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Rowan Through History

Rowan Through History

We caught up with one of our favourite brands Rowan to find out all about the history of the company and how it's grown into the yarn phenomenon it is now. Written by Sarah Brook of Rowan, we know you'll enjoy this read...

The story of Rowan and how it became the brand it is today is a long and interesting one. Rowan, its yarns and its designs have followed a winding path through the decades, stopping on the way to meet icons and influences, which have forever shaped its history, and indeed the way we see Rowan today. 1978 was the year in which the first chapter in the story was written, when a young textile design graduate named Stephen Sheard founded the company based above a grocery store in Almondbury, near Huddersfield. His passion lay with weaving and the initial business for Rowan was selling weaving kits made up of a selection of pure wools to craft shops up and down the country. The next year, Stephen teamed up with his friend Simon Cockin, and shortly afterwards the pair purchased the iconic Green Lane Mill building in Holmfirth, West Yorkshire. The mill proved to be a faithful home in the countryside for Rowan and was its headquarters for over thirty years; providing an apt setting for a company which considered itself close to nature in its inspiration and ethos. Indeed, the very naming of Rowan lends itself perfectly to this theory, in that it was inspired by a small Rowan tree sapling, gifted to Stephen by the partner of designer Sasha Kagan, who was later to become as big an influence on the brand as she had been on the naming of it.

Left: Rowan Magazine No.1. Middle: Rowan Magazine No.10. Right: Rowan Magazine No. 61.

It was in this new home that the first change in direction came for the Rowan brand. Ironically, it was rather by chance that the company took the path of offering knitting wools rather than its original interest of weaving kits. Whilst on a trip to Sweden, Stephen picked up that many wool customers were actually designers looking for materials to create with, rather than traditional craft retail outlets. The realisation that a business could, or should, be design led, rather than the other way around, resulted in the first step towards the comprehensive range of ‘paintbox colours’ we have seen as part of the Rowan yarn range throughout the years.  Young design graduates of the era slowly began to discover that Rowan offered an interesting and varied range of colours, which could be ordered in smaller quantities than had been possible before. Influential relationships began to be formed, relationships that would blossom and become ever stronger as the years and design collections passed.

1982 would forever be a year integral to the very shaping of Rowan, as a talented American designer was just about to walk into its life. A chance meeting between a young Kaffe Fassett and Stephen Sheard at a craft fair resulted in the designer being asked to come up with some colour suggestions for a chenille yarn – and it was at that moment when a special relationship between Kaffe and Rowan was born. The early 80s was also the point at which Stephen brought Jean Moss on board, who, at the time, was working for Ralph Lauren.

The next significant milestone came calling in the year of 1986, when the release of the first ever edition of the Rowan Magazine signalled the beginning of an amazing journey. Rowan Knitting Book 1, as it was titled officially, consisted of 25 designs from names such as Sasha Kagan, Annabel Fox and, of course, Kaffe Fassett and Kim Hargreaves and was photographed simply, yet stylishly before a very British coastal backdrop. Other key designers of this era were Jamie and Jessie Seaton, famed for their bold colour work, such as in their Turkish Leaves Sweater of magazine 4. 1987 would bring with it the second Rowan Knitting Book, again classic in form and shape. There is a timeless quality about the first Rowan Magazines, in that you could choose to knit one of their designs today and effortlessly fit into modern day fashions. There is nothing dated about them, and classical, yet timeless is something that iconic designer Kim Hargreaves does very well.

Magazine 5 came about in 1988, bringing with it thirty designs featuring burnt shades of ochre, rust and burgundy. Patterning started to reveal itself as a key design influence in this collection of chiffon, Egyptian cotton and silk designs. The pattern influence continued throughout the later years of the eighties, including Magazine 9’s Miami Beach, and easy shapes and short crops dominated this period.

1991 ushered in a new decade and with it came one of the most significant editions of the Rowan Magazine number 10. The design brief Swallows and Amazons will forever be remembered as one of the most iconic in Rowan’s history, not least because it starred a young Kate Moss as a model for the unique and colourful knitwear. Another important factor for Magazine 10 was that this collection really created the start of the worldwide admiration and following for Kaffe Fassett. His Kilim Coat design, which graced the front cover, perfectly demonstrated his use of patterning coupled with an unsurpassed eye for colour and how they can work together beautifully.

This progressed into the eleventh issue, showcasing brilliant technique and quality in beautiful cottons. An important floral trend also emerged here and provided Rowan knitters everywhere with quite a challenge. Kaffe’s growing appeal continued to develop during the nineties and, following on from the revered Long Leaf Coat of 1992, Magazine 14 went on to explore the very meaning of colour, featuring astonishingly unique designs such as Blue Diamond Sweater by Kaffe Fassett and Kim Hargreaves’ Indian Summer. At this time, Rowan really was producing design like nobody else. Patterning and cosy knits worked in yarn favourites such as Kid Silk, Donegal Lambswool Tweed and Lightweight DK were all prominent throughout this decade.

The emergence of Magazine 18 in 1995 brought forward a clear triumph from Kim Hargreaves, who concentrated on fit and structure of designs to great effect. Alongside this, colour still played a large part, with influences of Kaffe and Louisa Harding simmering under the collection.

