Inside the Tiny Scottish Knitwear Studio That Chanel Couldn’t Resist
When two Chanel representatives visited Mati Ventrillon’s small knitwear studio on Fair Isle in the summer of 2015, she was delighted to sell samples of her work, on the understanding they would be used for research purposes only.
Six months later Chanel featured Ventrillon’s designs during its 2016 preview show, without attributing her sweaters as the main source of inspiration.
When Bloomberg visited her studio on Fair Isle in early December, Mati Ventrillon’s sweaters were not the subject of international debate. Instead of anger at Chanel, we found a professional working to keep Fair Isle’s traditional designs alive – exactly the same combination that made such an impression on two earlier visitors from one of the world’s great fashion houses.
Fair Isle is located off the north-eastern coast of Scotland, halfway between Shetland and Orkney. With just 55 inhabitants and about 1.5 miles across, it’s the most remote inhabited island in the United Kingdom.
Ventrillon – a French-Venezuelan designer who has been working on Fair Isle for eight years – lives on the island’s far southwestern corner. She knits and sells bespoke Fair Isle sweaters, continuing a tradition passed on by generations before her.
Her attention to detail begins with the source of her wool – her own flock of sheep, which she breeds and tends to throughout the year.
“We use the same breed of sheep that would have been used here centuries ago, imported over from Shetland. In addition to my own, there’s a communal flock everyone on the island looks after.”
When her flock is shorn in the summer, the wool is sent to Mainland, Shetland on board the Good Shepherd, a small cargo vessel that delivers essentials to and from Fair Isle. On Mainland the wool is dyed and spun into reels by local spinners who have practiced their craft since the 1800s, before being shipped back.
Once fully stocked, Ventrillon can take orders. The sweaters are not cheap: an average design will cost about $700 and takes roughly one month to complete. The price can change depending on how much detailing is required. And there was a waiting list even before her recent brush with fame.
Many of the iconic patterns attributed to Fair Isle knitwear have evocative names, among them Muckle Flooers and Grunds. Ultimately, no-one fully understands what they mean or where they originated.
“The mystery is definitely part of the allure. This is also how I can detect a good Fair Isle copy from a bad one. The good ones understand these shapes are not random,” says Ventrillon.
The same can be said of the colors. Meaning is elusive, but it is understood that traditionally color should be bold and be used sparingly. Each design generally allows just two colors per row of knitting, with around five colors in total.
“Depending on what the client wants, I’m happy to break away from some of the historical rules around the patterns and colors,” Ventrillon says. “I don’t think this ruins the tradition. Tradition is not the rehashing of history. Tradition is taking what was made in the past and keeping it alive in the present. I think this leaves a lot of room for a natural evolution within the field, which we should embrace.”
When she’s not knitting, Ventrillon looks after her two young children, tends to her livestock – pigs as well as sheep – plants and harvests crops and contributes to the small but close community of the island.
“All of these extra things - the things that I have to do, that I can’t ignore - they’re all part of the reason why these are luxury items,” she explains. “You’re not only paying for the quality of the knitting, but for the hardship and the challenging lifestyle that is required to live and work off this island. And it has to be from this island because where else can Fair Isle knitwear come from, but Fair Isle?”
On the recent encounter with Chanel, she remains positive.
“I’ve found the last few days very draining and emotionally exhausting, but I’ve had lots of support from social media and the local Shetland knitting community, which has been wonderful.”
She insists that money is not her aim: “There has been a lot of good will from Chanel since this happened. I do not think any of this was intentional. They have been very apologetic and will credit me as an inspiration. This is the direction I want things to be moving.
“If you want to treat craftsmanship as nothing but business, you will never win. That’s not what it’s about at all. It’s so important to be careful about where you place value. The value is in the skills, history and heritage I wish to promote and maintain. I don’t want to chase after Chanel’s money for a mistake they have made and for which they have profusely apologized.”
Photography by Nicholas Tufnell