A Shetlanders Fair Isle Graph Book

One of the things I love best about doing a #knitsonikmittsalong is seeing how other comrades plan and chart motifs.

I personally enjoy casting on for the ribbing of the mitts in any colour and thinking ahead to what I’ll do next while I churn out the ribbed cuff. Once the ribbing’s done, I chart a bit, then knit what I’ve charted, then review the success of the shades and patterns, and figure out the next part. For the last two #knitsonikmittsalongs, I have then used the second mitt as an opportunity to refine or improve whatever I did in the first mitt. I like to approach it in a very modular way and I think you can see that in the way the motifs are stacked in segments in my finished mitts:

Previous #knitsonikmittsalong mitts: Magnolias and Silchester
Previous #knitsonikmittsalong mitts: Magnolias and Silchester

For my process I generally work in whatever pen or pencil I have to hand.

A working KNITSONIK chart!
A working KNITSONIK chart!

Once I’ve got a design roughly sketched out, I write the yarn shade names beside each row in two different columns; one for the pattern shade and one for the background shade. It doesn’t matter if the actual pattern shade is light and the background shade is dark because my monochrome charts have nothing to do with shading or colours… they just tell me, in my motifs, which stitches relate to the pattern, and which relate to the background.

Messy KNITSONIK drawings for speedy swatching!
Messy KNITSONIK drawings for speedy swatching!
KNITSONIK swatch developed from the messy charts shown above
KNITSONIK swatch developed from the messy charts shown above

I like to get my shapes down on paper ASAP so that I can get on with the joy of actually knitting them, and black and white charts give me the speed and flexibility I need. I can work one round of my design, look at it and, if I don’t like it, write a new shade name beside the next row of the chart and swap it into my knitting for the next round. As a result of this gung-ho approach, all my notebooks and #knitsonikmittsalong charts look a bit like this, and I confess that I feel a deep affection for my working drawings and all the happy knitting they enable.

A chart developed from looking at a Huntley & Palmer's Biscuit Tin...
A chart developed from looking at a Huntley & Palmer’s Biscuit Tin…

However, though I most often generate monochrome charts for speed and efficiency, I also find coloured pencils DEEPLY PLEASING – a sentiment in which I am clearly not alone!!! It seems that for many people (including me) organising coloured pencils is an essential part of gearing up for a good #knitsonikmittsalong.

Having quite the best day 😊 #knitsonik #knitsonikmittsalong #colouredpencils

A photo posted by Vivienne (@gandt71) on

Although no amount of colouring in charts with pencils will tell you precisely how your yarn shades will behave once knitted, exploring how colours work together before you begin knitting can be really helpful for planning shading sequences.

Useful illustrations in Alice Starmore's book of Fair Isle Knitting show how a design is transformed by being worked in different shades
Useful illustrations in Alice Starmore’s book of Fair Isle Knitting show how a design is transformed by being worked in different shades

Too, there is pleasure and joy in looking at coloured charts. Though they can be a bit less flexible to knit from in terms of swapping yarn shades in and out, a good coloured chart has a glorious suggestive power, and serves many other important and inspirational functions. Coloured charts show the whole look and feel of a design; they convey a sense of what a finished garment might look like; they speak to the colours and palettes of specific regions and cultures and – perhaps most importantly of all – they excite and inspire your own innate, knitterly sense of colour.

The coloured charts in Estonian Knitting 1 give an immediate impression of regional palettes
The coloured charts in Estonian Knitting 1 give an immediate impression of regional palettes

In a stunning book recently published by the Shetland Guild of Spinners, Knitters, Weavers and Dyers, the role of coloured charts is expanded even further; A Shetlander’s Fair Isle Graph Book contains pages reproduced from two notebooks dating primarily from the 1930s and 1940s. These pages detail many possible Fair Isle patterns and colour combinations, and the notebooks from which they’ve been taken were once held in the possession of William (Bill) Henry. Here, coloured charts are not only a useful reference for your own stranded colourwork, but an amazing insight into, and record of, a particular moment in the history of Shetland knitting.

Glorious colours from the notebooks belonging to Bill Henry!
Glorious colours from the notebooks belonging to Bill Henry!

