How to look good in this year’s Fair Isle trend

  • Do choose just one color from your sweater for the rest of your outfit
  • Do team with jeans or slim joggers
  • Don’t wear a yoke design if you’re round-shouldered
  • Don’t wear a yoke design if you’re top heavy
  • Don’t team with other retro clothes
  • Do layer with country clothes

Fair Isle patterned sweaters and cardigans are everywhere right now.  From French Vogue to Marks and Spencer.

If you’re my age you may have had a Fair Isle top when you were a child – I certainly did.  And Brora have been selling them for kids for years.  Then this year they decided to bring out several Fair Isle cardigans, sweaters and sleeveless jumpers for grown-ups too.  They were an instant hit.

The main image at the top of this post shows Brora’s cashmere Fair Isle cardigan.

How to style an outfit with Fair Isle

If you love a boho mix of colors and patterns then a Fair Isle cardigan can be layered over a patterned shirt and a gathered mid-calf skirt in another pattern.  But you’ll need confidence to carry this off without looking like you forgot where your glasses were when you were getting dressed.

If you have a slight preference for boho chic but are otherwise more conservative then keep the skirt plain and add boots.

For us classic ladies we’d do well to use the Fair Isle jumper or cardi as a single splash of color and pattern within a plain colored outfit.  Just choose one of the three or four colors in your top and find the same color for your pants and shirt – if wearing one.  It’s simple but elegant. And your Fair Isle sweater will look to great advantage (as they used to say.)

Is Fair Isle better with a skirt or pants?

Romantic dressers will love to wear Fair Isle with a floaty skirt.  You’ll be going for a Scottish lass look.  Think running across heather your skirt billowing in the blustery weather.  I could have carried this off twenty years ago but I’ll be looking for a more classic look today!

Most women over 50 will look best wearing Fair Isle with jeans or other pants.

Brora all-over patterned Fais isle wollen cardigan in blues and reds
Brora Fair Isle wool cardigan styled with white shirt and narrow pants – perfect!

Keep the pants simple and narrow so that the fair isle top looks big.  The best fair isle for an older woman has structure – set-in sleeves and straightish side seams.  This emphasises the sweetly old-fashioned look.  Jeans are ideal.

If you have straight or close-fitting athleisure pants these can work well too.  Just avoid the wide-with-a-cuff joggers if they balloon at your ankles.  You’ll look a bit roly-poly.

What looks better: a jumper with a Fair Isle yoke or an all-over pattern?

Lots of Fair Isle styles have a yoke.  These look really great on slim women of any age.  The yoke doesn’t overpower the outfit with too much pattern and gives that lovely inverted triangle look when worn with jeans.

If, like me, you are carrying extra weight I would discourage you from styles with a patterned yoke.

Yes, we want the larger top and narrower bottoms but the yoke seen from the rear tends to make your upper back look rounded.  Now if you already have slightly rounded shoulders or fat on your back this is not a good look.

If you have a heavy bust the yoke pattern is not your friend either.  It calls attention to it and the semi-circle of the yoke makes your bust look rounder and larger.

Always check your rear view before buying clothes, but especially when buying Fair Isle.

The alternative to a yoked style is an all-over pattern as made famous by that 1922 Prince of Wales pic you’ll see everywhere now Fair Isle is popular.

This works well as a layer.  And the structured shoulders help give your rear view a younger and more defined look.

How to get a traditional look with Fair Isle without looking frumpy

Brora styles their Fair Isle with wide legged corduroy trousers which looks cute on young girls and women but does little for our heavier silhouettes. 

Jumbo cord is also a style statement best shunned with a loose Fair Isle jumper unless you are tall and slim.

It’s never a good idea after the age of fifty to go full-on with a retro look.  One item – such as a Fair Isle sweater – is interesting, but marry it up with other authentic styles of the period and people may think you’re wearing clothes you bought decades ago. 

Youngsters may look cool referencing the past – we tend to merely look old fashioned and even dowdy.  (Please no, not dowdy!)

Cold weather accessories such as woollen gloves or a country style jacket can put the sweater in context without looking staid. Ideal for a country walk with the grand-kids.

How warm is traditional Fair Isle?

If your temperature gauge falters these days and you swing from cold to sweltering in a heartbeat then be aware that Fair Isle is a warm layer.

The pattern is made by running two or three colors of wool through the garment.  After a few stitches with one strand of wool another color continues, leaving the first strand pulled across at the back.  Pattern tends to be small scale so that the wool at the back doesn’t trail for too long between stitches – and get caught on jewelry when you pull it on.

As a result there is a double layer of wool running through the garment making it ideal for those cold winds in the Shetland Isles.

Bloomingdale's pale grey with black cashmere sweater cashmere Fair Isle is more fitted and will look best tucked – or half-tucked – into jeans

To avoid feeling uncomfortably hot wear a cotton shirt or camisole beneath your woollie – besides, wool can be itchy.

Are modern Fair Isle sweaters worth buying?

Funnel neck oversize sweater in grey and blue Fair Isle by H&M
Oversized Fair Isle acrylic sweater by H&M will look good with narrow leggings or pants

You can buy knitwear with patterns based on Fair isle from many shops this year.  If you’re looking for a lightweight garment, which many of us may find more useful, then choose a wool blend or synthetic fibre. 

There are some beautiful Fair isle items currently reduced.  This is such a classic that you will love rediscovering it in your closet years hence. 

I bought my cardigan for my Fall capsule wardrobe 2020, knowing that with four colors woven into it I would be able to use it with other capsules in future years based on these colors.

Clothes have to work hard so don’t buy a Fair Isle item for just one outfit. Make sure the colors in the pattern can work with several looks from Autumn through to Spring.

M&S funnel neck Fair Isle style easy-fit sweater in grey, beige and cream
M&S Fair Isle funnel neck oversized jumper has a deeper yoke effect so works better for older women

Check the current price of my recommended Fair Isle buys. Most have excellent reductions at time of writing (Mid January 2021) with the Bloomingdale’s cashmere being amazingly inexpensive.

Update 2023: Fair Isle is still a trend and Brora are still showing beautiful examples. Most of the retailers here will have restocked similar items so it’s worth clicking on anything you like to take a look at what’s on offer now.

If you click on an affiliate link in this post and buy something I usually receive a small commission at no cost to you – Thanks for your support! Brora sells in the US and lots of other places so select your country when you visit their site. By the way, only purchases through the UK site are affiliated.

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