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Knitting new traditions with Mati Ventrillon

The knitwear designer discusses continuing the craft of the Fair Isle jumper and the special pieces she has designed for COS this festive season.

‘Tradition is like a river that flows towards new grounds. Seeing this quote was the “ah-ha” moment for me. It wasn’t necessarily about my background – it was the fact I am here now practising and continuing the craft.’

It seems fitting that a conversation about one of winter’s cosiest knits would begin in the blustery setting of a Shetland Islands storm. ‘45mph has been the average wind speed over the past couple of weeks’, explains former architect Mati Ventrillon (she/her) as she joins our video call, having returned safely back from battling the elements in a trip to her local post office.

‘Nature dictates the rhythm of life here on Fair Isle, we are completely determined by it. Even posting something can be disrupted quite easily. It teaches you to plan ahead, but the biggest lesson I have learnt is that if things don’t happen immediately, it doesn’t matter. Life continues and nothing collapses.’

For Mati Ventrillon, embracing new ways of living has been a big part of her experience since moving to these remote, magical islands in 2006. ‘It wasn’t like I was running away from anything in London – in fact, I loved city life’, explains Mati. ‘But here you can be much more focused on what you want to do. There are less distractions, so you can really dedicate yourself to your craft.’

Mati is one of the few remaining Fair Isle knitwear producers on the island. When the Fair Isle Crafts Cooperative dissolved in 2011, after 30 years of trading, Mati was compelled to keep the tradition alive. And thanks to the Crafted UK business mentoring programme, she started her own label.

This season, she has paired up with COS to create a unique take on the famous festive knit, which combines her innovative approach with the brand's commitment to more sustainable design. Each piece is crafted from responsibly sourced wool and features a specially designed motif.

We caught up with Mati to discuss the exclusive collaboration with COS, her design process and the trademarks of a true heritage Fair Isle jumper.

© Mati Ventrillon

© Mati Ventrillon

ON KEEPING THE CRAFT ALIVE

'It was around 2011 when I decided “I really love this”. Through working at the Fair Isle Trading Cooperative, I became familiar with the knitting techniques, the motifs and the history.

During this period, I also started doing a lot of thinking on where I fit in within this time-honoured tradition. I was questioning the fact that I was a foreigner with no previous ties with the island, so how was I going to present these traditions to the world? I took a trip to the British Museum to see an exhibition on a Chinese ink painter. The opening phrase of the exhibition was: tradition is like a river that flows towards new grounds. This was the "ah-ha" moment for me. It wasn’t necessarily about me and my background, it was the fact I am here practising and continuing the craft now.’


ON THE TRADITIONAL FAIRISLE TECHNIQUE

‘From a purist point of view, a traditional Fair Isle knit has been handknitted by someone from the island using a pattern that has been handed down from generation to generation. If a new designer wants to recreate traditional Fair Isle, they could use the signature knitting technique. This involves using only two strands of colour per row to create motifs based on traditional patterns. The motifs must not be repeated either – even if it’s an all-over design. These are the true trademarks of the Fair Isle knit.’

Mati Ventrillon in her studio in the Fair Isles, © Mati Ventrillon

‘In this collaboration, we have created a minimalist design that celebrates the tradition of the Fairisle technique.’

ON HER PROCESS

‘With my artisan collection, I take a much more traditional approach. The type of motifs I use are based on early 19th and 20th century styles. For bespoke collections and collaborations, I tend to experiment a bit more. They are still made in a traditional way though – that’s at the core of everything I do.
Coming from an architectural background has allowed me to explore new possibilities. Architecture gives you an education for aesthetics, colour, form and shapes, and you’re trained to harmonise things constantly – which helps when exploring new creative routes for patterns.’


ON THE COS FAIR ISLE KNIT

‘We created a minimalist motif that celebrates the tradition of the Fairisle technique. We thought it would be interesting to focus on the smaller aspects of the traditional design. These patterns are usually used as fillers between larger motifs or as a border. However, instead of keeping them small we exploded them to become the focus point.

It was nice that COS took the time to find someone from Fair Isle to work on this project. Supporting smaller brands, our community and spreading awareness that we still exist is truly wonderful.’


ON THE ROAD AHEAD

‘I want to inspire the next generation of Fair Isle knitwear producers. I’d also like to expand on my internship programme and work with universities to present graduates with different opportunities to experience life on the island. It could become a great place for research, practice or art projects. Even if they don’t stay forever, it will be an interesting ride, that’s for sure...’


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