Bill Henry was born in North Yell and, by the mid-20th century, was in charge of the Hosiery Department at one of the largest and oldest woollen businesses in Shetland – at Anderson & Co. It isn’t clear whether the drawings in the notebooks are all his, or whether they have been compiled by a range of different, knitterly hands. we can however say with certainty that looking at these stunning drawings reveals an enormous amount of information about colour and pattern in Fair Isle Knitwear at this point in history.

I love the occasional notes on colours included with the charts
I love the occasional notes on colours included with the charts

In a fascinating introductory essay, Dr Carol Christiansen gives a rich background to the charts, speaking about Anderson & Co., the knitters who supplied the hosiery trade, and the ways in which the patterns found in Bill Henry’s notebooks relate to the broader historical context of their time. We learn that the swastika – an ancient symbol sometimes used in early examples of Fair Isle Knitting, prior to the rise of Nazism – is not recorded in Shetland knitwear made after 1934; and that Bill Henry had a son called Colin Noel, who seems connected, in some way, to ‘The Colin N Henry “Salad” Pattern’ that appears in the book.

The Colin N Henry Salad Pattern
The Colin N Henry Salad Pattern

Carol also writes about the Norwegian influence on Shetland knitting, pointing to the Norwegian motifs labelled as such and appearing in the reproductions from the second of the notebooks; and about how industrial developments and the increasing availability of machine-spun and commercially dyed yarns expanded the availability of materials and colours for the knitters of Shetland supplying the hosiery trade. She also intriguingly describes the differences between the notebooks reproduced in this book and another book produced by Ethel Henry, knitwear designer and knitter. Ethel was married to Bill’s older brother, and her book – unlike Bill Henry’s notebooks – has all the patterns ordered according to how many rows there are in each motif. She also doesn’t present her designs as completed colourways. In her books charts are shown with a white background, a yellow background beneath the centre of a motif, and motifs in dots of red, blue or green. The changing shades in her designs are there to guide the knitter as to when to change shades in pattern and background but are not prescriptive in showing the exact shade of every stitch involved. I have not seen Ethel Henry’s charts but from Carol’s description I am reminded of the charts of Robert Williamson featured in Fair Isle Knitting Patterns by Mary Macgregor; the green and red dots show where, in your particular shading scheme, you should change the colour of the working yarns.

Robert Williamson's charts, reproduced in Fair Isle Knitting Patterns by Mary Macgregor
Robert Williamson’s charts, reproduced in Fair Isle Knitting Patterns by Mary Macgregor

These differences are intriguing; both the organisation and the presentation of charts in Ethel’s book sound imminently practicable; organising them mathematically helps the knitter to plan a garment, and colouring them as described allows the knitter to adapt them to any given colourway. However as Carol suggests, Bill Henry’s book – in which the individual colour of every stitch in a motif is recorded – suggests that they were copied from knitwear itself. As such they sing of a vibrant moment in Shetland’s knitwear design history that was alive with richly patterned knitwear in glorious bright colours.

Glorious patterns!
Glorious patterns!
Who was Bert Parker?
Who was Bert Parker?

I really love that the physical quality of the notebooks has been preserved in this reproduction, and that we can glimpse the notebook pages as material objects with a tangible connection to the knitwear trade in Shetland. There is an argument that they may be easier to knit from if cleaned up, tidied into black and white charts and ordered more mathematically. However to do this would lose all the information about colours in knitwear during this period of history, and it would also strip the patterns of their important chronological order, and of the way that over a decade or so, they document shifts in trends and ideas. The little incidental notes – the names of people and of patterns – are details that tie these magnificent charts to history and people who are also remembered in the book’s beautiful dedication:

This book is dedicated to the many women and girls who knitted at all hours of the day and night, in all conditions, to keep the knitwear industry supplied with quality, hand-crafted garments.

The book, however, while celebrating the particular and intriguing history of these notebooks, is also firmly focused on the future. In the spirit of generosity and warmth that everyone who has ever been to a Shetland Guild Sunday Teas will instantly recognise, the opening page of the book invites you, the reader, to be inspired by the patterns and “to try them for yourselves in your own knitting.”

The temptation to do so is very great indeed! The prospect of knitting from these wonderful old notebooks is made all the richer for the book’s tangible connections to Shetland’s industrial past, and to real Fair Isle garments and knitters from history. Turning each page I feel you can sense the labour of the person colouring in the squares, and the presence of knitwear so exciting that you instantly want to recreate it for yourself.

