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Inspired Fair Isle Knits

Filed under: Books,Knitting,Reviews — folkcat at 12:59 pm on Tuesday, October 2, 2007

inspired fair isle book jacket_edited.jpgInspired Fair Isle Knits by Fiona Ellis

Published by: Potter Craft (Random House)

Acquired by: Free copy from Publisher

List Price: $35.00

Available: Oct. 2, 2007

Edited to add: Please see link at end of article for the publisher’s response to this review!

Knitwear designer Fiona Ellis has established a style that borrows from traditional knitting techniques, takes inspiration from nature, then turns both on their ears for a modern interpretation of classic designs. Her new book, Inspired Fair Isle Knits, is no exception.

Following her 2006 title, Inspired Cable Knits, Ellis has now turned her attention to the traditional techniques and motifs of Fair Isle knitting. Named for a small island in the Shetlands, north of Scotland, where it originated, Fair Isle knitting is a multi-colored technique, usually using two colors in a single row of knitting. The color not in use for the current stitch is carried at the back of the work until it is needed further down the row.

Traditionally, in such a cold place on the North Sea, Fair Isle knitting is used to make warm sweaters to brave the cold ocean winds and winter weather. As Ellis explains in her introduction, she has re-interpreted Fair Isle knitting for a modern design sense by playing with traditional elements of Fair Isle design, including placement of the patterning, use of color, symmetry, and types of garments.

In Inspired Cable Knits, Ellis used the themes of change, nature, energy, and time to gather her designs. This time, the themes are the four natural elements – water, air, fire, and earth. In each section, pieces are shown for nearly every season of the year, from turtleneck sweaters to halter tops, with a few styles for children thrown in.

But does the book measure up to its promise? I’m not sure. I found it to be well written, but there were many problems that give me pause about recommending it. Let me tell you what I found, and see what you think.

First things first…


Sizes of the finished garments are givein as XS – 3X (though not all go that small or large); finished chest measurements for women range from 32″ (XS) to 54″ (2X). I find the measurements confusing, though, without an indication of the real body chest measurement they’re intended to fit.

The XS measurements for women, for instance, range from 32 to 35 inches. S ranges from 32 – 39 inches. Those garments with an upper size of 2X measure from 46 to 54 inches. And the 3 items for women that have an upper size of 3X have measurements from 49 1/2 to 53 inches.

I found this confusing. No explanation of the ease of any garment is given, so it’s difficult to know what size you should knit. Is a 3X that’s 53 inches really meant to be smaller than a 2X that measures 54 inches? Your guess is as good as mine.

In the front sections of the book, choosing a size is addressed. The suggestion given is to measure a garment that fits you well, then compare it, not to the chest measurements and sizes listed, but to the schematic shown alongside the instructions. That will work for most, but without a discussion of the ease designed into the garments, you might have trouble getting a fit similar to that shown in the book.

The Effort is There

There is a strong effort to help the knitter, whatever their level of experience, succeed. The front of the book includes sections covering, at least in brief, such topics as stranding the colors as you knit, working in the round, and even setting in zippers – a topic that I’ve faulted other books for not including.

Each pattern includes, after the Materials list and Gauge, a special note calling out any special techniques required, with a pointer to the page that section can be found on. For example, the Classic Cardigan with Felted Pockets (p. 108), reads, “REFER TO TECHNIQUES ON PAGE 18 FOR: Felting, Short Rows, Single Crochet, 3-Needle Bind-Off.

Information like that means that even a beginner – so long as they actually read through the instructions – will have a better chance of completing a project well. Sure, some of the how-to explanations are very short, but at least the knitter has something to start from, which is more than many books include.

The instructions are carefully written, too. Anytime that the nature of the piece you’re knitting changes – for instance, when you need to begin shaping a section – it’s called out as a new paragraph, with a title in an alternate text color. Pay attention, and you’re less likely to whip out ten rows of stockinette past that point.


No two projects in this book use yarns from the same company – no, wait. There are some yarns used by at least two projects, but of the 20 items shown, there are at least 16 different brands and labels of yarn called for. If you want to make substitutions, information about yardage and weight is given at the pattern, and also in a 2-page spread at the back dedicated to the yarn specifications. There is also a full guide to vendors from which the yarns used can be purchased.

Editorial Flaws

There were a number of places that showed flaws in the editorial process. The author’s “A Last Word” at the end of the book has several errors, both missing words as well as words out of place.

Finished chest measurements are given for all garments, which is a good thing. But there’s an inconsistency – on some patterns, fractional measurements are given as decimals. On others, they’re shown as actual fractions. Very unprofessional.

And then there’s this photo:

Inspired Fair Isle Knits - Blurry Photo

The blur that you see is not from my poor camera skills. That is actually in the photo that was selected for publication in this finished, hardcover book. Fortunately, it’s not the primary image for this particular sweater. But why was it included? Were they that desperate for a photo that showed the hood up?

Errors like these are jarring to me, lifting me out of the enjoyment of the book, and making it difficult for me to think anything but, “goodness, this was poorly put together.”

