A Profile of Rowan Yarns

Learn about the history behind the iconic British yarn company Rowan Yarns in this article, which was written by Linda Pratt (who was the national marketing manager for needlecraft for Westminster Fibers at the time) in celebration of Rowan’s thirtieth anniversary in 2008. The Rowan brand is known for working with imaginative and talented designers, such as Kaffe Fassett, and creating classic yarns for handknitting. Here’s Linda to tell us more.

Named for the European mountain ash (Sorbus aucuparia), a sturdy, deep-rooted tree that grows throughout England’s Yorkshire hills, Rowan Yarns was established in 1978. Its founders were Stephen Sheard, a textile specialist with years of weaving experience in Scandinavia and the United Kingdom, and his childhood friend Simon Cockin, a civil engineer who, after working on construction projects around the world, had returned to his hometown of Holmfirth, West Yorkshire, looking for a new challenge.

With a mission of providing a wide palette of natural-fiber weaving yarns around the United Kingdom, the new company began by developing and marketing a line of rug kits and supplies to craft shops. The partners next sought funding to start their own mill, but the global recession of the early 1980s made banks reluctant to lend them the necessary funds.

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Rowan magazine 44. 2008. Photos courtesy of Rowan.

Sheard and Cockin had to rethink their business plan. Still, they were lucky: handknitting was booming, and Rowan’s yarns were perfect for this craft. Traditional two-dimensional artwork had blossomed into textural and color creations, especially among United Kingdom art students, and Rowan became a major source of colorful yarns for their boutique collections. One could say that Rowan yarns became the paint that inspired many of the artists in the British wave of Arts and Crafts–inspired knitting designers. The visionary Sheard exchanged ideas on art, design, and fashion with designers Sasha Kagan, Erika Knight, Sarah Dallas, Susan Duckworth, Sandy Black, Angela King, Annabel Fox, and Jean Moss as well as with partnerships such as Artwork (a collaboration between British designers Jane Foster and Patrick Gottelier), and began creating new yarns, including tweeds, chenille, and simple cottons; many of these were produced and dyed in the United Kingdom.

A collaboration between Sheard and the designer Kaffe Fassett began in 1983 and continues to this day. Fassett supported Sheard’s belief that innovative artist-created garments, such as the colorful ones that Fassett had been fashioning, could inspire hobby knitters to break out and explore these same techniques and self-expression. After a promotion in Woman and Home magazine sold more than 7,000 kits of Fassett’s Super Triangles jacket, Rowan began to produce patterns by other designers as well. As for the Super Triangles pattern, it became the impetus for the publication of Fassett’s first book, Glorious Knits: Thirty Designs for Sweaters, Dresses, Vests and Shawls (New York: Clarkson Potter, 1985).

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Simon Cockin, Stephen Sheard, and Stephen’s wife, Kath Sheard, in the showroom at Rowan Mill, West Yorkshire, England. Early 1980s.

Among key players in Rowan’s growth have been three members of the Hargreaves family: Mother Kathleen, who joined Rowan early on in the warehouse, distinguished herself through her knitting and technical skills. Eldest daughter Kim became Sheard’s design protégée and was Rowan’s first design director until leaving in 2004 to start her own design company. Youngest daughter Lindsay continues to work in the Rowan sales office.

With the collaboration of New Hampshire residents and United Kingdom expatriates Ken and June Bridgewater, Rowan began distributing its yarns in the United States in 1984. Selling knitting kits at first, then expanding into open-stock yarn a few years later, the Bridgewater’s company, Westminster Trading (now Westminster Fibers), and Rowan set up a distribution system.

In 1985, Sheard created a semiannual magazine that interprets Rowan’s design vision for the season. A few years later, he developed Rowan International, whose subscribers receive not only copies of current issues of Rowan’s Knitting and Crochet Magazine but also quarterly newsletters, discounts on workshops held in the United Kingdom, and access to a special online forum of knitters and technical consultants.

During the 1990s, Rowan added new designers and initiated a program of Rowan consultants in major United Kingdom department stores as a way of creating a long-term bridge between Rowan and consumers. Nevertheless, the dismal economic climate in the mid-1990s eventually forced Sheard and Cockin to sell the Rowan business to Coats Crafts UK. Cockin continued to run the Rowan operation, with a new sales manager, Colin Chawner, joining the Holmfirth team. Sheard’s expertise was embraced by Coats, and he soon expanded his responsibilities to encompass Jaeger Handknits, a licensee of the German fashion house known for its distinctive European style.

With Hargreaves at the design helm, Rowan entered the new millennium with innovative design collections and new yarns such as Big Wool (100% merino), Calmer (75% cotton, 25% acrylic), and Summer Tweed (70% silk, 30% cotton) complementing the company’s more traditional offerings. As Rowan celebrated its first twenty-five years, Sheard became Coats’s global yarn marketing manager, the designer Kate Buller succeeded him as the Rowan brand manager, and Marie Wallin replaced Kim Hargreaves as head of design.

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The first Rowan magazine published in 1987.

At Coats, Sheard consulted in the development and growth of Germany’s Gedifra, Regia, and Schachenmayr brands, North America’s Nashua Handknits, and Patons, Shepherd, and Cleckheaton in Australasia. He and Cockin retired at the end of 2007.

The year 2008 marked the thirtieth anniversary of the Rowan brand and the beginning of a world tour featuring a retrospective of the history of Rowan yarns and a gallery of its designs. In 2009, the exhibit was seen in stores or at needlework festivals in Paris, New Zealand, and various sites in the United States and Canada. In April 2010, look for it at the Textile Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the Slater Mill Museum in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.

From its beginning, Rowan’s vision, created by Sheard and Cockin, has been to demand of itself an appreciation of good design, high-quality materials, and the finest colors, and the ability to listen, learn, and give back by teaching. It is this approach that has enabled the company to inspire and foster creativity and technical excellence in its designers and in the knitters who purchase its products.

Learn more about the history of knitting in the January/February 2018 issue of PieceWork. You won’t want to miss reading Lea Stern’s moving article, “The Green Sweater Project: A Holocaust Survival Story,” about one small knitted green sweater made for a beloved granddaughter in the midst of the madness that became World War II (1939–1945). Read an excerpt in our blog post “The Knitted Green Sweater Project: A Holocaust Survival Story.”

Historical knitting continues to be a beloved topic not only for the PieceWork staff but our readers, too. Once again we devote the January/February 2019 issue to this timeless theme—our 13th annual Historical Knitting issue. What story about knitting can you share with us? Here are the submission guidelines and the 2018-2019 Editorial Calendar, which includes information for the January/February 2019 issue plus other upcoming themes. We’re so looking forward to hearing your ideas!

Posted February 20, 2014. Updated April 4, 2018.


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