You can buy this amazing book from the Shetland Times Book Shop, and I also have a copy to give away! To be in with a chance of winning a copy of this fantastic book, leave a comment about charting. Tell us about your favourite way to chart, charts you especially like, how you chart – it can be anything at all as long as it relates to charting! A name will be drawn at random from the list some time next week and I shall arrange postage of the book to you.

I hope you have enjoyed this evening’s discussion of charts, and a glimpse inside the beauteous pages of A Shetlander’s Fair Isle Graph Book in Colour. Many thanks to the amazing Shetland Guild of Spinners, Knitters, Weavers and Dyers for publishing this wonderful book; it is a gift to the knitting world and to anyone who is interested in tracing the history of Fair Isle knitwear!



23 thoughts on “A Shetlanders Fair Isle Graph Book

  1. Hi Felix, thank you for your book and for inspiring me!
    This give away is probably already closed, but otherwise I would love to participate!
    Kind regards, Maaike

  2. My charting is hit and miss – try it as I go. Sometimes the results are awful, so a book like this would be immensely helpful, and I’d be delighted to have it.

    Thanks for your consideration.

  3. I am new to charting….which is why this book will be so useful 🙂 I have just bought a graph notebook so that I can start to figure out patterns from life around me.

  4. What a great review! I love colored charts, especially if they are colored in the actual colors versus charts like Ethel Henry’s – color coded, but not corresponding to the actual color of the yarn. This book looks exquisite. So excited to learn more.

  5. Dear felix

    I went to Shetland wool week a few years ago, and by happy chance you were my first class. I still have my stamped notebook.
    (I also freaked out ysolde on the ferry to a weaving class, as I waved and said hello like I knew her, which isnt actually the same as reading her blog, I realised mid cheery wave)

    Sadly, due to a massive change in personal circumstances I was unable to go this time. But through following various blogs I had discovered this book. Which is not available online, which actually made it more singular and special.

    Having read your review I think I’m going to be very old fashioned and put some money and a self addressed envelope (doesn’t that take you back) in the post and see if the nice people of the guild will send me one.

    It would almost make up for having to miss out!

  6. I first saw this book on the Fruity Knitting Podcast and have fallen in love all over again with charted knitting! I haven’t done any for quite a long time now, but am going to get a project on the needles soon. I love to use colored pencils when charting, but I also enjoy just knitting along, picking the colors and patterns as I go. It is a wonderful experience just watching how the colors and patterns play together! Lovely book that is so very interesting!!!

  7. What a truly fabulous-looking book!

    I always seem to chart on the back of a scruffy envelope, with a hand-drawn grid, in pencil, because I’m never organised enough to find better supplies (not that I don’t *have* supplies… just never to hand. It’s the graph/square paper that really defeats me. I even download it, sometimes, from the internet, and I swear, it evaporates before I can get it from the printer. There’s no oher explanation.)

  8. O! such a lovely book! I love working color and texture from graphs/charts. Cannot understand the resistance some people have for them. It is simply THERE for you, and you pick it up and move it over to your needles.


  9. Hi, Felix,
    Lovely post, as usual. What a fabulous book. On a personal note, it is a relief to see that other folks’ charts are not neat and tidy things. I have a couple of big A4 notebooks and a small chunky notebook, all with printed graph like the graph in the last picture. A tin of coloured pencils to go with the books, and I am happy for hours. The sweaters/cardis don’t necessarily turn out how I planned, though! Aaah, the joy of swatches.

  10. What a wonderful appreciation of this terrific book. I bought it moments after walking off the ferry, and I have been enjoying it ever since. Thank you for beginning with a personal context and then moving on to this lovely book.

  11. Since you asked, my one experience charting was quite a few years ago. I visited the tiny village of St Andrews in NB and there was a wonderful wool shop by the harbour. I walked in the door and gasped with delight, there were hundreds of skeins lining the walls, there were knitted sweaters, hats and mittens, woven blankets and it was all overwhelming and utterly wonderful. The staff were very helpful and I came away with five blue skeins, and one each for the contrast colours, a white and three shades of purples from light to dark. And they gave me a set of six buttons and a label for the cardigan.

    Alice Starmore’s book on Fair Isle had recently come out, and it has excellent notes in the back on designing your own fair isle. So I did. I used graph paper and pencil to chart designs with a maritime theme, waves, seashells and fish. That was the fun part as doing the math for the yoke was quite a challenge. It took a long time to knit the cardigan, and it always brings back happy memories.