1999 was a time of change, and shortly prior to the change of millennium came a somewhat new direction for the design in the Rowan Magazine. The White Hot design story of Magazine 25 emanated class and showed a different side to Rowan, taking the summer’s key looks and celebrating them in the clean white shades of Handknit Cotton, Glace Cotton and 4ply Cotton.

Next came Magazine 26, showcasing simple knitting worked in DK weights. Icy grey shades and layers combined to create an impressive effect, shot against a classic and rugged coastal background. The first Rowan magazine of the new millennium, Magazine 28, saw a marked return to Rowan’s beloved fairisle technique, with Kim Hargreaves, Debbie Bliss and Kaffe Fassett all starring in different ways. This collection saw the now famous Stone Circles design from Kaffe and will always be remembered as one of the most treasured.

Left: Martin Storey. Right: Lisa Richardson

 2001 was another milestone year for Rowan, as it welcomed its newest designer; Martin Storey, who would still design for the brand fifteen years later. Martin joined Rowan from Artwork after meeting with brand manager Kate Buller and Stephen Sheard in London, and quickly became one of its most popular figures, showcasing signature cables and knit along blanket designs.

2003 brought Magazine 34 and signalled the growing popularity of Kidsilk Haze. Ever-popular since 2001, this yarn was showcased in designs such as Birch Shawl by Sharon Miller, who used the yarn to create fine, incredibly beautiful knits. This was the point where Kidsilk Haze truly began its journey to become one of Rowan’s most well loved yarns.

Magazine 36, the last which Kim Hargreaves headed up for Rowan, came about in 2004 and was a feminine yet sophisticated collection. This year also heralded the launch of R2; a concept which was designed to incorporate simple techniques with the biggest fashion trends of the moment. Having always been important to Rowan as a brand to hold true to current trends yet remain timeless, this concept was a fun, adventurous way to react to catwalk looks. This year also saw a significant influence in Sarah Hatton joining the Rowan design team.

2006 saw the first ever Rowan Studio publication, a natural progression to the fashion based ethos of R2. Led by Sarah Hatton, Studio brochures became an integral part of the design process, providing an outlet to showcase trend reactions with a release schedule of every three months.

This year also heralded a new design influence for the Rowan team in Marie Wallin, who took the role of head designer for the intricately colourful and feminine stories of Knitting & Crochet Magazine 40, which included Marie’s Hickory design in Felted Tweed.

Rowan Knitting & Crochet Magazine 42 was released in 2007 and simply, yet effectively celebrated the use of colour and striping throughout. Kaffe Fassett demonstrated his understanding of how colour works together in design, whilst showing the progression of colourwork in knitting at the same time with his Earth Stripe Wrap.

2008 was a very important year for Rowan and everyone associated with the brand, as it played host to its thirtieth anniversary celebrations. Perhaps because of this, but also perhaps in its own right, Knitting & Crochet Magazine 44 will always be remembered as a key design collection of the 2000s. Aptly named, the Nostalgia story perfectly represented timeless elegance, whereas Renaissance showcased colour – and in particular detail in colour. Embellishment also played a key part to this story, which did not hold back on attention grabbing, memorable design using elements of Rowan’s past which form part of its history.

The next true milestone of this decade was the simply stunning Knitting & Crochet Magazine 48 and, in particular, the Russian Doll design story. Emphasis shifted in this collection to ensure that clean backgrounds and inspirational styling created a truly magnificent effect, which is still fresh in many people’s minds today. Valentina by Martin Storey is just one of many iconic designs from this collection.

Upon entering its third decade, the Rowan Magazine would again adapt to the design mood of the time, just as any journey would follow a path. 2011 brought the fiftieth edition of the now established and world renowned biannual design collection. As iconic as ever, Magazine 50 kept true to timeless elegance and typical colourwork, with the palettes of Felted Tweed and Kid Classic playing a key role. Another feature of this magazine was a commentary on the partnership that Rowan had with the Royal College of Art as part of HRH Prince of Wales’ Campaign for Wool, founded in 2010. Students were asked to participate in a design competition celebrating all of the merits of wool, an idea which demonstrated Rowan’s lasting commitment to design innovation and creativity through craft.

After this, we saw Rowan Knitting & Crochet Magazine 54, which featured folk influences in a colourful and detailed story, alongside a more serious element in Romancing. 2013 also saw the successful continuation of the Essentials story, first launched in 2010 with the aim of reflecting the season’s key looks and styles in wearable interpretations, photographed in a setting which allowed the garment to be the star of the image.

2015 was a year in which knitwear was very much centre stage of the catwalks, and Rowan Knitting & Crochet Magazine 58 concentrated on brushed, soft wools, mohairs and fur, creating a cosy and warm collection perfectly epitomised by the beautiful Wintry by Marie Wallin in Brushed Fleece

Finally, we reach the most recent of the existing Rowan Knitting & Crochet Magazines; 59. This issue took another slightly different direction with in-house designer Lisa Richardson taking the steer on the design Kyoto brief, through to the photo shoots and art direction.  The Essentials story element was incorporated into the other stories to create an all-round collection with two main design briefs, which included key shapes.

This brings us to the end of our journey through the first sixty editions of the famous Rowan Magazine and the years it has graced. There have been many contributors and well known faces as part of the team throughout the time this magazine has been produced, each one having their own influence in the shaping of the story. This, our sixtieth edition, celebrates each part of the history and I am sure reflects different elements and traits of the many talented people with whom Rowan has worked over the last sixty issues. Here’s to another sixty!