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Fair Isle: The remote island where jumpers are always in fashion

A family of Shetlanders pose wearing Fair Isle jumpers and tank tops on one of the Shetland Islands in June 1970

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Chris Morphet

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Chris Morphet spent several days photographing people in Fair Isle and other areas of Shetland in 1970

Fifty years ago, the allure of Fair Isle knitwear inspired freelance photographer Chris Morphet to travel to the UK’s most remote community. His pictures documented the lives of Shetland islanders and the distinctive designs which are still influencing fashion today.

Chris felt drawn to Fair Isle after seeing the famous knitwear on the streets of London.

So in 1970, the 26-year-old photographer headed north to the remote island, which is located 80 miles off the Scottish mainland, half way between Orkney and Shetland.

A woman and two men pose wearing Fair Isle jumpers in front of the wall of a cottage on one of the Shetland Islands in 1970.

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Chris Morphet

Three men pose wearing matching Fair Isle jumpers on one of the Shetland Islands in 1970

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Chris Morphet

Three Fishermen pose wearing Fair Isle jumpers on the deck of their boat 'Planet' in the harbour of the Shetland Isle of Whalsay in June 1970

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Chris Morphet

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These fishermen were photographed on the deck of their boat in the harbour at Whalsay

“I found it amazing that people lived on this island,” he said.

“I just went round and knocked on people’s doors and asked if they had any Fair Isle sweaters.

“It was quite a naive thing to do, but I was just entranced by the place. It was just something that caught my imagination.”

A woman poses wearing a Fair Isle style cardigan in front of Fair Isle jumpers hanging on a line in front of the wall of a cottage on one of the Shetland Islands in 1970.

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Chris Morphet

Two women knitting Fair Isle style jumpers pose in the living room of a cottage on one of the Shetland Islands in 1970.

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Chris Morphet

Chris, now 76, remembers everyone on the island being very welcoming.

“People just seemed happy to pose.

“I loved it all. It was a really wholesome experience, and I met amazing people.”

The people he photographed on Fair Isle included Stewart and Triona Thomson.

Stewart and Triona Thomson

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Chris Morphet

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Stewart and Triona Thomson on Fair Isle 50 years ago…

Stewart and Triona Thomson as they are now

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Thomson family

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… and how the couple look today

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Triona, now aged 75, said the picture had been taken while the couple were putting up a byre at their home.

“I have no memory of it at all,” she admitted.

“We must have put on our posh jumpers. The one in the photo – knitted by my mother-in law – is the only one I’ve ever possessed.”

Chris had two sweaters made for himself – one of which he still owns and wears today.

Chris Morphet wearing a Fair Isle sweater in 1970 and now

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Chris Morphet

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Chris posed in a Fair Isle sweater at the time – and still wears a top he bought 50 years ago

He says the photographs he took in Shetland provided a historical record of the “very special” designs created by the people on Fair Isle.

The patterned knitwear developed in the early 19th Century in fishermen’s caps and jumpers, then gained wider popularity in the 1920s.

Fair Isle has since been adopted as a general term for multicoloured knitwear, but there are still small numbers of garments produced on the island from patterns which have been handed down through generations.

Each design contains an average of four colours, with only two colours used in each row.

A group of women and children pose wearing a Fair Isle sweaters in Lerwick in 1970.

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Chris Morphet

Two women and a young girl pose wearing Fair Isle sweaters in Lerwick, Shetland Islands in 1970.

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Chris Morphet

Three women pose wearing Fair Isle sweaters in Lerwick in 1970.

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Chris Morphet

Mati Ventrillon, a French-Venezuelan designer, is among those who are trying to keep the tradition alive on Fair Isle.

She moved to the island from London in 2007, when local knitters were looking for new recruits.

“I felt attracted to the designs, and I wanted to try my own designs and colours,” she explained.

She eventually launched her own company, selling online to customers in the UK and in overseas markets such as the US and Canada.

Mati Ventrillon

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Mati Ventrillon moved to Fair Isle 13 years ago

Various women operate knitting machines making Fair Isle knitwear on one of the Shetland Islands in 1970.

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Chris Morphet

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Chris also photographed knitting machines in operation in 1970

She also made headlines in 2015 when she received an apology from Chanel after her work was not credited for inspiring designs in one of its collections.

Mati said she was trying to work out how to grow the business while also preserving the traditions and heritage of the island.

“It starts to become a legacy. We are bringing people to the island and passing on the skills,” she said.

“It has been here for so many years, and you see it everywhere, it’s so beautiful. The design possibilities are endless.

“And it still has a long story ahead.”

A family of Shetlanders pose wearing Fair Isle jumpers in front of lobster pots on one of the Shetland Islands in 1970.

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Chris Morphet

Two men posed wearing Fair Isle style tank top and jumper with cattle in a barn on one of the Shetland Islands in 1970.

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Chris Morphet

A man and woman wearing Fair Isle jumpers pose with three children on one of the Shetland Islands in 1970.

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Chris Morphet

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