Fair Isle hat

Masterclass: Design your own Fair Isle hat, part 1

Learn how to create your own colourwork beret pattern using Jane Crowfoot’s expert tips.

1st February 2013

On a trip to the Shetland Islands I was lucky enough to accompany a group of knitters on a pilgrimage to the home of Fair Isle and lace knitting. We learnt so much about the history and legacies of the traditional Island knitters, and saw so many wonderful sights that related to spinning, weaving, knitting and all things yarny!

While visiting Shetland yarn company Jamieson & Smith, I picked up the yarn to knit a traditional Scottish hat, and chose a design from their beautiful Knit Real Shetland pattern book. After just a couple of days I had completed my hat and my fingers were itching to design my own. 

Here is the process that I worked through to produce my own tam o’shanter - or tam for short!



Shetland Islanders traditionally use the long-tail cast-on method, which creates a nice, neat elastic edge ideal for hats. 

It is typical for Shetlanders to work a two-colour ‘corrugated’ rib, often using the darker shade of yarn for the purl stitch and the lighter one for the knit stitch.
A two-colour rib is far less stretchy (and a little more time-consuming to work) than a usual rib. A Shetland-style rib is usually worked as 1x1 - that is, (K1,P1) to the end of the round.

If you wanted to design and work your own rib, then you would need to do a separate sample of rib on the correct size needle – bearing in mind that the rib is usually done on needles two sizes smaller than the main part of the hat. If you are working a 1x1 rib then you will need to cast on an even number of stitches when working in the round. 

I have to admit that I took tam patterns by other designers into consideration when deciding on my cast-on number. It is incredibly hard to judge how a rib is going to work over a small sample and how stretchy it will become. So, having just knitted the ‘Muckleberry Hat’ by Mary Jane Mucklestone from the Knit Real Shetland book, I chose to cast on 140 sts (the same as Mary Jane’s design), having first checked that my tension was the same as that mentioned in the pattern. 

If you choose to use another design as your base for your own pattern, do remember that your tension and the type of yarn you choose to use will have an effect on the size and look of the rib. 

To calculate the circumference of your hat brim, divide the number of stitches you’re casting on by the number of stitches per centimetre according to your tension. 

In this case, my overall tension was 29.5 sts per 10cm. Divided by 10 gives 2.95 sts per cm, so 140 sts will give you 47cm (140/2.95). 

A hat can stretch up to 10cm (4in) without too much distortion, but ideally, aim for about 5cm (2in) of negative ease.
An average adult head is about 52-58cm, so a cast-on of this number, at this tension, should be big enough to fit most people.

Rib cast-on = 140 sts.


Designing a colour palette for Fair Isle needs careful consideration. The most important thing is to have a balanced selection, with a few mid-tones, and at least one dark and one light ‘accent’ colour. In my design, pictured here, the burgundy is the dark accent and the orange is the light accent, with the other colours sitting in the middle.

An easy way to work out your accent colours is to gather your prospective yarns together and then take a photograph of them in black and white. It’s far easier to see the difference in light/darkness when you take away the colour. Most digital cameras have a black and white setting, or you can convert the image using simple imaging software on a computer.

Alternatively, you can get out your coloured pencils and graph paper and try colour combinations, or chart on a computer using Excel (or knitter’s design software such as Intwined), or knit a simple swatch to see how your colours work together.

For an in-depth exploration of colour schemes in Fair Isle, see Emma King’s Masterclass, or read Alice Starmore’s classic guide, Book of Fair Isle Knitting (Dover, 2009). 

Click here to read part two of this guide, which covers working out Fair Isle charts, to shape your tam o'shanter into the traditional 'beret' shape.

You are currently reading: Masterclass: Design your own Fair Isle hat, part 1 - 1st February
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