In the 1960s and ’70s, most knitting patterns appeared as single leaflets or pattern booklets published by yarn companies. “Woman’s service magazines,” such as Family Circle and Woman’s Day in the United States, would feature a sweater or two in each issue. There were special editions that featured a couple dozen knit and crochet pieces, but they weren’t presented in a cohesive, narrative way. Hardcover knitting books were more reference than look book—think Barbara Walker’s seminal stitch treasuries. The current incarnation of Vogue Knitting, which debuted in 1982, definitely took a knitting-meets-fashion approach. But it was Rowan Magazine Number One, published well before Martha Stewart elevated the concept of a lifestyle publication, that made knitters and non-knitters alike want to be in the world it created.
Something New for Knitters: I Want That Life
How did they pull it off? According to Rowan founder Stephen Sheard, “We knew we wanted to make a knitting magazine that had an aspirational, fashion look. There wasn’t a huge budget, of course, so we connected with fashion photographers and stylists who were just starting out. They could help create the conceptual look of a high-end European fashion magazine, with a very British twist, for a price we could afford. And it gave them a chance to build their portfolios.”
With this scrappy, can-do attitude, Sheard made the most of his relationships with British designer knitters, enlisting them to create garments that could be offered as patterns, and highlighting the designers’ names both inside the magazine and on its cover.
“Rowan was the first company to give the designers credit,” notes Liza Prior Lucy, the first Rowan rep in the States, and longtime collaborator with both Stephen Sheard and Kaffe Fassett. In a way, it was the beginning of the cult of personality in the yarn world, in a time before social media or even the internet.
The ever-evolving band of gypsies that Sheard and his team lured to Rowan’s headquarters in Yorkshire includes quite a few who are still designing for the company: Kaffe Fassett, Brandon Mably, Martin Storey, Marie Wallin, Sarah Hatton, Kim Hargreaves.
Many remain active in the knitting world: Sasha Kagan, Erika Knight, Marion Foales, Jean Moss, Kim Hargreaves, Kate Davies and Louisa Harding, to name a few. Some went on to pursue other paths altogether, notably Jamie and Jessie Seaton, who created the successful clothing and lifestyle brand Toast, also known for its evocative “I want that life” photography.
The Rowan brand and its mystique have survived several yarn industry ups and downs, as well as corporate changes. Privately held until the mid 1990s, when “no one was knitting,” Stephen Sheard and Simon Cockin sold their company to Coats Crafts, both remaining active in the business. (It was around this time that Rowan branched into fabrics to offset the lack of yarn sales. Thanks to the strength of the quilting and patchwork market in the United States, this launched Kaffe Fassett’s fabric design career, which is his primary focus today.)
Under the steady hand of longtime Brand Director Kate Buller, Rowan continued, through good times and bad, to produce the magazines full of beautiful designs, and introduce new yarn lines with deep color ranges. Thriving again during knitting boom of the 2000s, Rowan rode the wave of the celebrity knitting craze and the post-9/11 back-to-comfort crafting movement, making its way into the hearts and hands of a new generation of knitters on both sides of the Atlantic.
Rowan Today: Back to the Future
Fast forward to the era of the indie yarn maker, which has been both challenge and game changer for many traditionally run yarn companies. In 2016, when it became public knowledge that the Germany-based equity company Aurelius had acquired Coats, a collective gasp went through the yarn world. What would happen to our beloved Rowan? Would the magazines be dumbed down or go away altogether? Would our favorite yarns still be available?
I spoke with current Rowan Brand Manager, David MacLeod, who reassured me. “We have decided to always keep the Rowan Magazine in a print format only. It is so much more than a knitting book to so many people and we want to maintain the special quality it has.”
He does foresee adding some digital-only pattern releases to the mix along with ebooks. “We want to preserve the aspirational quality of Rowan, but plan to freshen the look as well. In short, the goal is to retain the diehard Rowan fans, but also attract new knitters to the brand.”
What about the actual yarns? Historically, Rowan has offered a broad range of yarns and robust palettes. This seems to have morphed into a more pared-down range. While a large number of favorite yarns have disappeared from the line—discontinued yarns include Summer Tweed, Harris, the Pure Life range of British sheep breed yarns, Cotton Jeans, Fine Art and Wool Cotton—MacLeod explained the strategy going forward. “We have simply reduced the range to our best sellers. At its peak, Rowan had approximately 80 different qualities [yarn lines and color ranges], which is too much for any store to carry, and too large for us to offer any depth of pattern support. Now we have a smaller core, but will be offering more focused pattern support. We’ll continue to add new yarns as part of our Selects range, but these will be available for a limited time only.”
It seems somehow fitting that as part of the new Rowan Selects program, Kaffe Fassett has designed a 15-shade palette for Rowan’s venerable Handknit Cotton, supported by a range of free patterns and complete with a Kaffe-led knitalong. It was, after all, the cotton chenille yarn that he colored in 1983 that started this whole thing.