WHEN TIMOTHY GRINDLE was a teen in the mid-2000s, the latter-day Beatles fan stumbled on an image of Paul McCartney woolly in a Fair Isle sweater and sipping a cup of tea outdoors. Mr. Grindle, now the co-owner of Canoe Club clothing boutique in Boulder, Colo., remembers inwardly declaring, “I want to live whatever lifestyle that is.” So taken was he with this portrait of open-air tea consumption that he persuaded his grandfather to lend him a Ralph Lauren Fair Isle sweater. “It was loud, but I loved it,” he said.
Back when the photo was taken, in 1970, Mr. McCartney wasn’t making a lot of noise himself. The Beatles had just called it quits and, seeking refuge, the bearded bassist decamped to a farm in Kintyre, Scotland that he’d purchased in 1966. There, among rolling green hills, Mr. McCartney wandered with his wife Linda (who snapped this shot) and their children, dressing like a local in Fair Isle sweaters.
Though the term “Fair Isle” was first applied to woolens in the 1850s, “it’s a bit of a mystery where the patterns come from,” explained Mati Ventrillon, today one of just a few knitters on the barely populated island of Fair Isle off Scotland’s northeast coast. An architect by trade, she undertook the local craft after relocating from England in 2007. The original patterns, she discovered, were larger in scale—closer to that of Mr. McCartney’s sweater in this shot—than the micro-detailed Fair Isles typically seen in 2018.
The island’s geometric motifs migrated beyond its shores in the 1920s thanks at least in part to “The Fair Isle Jumper,” a 1923 canvas by British painter Stanley Cursiter. A notable adoptee, Edward VIII wore the knits to tee off on golf courses in the ’20s. Today, the sweaters show up predictably at Brooks Brothers and Ralph Lauren and more experimentally at progressive labels like Japan’s Sacai. See Balenciaga’s oversize, pre-distressed turtleneck version or Junya Watanabe’s crew neck (far right) embellished with a reflective stripe that would make more sense on a construction site than in Kintyre.
No matter the style, these playful sweaters can vitalize a drab fall wardrobe. “What the Fair Isle gets to do is splash out a bit,” said Aaron Britt, 37, the lead of editorial at furniture brand Herman Miller. He likes to layer a Fair Isle vest under a Barbour jacket like a country squire who’s found himself in the city. Worn in this square way, a throwback Fair Isle can be “surprisingly subversive,” said Mr. Britt, particularly on gray streets crowded with hoodies and techy outerwear. The sweater subverted Mr. McCartney’s image, too. In it, he traded in the hippie haberdashery of the late-period Beatles for a homey Scottish aesthetic. Goodbye fast-paced rock-star life; hello country bliss. One lump or two?
ISLE BE SEEING YOU / Three Takes on the Cozy Graphic Classic
Write to Jacob Gallagher at Jacob.Gallagher@wsj.com