    I am wearing my Crofthoose hat this week and wishing I could join you in Shetland this week. Thanks for all your posts and adventures.

    1. Hello! I wish I was in Shetland also – I am doing a special series of Shetland themed posts this week to celebrate Shetland Wool Week remotely from Reading where I live, 800 miles South of Shetland! Hurrah for your Crofthouse hat, and thanks for sharing your wonderful memories of charting maritime memories! Can your wondrous sweater be seen anywhere online?

  12. I have to admit that I left this comment to go and make sure my coloured pencils were nicely organised : ) I LOVE the way one can chart on paper. It’s so relaxing and peaceful. The whole process becomes a work of art and is so engorssing. I am just a beginner in the great scheme of things so I could learn so much from this enticing book – and on any dull drab english afternoon, I can blissfully simply turn the pages and enjoy its sheer beauty.

  13. Thank you for giving us a peek inside this amazing book. I’ve been keen learn more about it.

    I confess I rely a lot on colour charts. I’m notoriously bad at picking my own colour combinations so having examples of how certain combinations will look together is extremely helpful. Looking at colours others have selected gives me inspiration to try colours I might not ordinarily have chosen. I’ve been working on improving my stranded knitting over the past two years and find books like these endlessly fascinating.

  14. This looks like a wonderful book…I love anything that carries the hand of the maker. I’ve been charting my patterns in a moleskinne graph paper book…it’s a good way for me to keep everything together, and, at least for now, is helping me to keep my charts a bit neater!

  15. The charts from these notebooks are amazing, thank you for sharing.
    I use knitting graph paper to make charts. I start with an idea for a pattern, then I pick out a few crayons and often ask my children to make the final decision. They pick combinations I never would have chosen and my designs are all the better for it!

  16. I was a knit charting newbie when I ventured into the Magnolia Mittsalong. I got my crayon colours worked out. Then, using the crayons, I sketched portions of the image onto my squared paper and from there turned them into charts. Then knitted a bit, charted a bit.
    Looking back now on my attempts, I see them as much more creative and colourful than I thought at the time! I wish I had been more patient with myself and that I had persisted for longer. I suppose I had too much going on and this seemed a slow process.

  17. What a lovely book! Makes me want to chart something immediately. I love charting my patterns, always using 5 mm squares paper. I didn’t have this paper in the beginning of my knitting design days, so I borrowed pages from the math notebooks of my children. Until my husband bought me a notebook for myself, fancy small ones at first, that I could put in my notions pouch, and this summer he bought me a big one. I take a long time drawing and tweaking before I start knitting. I want a design to wrap around the project continuously. I want it to be easy to knit, with as little long floats as possible. I work in black pencil, and later on in color. We have a box with 120 colored pencils at home (we all love drawing with pencils) and it is fun to match colors to yarn. I use your book a lot!

  18. Such a wondeful post as always… it was great seeing the different styles of charts and the advantages of each….The Shetland Guild bok sounds and looks from your photos amazing, a real source of study and inspiration and will certianly be added to my ever increasing list of books I’d like.
    Regarding charting…um… I’ve not actually none any colourwork charted patterns but I’ve learnt how to do some lace work knitting using charts this year (I hope this counts)… I found it a lot easier to know which line of the pattern I was working by keeping the pattern in a see through plastic sleeve and sticking along a piece of washi tape…. Thank you for another gorgeous review of such an interesting sounding book.

  19. I like to chart with Excel on the computer. Despite being a very much pen and paper kind of person I love the fact that I can chart in colours making it, to me, so much easier to follow the charts then when in black and white.

    Thanks for the blog post and doing the giveaway… I’d love to win a copy!

  20. What beautiful notebooks! I too love the way the publishers left them as literal photos, instead of “cleaning them up.” I love old scientific lab notebooks, too, with the formulas and data and researcher’s notes and diagrams. Much the same feeling of being there while the wonder unfolds.

    The *only* charted item I’ve attempted is a stocking cap which is about 1/3 finished and I hope to get it done so I can wear it at least once this winter. I was surprised and pleased, once I got started, that it wasn’t at all hard to figure out. I’d put off tackling charted designs because I thought they’d be too hard, but now I’ll have more confidence.

    Thanks for sharing the news about this nifty new book!

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