely tempted. But it’s marvelous getting to see your work with Mara; thanks for sharing it.

  44. Great discussion today. I do still have a question for you, I know you like stickiness shetland, etc., but what’s your take on knitting a fair isle with say 100% alpaca. I read somewhere, and for the life of me can’t remember where, that alpaca may not be as appropriate for fair isle – is this the stickiness factor?

    Lucy, looks like you have a fun bobbin toy waiting on the floor for you.

  45. I love watching this grow!

    And I think that’s the downside of all the knitblogs – getting an idea rather than trying it or letting your own creativity flow. I know I get stuck sometimes because of that.

    AND, there are so many places in life where a ‘just do it’ attitude would serve one well, aren’t there? πŸ™‚

  46. I have heard that the Shetland wool supplied by folks such as J&S isn’t necessarily from the Shetland breed of sheep, but rather from whatever sheep are there. That’s not bad, just confusing sometimes. I hope to visit them in person next year – I will have to take notes.

    After the post 2 days ago I picked up my goofing off project and tried alternating colors (a la fair isle) and it was EASY. I said, what is the big deal? Purling back was a little tricky, and I may have been doing it “wrong”, but it was just a swatch and a place for me to practice. I am super motivated to make some mutlicolored projects now.

    Thanks Wendy! (and Lucy)

  47. Must. Finish. Stupid. Torino. First.


    You’re an evil woman.

  48. Cathy D. says:

    Several months ago you were ask to recommend some beginner lace patterns. I’m working on one you mentioned and it’s easy enough I’m getting it to work; I’ve even memorised the pattern!

    Would you be so kind and recommend a few beginner fair isle patterns? I’ve looked and find I don’t know enough to start to decide what looks easy.

    Mara is gorgeous; love the colors, hope they are as good in person as on my monitor.


  49. Okay, I’m addicted to AS and the Aran patterns but finding a Fair Isle of her’s is getting pretty hard. If you have a good idea, send it out on the BLOG for all of us searchers to find.

    Your sweater is so wonderful, finished it will be perfect…..I’ll keep watching.

  50. Personally, I find the Knitpick color palette too jarring to consider using for Fair Isle patterns, so I’ll stick with Shetland yarn.

  51. I can relate to some of the other comments. I taught myself to knit while in grade school because it looked like fun and my mother didn’t know how. (Later I taught her.) My first sweater when I was a freshman in high school was an allover cable. I didn’t know it was supposed to be difficult so I had no problem with it. I was told that socks and multicolor knitting were hard so I kept away from them for years. How dumb! Finally I wanted the FI sweater on the cover of Knitters #3 so I got the yarn and knit it. I wasn’t good at stranding when I started but I certainly was by the time I finished. I love the sweater, especially when I went hiking in Scotland. Ignorance is bliss. I say to any new knitter “just go for it!” One new knitter I met was making an entrelac yoked sweater. Someone commented on it and she said, “but it’s just knit and purl.” As is all knitting. We just try to make things harder than they really need to be. I love the Mara sweater and envy the speed with which you work. BTW Wendy Knits is one of my new favorite books.

  52. Consider this: if you are going to spend the time to do a sweater that hopefully will last a long time………and take a while to do (we are not all Wendys!)…….then yes to J&S…….it’s worth it……..and yes to fairisle, aran, and lace………why not!…….as someone said fear is false evidence appearing real!…….

  53. I just love the colours. Looks really amazing!

  54. If folks don’t want to knit a whole sweater, there are other options. Black Water Abbey has some gorgeous kits for Fair Isle bags.

  55. Oh! Don’t I just completely envy your skill. Lovely!

  56. I have long admired your Fair Isles, Wendy, and will probably try a Fair Isle pattern someday… but you can’t make me cut steeks. πŸ™‚

  57. I’m a great fan of the Just Do It philosophy. Especially in knitting – if something doesn’t work out just swear a bit and frog it, no harm done.

    Love the sweater. I’m thinking I’ll have to try some fair isle this fall (it’s too #@**$#*% hot for wool right now)

  58. Thank you for this post very interesting and to relativize the test of the steeks !

  59. OK. “Just do it” is really an encouragement I need to hear. I’ve piddled around with Fair Isle type knitting in the past, but have never done the authentic thing, just admired it. I have to admit though, that it’s not cutting the steeks that puts me off, it’s having to weave in all the ends once I’ve cut them!

  60. Oh WOW.. What Beautiful Work Wendy!!!!

  61. Hi, Wendy! This actually has nothing to do with your blog, but with your book. I just checked it out of the library. (Sorry. I’m an opera singer who just graduated from grad school married to a composer who just graduated from grad school. When I am rich and famous, or at least able to eat on a regular basis, I’ll buy it!) I wanted to comment on something you said. As I was spending the evening alone the other night, I was watching a movie and knitting. When I got ready for a break, I got out your book and though how great it would be if I could read and knit at the same time. Now I need to know, how do you do it?
    I also want to thank you for all your charity work. As the proud mama of four feline children, it brought tears to my eyes to read about all the people everywhere who love them as much as I do. And in regards to that, do you just leave the hair in your knitting, or do you attempt to take it out? I’m knitting baby birthday gifts right now and my Siamese/Himalayn just LOVES them….in fact he keeps showing up with the extra balls of yarn for me. sigh…..
    Thanks again for a great book and a great blog!

  62. that is just exquisitely beautiful! i have been a big fair isle fan since my new england college days in the early 80’s. i would LOVE to knit fair isle, but haven’t known where to start. i think i will track down your book and give it a try now!