Mati Ventrillon is one of the last people on earth making true Fair Isle sweaters.
And she doesn’t just knit them — she raises the sheep, she gently shears them, and then she works with clients one by one to select colours and patterns. Then she begins knitting.
The French-Venezuelan designer lives and works on the island of Fair Isle itself, which is located off the northeastern coast of Scotland. At one-and-a-half miles in diameter and home to just 55 people, it is the most remote inhabited island in the United Kingdom.
Ventrillon’s garments are adorned with mysterious, historic patterns and brought to life with vibrant colours. Universally popular and worn for centuries, this sweater is a classic, at once at home on the backs of preppy Ivy League grads or windswept fishermen.
However, maintaining a business to produce these garments means committing to a life of hardship and solitude.
Although tiny in circumference, it’s easy to feel dwarfed by Fair Isle’s dramatic features. Severe cliffs and rock faces jut from the ground like uplifted, petrified wings, as if poised to push the island ever deeper into the middle of nowhere. Waves replace the rustling of leaves — trees do not grow here — as they swell and crash in the distance.
Travellers wishing to visit must brave a 12-hour ferry excursion across the North Sea from Aberdeen to the Shetlands, followed by a turbulent flight on a twin-propeller aircraft from Tingwall ‘airport’— a generous term for what is little more than a tiny strip of asphalt hidden amid the shallow valleys of Veensgarth — before finally touching down on the island.
Mati lives on the far, southwestern corner in a small, weather-worn stone house where she knits and sells her sweaters, continuing a tradition passed on by generations.
“It’s called Fair Isle because it originated here on the island. No one really knows how or why it happened. The patterns were found in many different places in Northern Europe and the Baltic countries around 1850, and it’s been manufactured here continuously since then,” Ventrillon explained. “In terms of maintaining the tradition, location is absolutely crucial, which includes using only local resources.”
The local resources include sheep, of which Ventrillon has her own flock. She breeds and tends them throughout the year.
“We use the same breed of sheep that would have been used here centuries ago, imported over from Shetland. In addition to my own, there’s a communal flock everyone on the island looks after. They are like treasures to us.”
When her flock is shorn in the summer, the wool — which recently gained Protected Geographical Status—is sent to Shetland, via the Good Shepherd IV, a small cargo vessel that delivers essentials to and from Fair Isle. There it is dyed and spun into reels by local spinners, who have practiced their craft for well over a century, before being shipped back to Ventrillon.
Once fully stocked, Ventrillon can take orders. Typically clients will send an initial email outlining their specific requirements, which go far beyond simple measurements.
“There are very few limits,” she said. “Individual features are all discussed during the first consultation with the client, which are held shortly after the initial order is placed.”
The patterns are a wonderful curiosity. No one fully understands what they mean, or where they originated. There has never been clear documentation or evidence to provide meaning to the various shapes and curlicues, which are nonetheless consistent and complex in their composition and construction.
“The mystery of the patterns is definitely part of the allure. This is also how I can detect a good Fair Isle copy from a bad one. The good ones understand that these shapes are not random.”
The same can be said of the colours. What they represent or what they mean is not known, but tradition has it that they should be bold and used sparingly, generally allowing only two colours per row of knitting.
“Depending on what the client wants, I’m happy to break away from some of the historical rules around the patterns and colours,” said Ventrillon. “I don’t think this ruins the tradition. Tradition is not the rehashing of history. Tradition is taking what was made in the past and keeping it alive in the present.”
The chest and the arms of a sweater are knitted separately and are attached once both sections have been finished. A large, hand-operated knitting machine is used much during these fundamental stages, which speeds up the process without sacrificing the quality. Once Ventrillon has knitted the arms to the torso, she can begin working on the detailing.
As with the patterns, Ventrillon is often able to inject elements of her own style and creativity at this stage. The detailing can include high necks, ribbed waistbands, fitted sleeves, dropped shoulders, patterned cuffs, and patterned waistbands. “These are all knitted individually and by hand. This is probably the most exciting stage for me because I can really begin to personalise the piece.”
This lengthy construction time is not just a result of the knitting process, but also the self-sufficiency that is required in order for Ventrillon to live on the remote island. When she’s not knitting, she’s looking after her young children, tending to her livestock, planting and harvesting crops, and contributing to the small but close community of the island.
“All of these extra things — the things that I have to do, that I can’t ignore — they are all part of the reason why these are luxury items,” explains Ventrillon. “You’re not only paying for the quality of the knitting, but for the hardship and the challenging lifestyle that is required to live and work off this island.”