Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Elephant No. 143: Fair Isle Knitting

While sorting through a bunch of stuff, I came across a book with a few charted patterns for elephants, so today I thought I'd try Fair Isle knitting.

Fair Isle is a stranded knitting technique, named for the tiny island of Fair Isle in the Shetland Islands. Although two-colour knitting is thought to be almost as old as knitting itself, stranded knitting likely developed in the Arab world in the twelfth century A.D., later spreading to Europe. Stranded knitting is believed to have reached Fair Isle around A.D. 1500.

As various forms of knitting became mechanized during the nineteenth century, traditional hand knitting industries such as the production of socks and lace began to suffer. In response, two-colour knitting—which was still largely produced by hand—grew in popularity throughout the Shetland Islands, including Fair Isle. Bright, natural colours were produced with local flora and imported dyes, and trademark designs evolved.

Fair Isle knitting was given a boost in 1921, when the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII, who abdicated for Wallis Simpson) wore a Fair Isle pullover in public. His mother Queen Mary also wore Fair Isle garments, and soon Fair Isle sweaters were all the rage.

Edward, Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII), in his
Fair Isle sweater, 1921.

Today, Fair Isle often refers to any kind of stranded knitting in two colours or more—although "stranded colourwork" is the preferred term, with "Fair Isle" reserved for patterns specific to the Shetland Islands.

For today's elephant, I decided to use a pattern from the book The Tap Dancing Lizard by Catherine Cartwright-Jones and Roy Jones. I've had the book for a long time, but never used it before. This is the pattern I chose:

To be honest, this kind of knitting has always scared me a little. I've tried Fair Isle patterns before, but I've always found it a bit difficult to keep the tension even, as Fair Isle requires carrying strands of yarn across the back. While this isn't an issue when the repeats in your pattern are frequent, it becomes more fiddly when you have wide expanses of the same colour, as in the pattern I chose. For more on Fair Isle techinques, check out some of the tutorials available online, including this one.

For yarn, I used a couple of balls of a cotton/rayon blend that I've had for awhile, but could never decide how to use.

The pattern I chose is 56 stitches wide, but I cast on a few extra stitches to allow for a bit of room on the sides. I also knitted four rows before starting the pattern itself.

I decided to carry both colours across the entire back, even though the darker colour doesn't continue to the edge. I thought this might make a more even knitted fabric. I twisted the two yarns together every three or four stitches, depending on what the pattern was doing.

This went relatively quickly, the most difficult part being following the pattern. To help me keep my place, I used a wide Post-It note to mark the row I was on, placing it above the working line. This allowed me to relate what I was doing to the row I had just finished. I don't know if this is the best way, but it's usually the way I work a needlepoint pattern, so I figured it would work here.

This took me a couple of hours, but I'm surprised at how well it worked out. I expected it to be bumpy and weird, but it was remarkably flat when I was finished. To further flatten the top and bottom, which had a tendency to roll, I dampened the final piece and ironed it using the cotton setting on my iron.

I'm not sure what I think of these two colours together, but I'm very happy with how nice the final piece looks, and how even it is. With decent results like this, I might even be convinced to try something like this again.

Elephant Lore of the Day
I was told a rather charming story yesterday by an older English weaver who lived in Wales as a child. When Pat was young, the circus overwintered near the town of Porthmadog on the edge of Snowdonia National Park, and one of the elephants was an avid cricketer.

Each day, the female Asian elephant would wait for the children to get out of school, cricket bat held in her trunk. When she would see the children coming, she would get very excited, waving the bat around. Pat said that the children were allowed to throw the ball at the elephant, who would then hit it with the cricket bat. According to Pat, the elephant was highly accurate at hitting the ball, although perhaps not always accurate at scoring.

Elephants still play cricket in some circuses, as seen in this video, and the 2011 Cricket World Cup featured an elephant mascot named Stumpy.

Stumpy, mascot of the 2011 Cricket World Cup.

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home
African Wildlife Foundation
Elephants Without Borders 
Save the Elephants   

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