Why it’s always Fair (Isle) weather
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Some months ago, on the island of Fair Isle, Melissa Ventosa Martin, a former fashion editor who now lives in upstate New York, had an immersive Scottish experience. On deck on an old fishing boat, built in the early 1900s and now bobbing on the sea, she watched as young trainee sailors dressed in beautifully patterned knitwear steered the vessel; others frolicked on the seafront in sleeveless vests. The island’s broad skies were tinged with rainbows, and lunch was a picnic of locally caught herring pâté and smoked salmon.
It was a true taste of the Shetland Islands. “It felt like a real community gathering,” says Ventosa Martin of her first trip to the island so remote it took four plane journeys just to reach it. With a total area of 7.68sq km, it’s just a speck on the Scottish coastline: its population is 65 in total. “It’s this little paradise covered in sheep and bunny rabbits… and everywhere you look, women are knitting.”
It’s this sort of evocative storytelling that her online marketplace, Old Stone Trade, has become known for. Launched in 2021, the site offers handmade-to-order womenswear and homewares by independent artisans doing exquisite handwork around the globe. “We’re shining a light on the stories and family traditions behind them,” she says. Pieces available include penny loafers from a shoemaker in Barcelona, and navy pinafore dresses from Rome’s Atelier Bomba.
In this era of digitisation and a frenetic obsession with newness, Old Stone Trade wants to tell under-reported tales of more ancient, analogue pursuits. Its focus is specialist workshops creating timeless, heirloom-worthy pieces. “I was thinking a lot about the pace of our industry, and wanted to create a hub to showcase craft in a way that was really curated,” says Ventosa Martin, who spent years attending fashion shows in a previous life. Many ateliers that feature were discovered on her travels. “I wanted to frame these ateliers in a luxury context; to propose clothing without obvious labels as valuable.”
This sartorial pilgrimage to Scotland found her discovering rich kilts by Acme Atelier’s Andrea Chappell, who lives in Moray. But it’s knitwear that brought her to Fair Isle. Fashionable fisherman jumpers are launching exclusively on-site in time for the holiday season – undoubtedly the chicest alternative to a novelty knit and, crucially, possible to wear year-round. “They were inspired by my grandmother, who was Scottish and always used to wear them,” says Ventosa Martin, who also looked at old J Crew knit campaigns from the ’90s. The result, distinct from the classic style, was dreamed up alongside knitter Mati Ventrillon.
Fashion brands are forever proffering Fair Isle, worn for centuries by sailors in Scotland and the Nordics. Its motifs, which include the North Star, trees and hearts, offer designers endless opportunities: recently, Victoria Beckham, Loro Piana and Celine have all offered their own takes. But for Ventosa Martin, it was important to go direct to the source. “They’re magical,” she says. “These skills are passed down through generations… that’s all that’s keeping this craft alive.”
Old Stone Trade’s concept is timely, when many independent artisans are looking to expand their brand horizons and customers want stuff with a story. “That fresh, global perspective isn’t often available to individual makers like myself, especially when based in rural locations,” says Chappell, the kiltmaker who lives near the Cairngorms National Park.
Ventrillon agrees. “So many times I have considered leaving the island to be able to grow my practice elsewhere.” A former architect who spent years living in London, she moved to Fair Isle in 2007 and joined the women’s knitting cooperative to get to know her neighbours. “But I love it here. It’s important to stay. Everyone knows Fair Isle jumpers, but people forget that there are generations of real women behind those designs. Some don’t even realise that it’s actually a place.”
Island life is isolated. It’s raw and elemental, and days are often dictated by the tides. “It takes a ferry five hours to do a round trip to bring food here, and it gets cancelled in bad weather,” laughs Ventrillon, who lives on a croft and often cooks lamb reared on the island for dinner. But that’s exactly what makes a woollen from here so alluring. “Everything is knit, washed, packed and sent from this place.”
To survive, though, it’s important that Fair Isle evolves beyond its own shores: Old Stone Trade acts as a message in a bottle to the wider world. “Tradition is something that’s dynamic and fluid, not static,” says Ventrillon. Her pieces are inspired by designs from the 1850s, but made new with modern shapes: she’s cropped the lengths, fitted raglan sleeves, and got rid of the dropped shoulders. “You’re just reproducing history otherwise. But that’s not tradition. Tradition is something that has a continuation in a timeline. It adapts.”
The season’s jolliest sweater vests. By Benjamin Canares