Welcome to The Essentials, our series highlighting the must-have classics key to building a timeless, pulled-together closet.
They look right at home in a wood-paneled Aspen ski lodge, but the traditional Fair Isle sweater was born in Fair Isle itself, a remote seaside island just south of Scotland. "Fair Isles originated in the early 19th century as a pattern for fishermen's caps and sweaters," Boden's Head of Product Merchandising, Lucy Rosenberg, explains of the iconic multicolored geometric jumper. And the best Fair Isle sweaters, she says, honor the style's legacy and classic simplicity. "It's an enduring pattern that's great for all ages and, in a way, is almost a neutral," she shares with Marie Claire, saying the sweater's timeless look has helped it remain a buzzed-about, cold-weather essential, even 200-odd years later from its conception.
Fashion journalist Elizabeth Holmes adds that the Fair Isle sweater's inextricable connection to the Royal Family also plays an instrumental role in its perennial appeal. After being worn by Edward, the Prince of Wales, in 1921, the multicolored knit jumper catapulted to fame as both a trending style for the masses and a royal fashion staple. "I love how Diana wore them, particularly early on in her royal tenure," says Holmes, the author of the best-selling book HRH: So Many Thoughts on Royal Style. "The maroon cardigan with the pie-crust-collar blouse was a classic look, indicative of her sweet, slightly mummy pre-wedding style (so fitting as a 19-year-old girl trying desperately to be seen as a grown-up princess)."
Kate Middleton, ever the thoughtful dresser, also has her fair share of Fair Isle outfits. Holmes' personal favorite is the sweater from Scottish brand Brora's collaboration with TROY London the new Princess of Wales wore on a 2020 Scotland tour, as it was "a lovely, gracious nod" to the style's origins.
Holmes adds that the Fair Isle knits have become a symbol in the royals' style code, signaling a down-to-earth humility that contrasts with their otherwise high-octane looks. "Members of the Windsor family are expected to be both fancy and frugal, aspirational and relatable, worthy of the royal title as well as responsible stewards of taxpayer funding. The glamorous gowns and sparkling tiaras are one side of that, and the classic royal country attire is the other end. Fair Isle sweaters are a key piece of the latter," the royal fashion expert explains. "They're in the same bucket as Barbour wax jackets and Hunter wellies as part of the royals' 'off-duty' uniform. And in some ways," Holmes points out, "that's more exciting because those elements of their style is more within reach, bringing them down out of the palace and among the people."
If you don't own one already, it's about time you join the club. Shop our below edit of the best Fair Isle sweaters for women and take comfort in the fact the knit is truly timeless.
The Best Fair Isle Sweaters
- Best Overall: Alex Mill Fair Isle Donegal Turtleneck
- Most Affordable: L.L. Bean Cotton Yoke Sweater
- Best Fair Isle Cardigan: Boden Chunky Fair Isle Cardigan
- Best Fair Isle Sweater Vest: DÔEN Aniene Fair Isle Best
- Best Holiday Fair Isle Sweater: Nordstrom Matching Family Moments Fair Isle Sweater
Fashioned after the traditional vintage knits, this sweet Fair Isle turtleneck can be thrown on casually with jeans or paired with a slip dress and heels for the holiday season. The flecked Donegal knit adds even more of a graphic element to the already printed Fair Isle style, and its three-wool blend ensures it's as cozy as can be. Take it from one over-joyed Alex Mill customer: "[I] love the subtle colors and soft wool. Superb quality, and I am a hand knitter who actually has been to Shetland," writes the sweater expert.
This Holland Cooper Fair Isle sweater is Kate Middleton-approved. Or, more specifically, the Princess of Wales wore the brand's ivory colorway while recently decorating the royal Christmas tree: See this December Twitter video for live footage. Unsurprisingly, her exact Fair Isle knit sold out shortly after the video hit the internet, but the dark gray iteration featured here is—remarkably!—still in stock. With its traditional geometric print and silver button embellished along the shoulder and cuffs, the wool-blend turtleneck is a combination of both classic and contemporary influences.
Best Fair Isle Cardigan
"Fair Isle sweaters are perfect for festive dressing, and this year, I love Boden's chunky navy cardigan," says Boden's Rosenberg. "It is a new spin on the traditional Fair Isle for us and looks great buttoned up to the top," she says on how she recommends you wear the wool and cotton blend style. And if you look closely, you'll notice the metallic thread woven throughout—which just so happens to perfectly reflect the prominent winter 2023 sweater trend of glitz and glam.
Best Fair Isle Sweater Vest
"Fair Isle sweaters are warm and inviting—and perhaps the best part is that they allow for a bit of the wearer's personality to shine through," Holmes tells Marie Claire. "The bright colors and intricate designs stand out in the sea of olive green and dark brown. It's a chance for a pop of pink or yellow, a chance to make a statement." Actualize the fashion expert's words by inviting a Fair Isle number that's chock-full of personality—like DÔEN's Aniene colorful sweater vest—into your wardrobe.