Worth it?

So, the book is flawed. Editorial errors distract the reader’s eye, and detract from the overall quality. Still, Ellis clearly made an effort to be very inclusive of the information that the knitter would need to complete her designs.

Let’s see some pictures of a few of them, and you can decide for yourself if it’s worth pursuing this book – in spite of the flaws.

The Designs

(As usual, please click on any photo to get a larger image.)

Inspired Fair Isle Knits - Waves

I think this sweater is way too large for the model. But I like the unusual take on a classic rope cable – obviously the continuing influence of Ellis’ previous book. I’m not so sure that the Fair Isle yoke looks like it goes with the cabled sleeves and body, however.

Inspired Fair Isle Knits - Drifting

A cute sweater for a child, this raglan has buttons up both front raglan seams. Of course, my regular readers may recognize that the colors are influencing my opinion here – these are among my favorites.

Inspired Fair Isle Knits - Whisper

This is listed as a turtleneck, and normally I have a strong aversion to anything close around my neck. But clearly, this collar isn’t close fitting. I think that I could actually wear this, if I could size it up for my body. I like the cute detailing of lace at the collar and cuff.

The only thing is – and this isn’t good for a book on Fair Isle knitting – I think this design would work better without the sections of Fair Isle patterning. They distract the eye from the lacy details.

Inspired Fair Isle Knits - Sunkissed

One of the younger styles in the book. If I had the body for it, I’d wear this, though maybe not in these colors. This is knit in Young Touch Cotton DK yarn by Estelle Designs, so I’ll bet it’s comfortable to wear.

Inspired Fair Isle Knits - Kindle

This scarf is knit in the round in a sportweight alpaca yarn. At 9″ across, it’s wider than I’d care for myself. What caught my eye, though, was the fringe detailing. Each end of the scarf includes a row of eyelets, through which a single, long I-cord is threaded. The cord is stitched in place to keep the fringe loops from sliding. I might not want to knit the scarf, but I thought the fringe was clever.

The Huh?

Inspired Fair Isle Knits - Sway

This Huh? is for the pose. The model looks like she just peed her pants, and is trying to keep the puddle from getting bigger. I think they’re trying to show off the flirty pleated cuffs, but in the process, her posture and arm position almost completely hide the sweater.

Inspired Fair Isle Knits - Peat

The Huh? in this case is for the choice of yarn in the body of the men’s sweater. What is the woman at the front thinking? “Hey, I didn’t do the laundry, he did. And I told him to check the pockets for kleenex first! But does he ever listen?”

Bottom Line

I really wanted to like this book. There was clearly a serious effort to include everything the knitter would need to know to be able to complete the projects, something many books fall short on. But few of the designs caught my eye favorably. Of those that did, it was usually something other than the Fair Isle details that I liked about them – not good when Fair Isle is supposedly the point of the book.

Much of the photography distracts from and hides details of the garments. The editorial errors distract from the quality of the copy.

The copy itself is actually fairly good. What we’re left with is a well written book of knitting information and instructions, but with designs that don’t, well, inspire me. Add the poor copyediting and the inconsistent quality of the photography, and I find myself disappointed.

Maybe Fiona Ellis’ designs aren’t to my taste. But I like the quality of her writing, and I think her books could be better. I hope she keeps trying – I’d like to see where she goes.

Related Links:


Comment by Carrie K

October 3, 2007 @ 3:37 pm

Chappy’s Mom didn’t give it rave reviews either. I do like her IK FI design that was just the sleeves oh, so long ago, but I think I’ll give this book a pass.

Comment by Carrie K

October 3, 2007 @ 3:39 pm

And that’s a pet peeve of mine, the poses! And why on earth would they print a blurred photo of a sleeve on a book of FAIR freaking ISLE? The whole point is in the teeny detail of the stitches! Jeepers.

Pingback by Shopping Jen » Inspired Fair Isle Knits - The Publisher Responds

October 3, 2007 @ 4:59 pm

[…] Original Review by Jen: Inspired Fair Isle Knits […]

Pingback by Crafting Jen » Inspired Fair Isle Knits - The Publisher Responds

October 4, 2007 @ 1:04 pm

[…] Original Review by Jen: Inspired Fair Isle Knits […]

Comment by --Deb

October 4, 2007 @ 6:28 pm

I’m glad to know that it wasn’t my eyesight . . . I THOUGHT that picture was blurry, but didn’t know if it was a printing error in my copy or what . . . Not that it’s my copy anymore, since I returned it today. Such a disappointment, though, as you say, the editorial content really seemed quite thorough. It’s just a shame the designs didn’t live up to the amount of work that obviously went into the book.

Pingback by Crafting Jen » The Return of Freebie Friday - Inspired Fair Isle Knits?

October 5, 2007 @ 4:54 pm

[…] This week’s prize is the new book Inspired Fair Isle Knits by Fiona Ellis. I reviewed this book on Tuesday, both here and at the Shopping Jen blog. If you’ve been reading here, you may recall my review wasn’t entirely favorable. […]

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