Best Embellished Fair Isle Sweater
Here's a statement-making winter trend for you to try: Embellished sweaters. J. Crew's Fair Isle cardigan, with its beaded rhinestone appliques and glittery thread, makes it effortless for you to master the high-shine look. Take it from one happy reviewer, who raves about the sweater's light-reflecting effect: "This cardi is fabulous," gushes a J. Crew customer. "The shimmering crystals are so festive-cozy glam, and it's great for the holidays and winter cheer. [I've] received compliments every time I've worn it!"
Best Affordable Fair Isle Sweater
This slim fit and lightweight cotton fabrications of this cream-colored pick from L.L.Bean make it ideal for layering under a wintery puffer coat this season. The light khaki colorway, funnel neck silhouette, and under-$100 price tag (!) make it an all-around great piece to update your closet with this season. Pro tip: Take a cue from the colors found in the collar when styling this Fair Isle number. For instance, consider teaming this cotton-blend knit atop a seafoam-colored silk slip skirt.
Most Cozy Fair Isle Sweater
"Just like a coat dress, heels, and a clutch are the key components of daytime dressy looks, a waxed jacket, Fair Isle sweater, and hiking boots make up the country feel," says Holmes of the components of the royals' off-duty uniform. Try your hand at the signature look via We Norwegians' merino wool and cashmere-blend Fair Isle knit. The rich, neutrals hues, simple two-color graphic, and oversized collar offer a woodsy energy that feels undeniably cozy. The #cabincore vibes are strong with this one.
Best Holiday Fair Isle Sweater
If your family is the type to all dress in matching sweaters for the holidays—including everyone from your great grandma to little cousin Mary-Anne—you should drop the link to Nordstrom's Fair Isle knit in your fam group chat. "This sweater is really cute," writes one Nordstrom reviewer. "I love the bright blue color and the Fair Isle design. It's medium-weight, very comfy, fits true to size, and is a fun holiday sweater that can be worn all winter," they add, shouting out its inherent festivity and versatility, too.
The Princess Diana-Inspired Option
There are three significant reasons why we adore this Fair Isle jumper from Simple Retro: Firstly, the olive green, baby blue, and off-white color palette offer an undeniable groovy, throwback feel. Secondly, its jumping rabbit motif offers the perfect opportunity to channel Princess Diana in her iconic reindeer-printed cardigan. And lastly, it's wildly, almost unbelievably, affordable at only $65. Try styling this quirky pullover with cream-colored leggings and a pair of black riding boots for a look that says, "I just passed the Balmoral test with flying colors."
Best Retro Fair Isle Sweater
This '70s-inspired ski sweater in pumpkin orange and azure blue from Tory Burch is another colorfully charged option that statement dressers will find themselves gravitating toward. Note, too, that it's made of 100 percent merino wool, so it's efficient at blocking out winter's chill. Try leaning into its cozy après ski vibe and kit it out with your favorite fleece-lined leggings and snow boots. Alternatively, this groovy turtleneck will look the part paired with corduroys and clogs for a full-on retro ensemble.
Best Oversized Fair Isle Sweater
Rather than having just a classic Fair Isle neckline, this grey-black-ivory option from Mango is covered in a geometric print on both the torso and the sleeves. The dropped-shoulder design makes this jersey-lurex blend sweater easy to layer and gives it a relaxed, cool-girl feel. Why don't you take the sweater's of-the-moment vibe up a notch by—bear with me now—styling it with a pair of cargo pants, one of 2022's defining trends? Dark-wash denim will also do the trick for those not interested in hopping on the gorpcore train.
For the Maximalist
If Strawberry Shortcake was a real person and made trendy TikTok OOTD videos, this is the cardigan she'd wear—and that would garner an onslaught of comments asking, "OMG Strawb, where did you get that?" In other words, this 100-percent lambswool cardigan has all the makings of a 2023 It piece that would go wildly, unfathomably viral on social media. The fruit-themed Mackintosh Fair Isle cardigan is quirky yet classic with the perfect amount of unique flair to make it feel wholly fresh.
Meet the Expert
Elizabeth Holmes is a New York Times best-selling author and veteran multimedia reporter. Her first book, HRH: So Many Thoughts on Royal Style, debuted on the New York Times best-seller list in November 2020. A contributing editor at Town & Country, Elizabeth’s work has appeared in a host of national outlets, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair, Real Simple, and InStyle. She spent more than a decade on staff at The Wall Street Journal, most recently as a senior style reporter and columnist focusing on the business of fashion and beauty. Elizabeth is also the creator of the Webby-honored Instagram Stories series “So Many Thoughts,” which offers sartorial commentary on the royal family.
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