Monday, December 14, 2009

No-Bull Book Review: Rowan's Greatest Knits, edited by Kate Buller

How do you celebrate your thirtieth anniversary as one of the world's leading yarn and knitting design companies? One way is to issue a commemorative book. That's what Rowan Yarns has done. Recently Rowan's Greatest Knits: 30 Years of Knitted Patterns from Rowan Yarns
(Taunton 2009) hit the shelves, and if you're a Rowan fan, you'll want to put it at the top of your holiday wish list.

As someone who got hooked on knitting in part because I fell in love with the gorgeous patterns and beautiful natural-fiber yarns that Rowan has produced, it's hard for me to imagine a knitting world without them. But Rowan is a relative youngster compared to some of the other big yarn companies (several companies, such as Lion Brand, Briggs & Little, Dale of Norway and Sirdar, to name a few, have been making yarn for over 100 years). If you haven't read it already, there's a wonderful interview with founder Stephen Sheard here. It's fascinating to read how the company began and how it's grown over the years. More recently, Rowan was purchased by the large Coats & Clark corporation, and we are still seeing how corporate ownership of Rowan will affect the beloved Rowan.

Rowan's Greatest Knits is a celebration of the company and its patterns. The book, loaded with color photos of Rowan patterns and yarns, is divided into two sections. The first consists of forty-plus pages celebrating Rowan's history. After a one-page introduction by editor Kate Buller (Senior Brand Manager at Rowan), you'll find a brief summary of Rowan's history. The remainder of this section is divided by decades: 80s, 90s and 00s. I enjoyed reading the summaries for each decade, highlighting where handknitting fit into the larger fashion trends; using specific Rowan designs to demonstrate themes that predominated in those decades (for example, the use of highly patterned and brightly colored stranded designs in the 80s; the more muted, retro country phase of the 90s; and the trend toward urban, pared-down designs in the 00s); and analyzing the types of yarns that were especially popular or new during each decade. Each decade also includes a profile of a Rowan designer whose work typifies the decade (Kaffe Fassett, Kim Hargreaves and Marion Foale, respectively). As a Rowan freak, I have to say I was left wanting more of this kind of retrospective analysis, but of course, the heart of the book is the pattern section.

Fontaine by Marion Foale

Which brings us to the question that many Rowanaphiles will be wondering about: With thirty years of gorgeous patterns to pick from, what made the final cut?

If you're looking for a "what was the most popular" ranking, or even a top ten kind of list, you won't find them; the preface to the patterns states how they were selected:
The following updated patterns are a selection taken from the Rowan magazine during its long history. They include designs from a cross-section of Rowan's designers, with particular emphasis on those designers who have been closely associated with Rowan over the years.
It seems to me that instead of looking at this as a collection of the 30 "greatest" Rowan designs, it is more fitting to look at the book as a selection of 30 representative Rowan designs, patterns that typify the strengths of the designer (e.g., Kaffe Fassett's magnificent color sense) and the time period in which they were created (e.g., Louisa Harding's Russian Jacket, featuring bright colorwork and the very generous fit that was so popular in the 80s).

If you're curious about which designers are represented, I did a rough count and found the following:

I suspect that people will be able to debate the representation of certain designers and specific designs (I'd have liked to see a little more of Brandon Mably, and I love Martin Storey's elegant designs, to name a few) and each Rowan fanatic will have their own favorites. It's definitely worth noting that on Rowan's website, an extensive selection of patterns shown in the photographs in the book, but not included in the book's pattern section, are available for free download (link here). Let's give Rowan a big round of applause for being generous and sharing some of those oldies but goodies that are unavailable to those of us who would gladly purchase older Magazines were they currently available (unless you can afford to pay astronomical prices on Ebay).

Looking at it by the numbers, the designs are overwhelming geared at adult women: you'll find only one design, a lovely fisherman-style aran by Martin Storey, that is sized for men (don't worry, ladies: it's also sized for women, too).

Surf, by Martin Storey

The remaining 29 or so are all ladies' patterns -- about six pullovers, one vest (one of my all-time favorite Rowan patterns, I must say)

Electra, by Louisa Harding

two scarves, one lace stole, one non-lace stole, three summer tops, one poncho and the rest (a baker's dozen or so) cardigans. The patterns represent a variety of techniques: beaded knitting, intarsia, stranded colorwork (I wish there were more all-over stranded garments, though), cables and a bit of lace (not nearly enough for me). It's especially helpful that the yarn requirements for each design have been updated to call for current Rowan yarns and colorways, since over the years, various yarns and shades have come and gone. Indeed, the paragraphs discussing why particular yarns and colors are recommended as subtitutes are extremely thoughtful & helpful, and reading through them would illustrate for a new or tentative knitter some of the criteria in making successful yarn and color substitutions. (For more in that vein, the pattern section begins with a good explanation of how to substitute yarns, touching on weight, texture and color, and urging the knitter to do test swatches to determine if the proposed substitution will work.)

Beaded Cardigan by Kim Hargreaves

Of course, all the patterns are shown in lovely Rowan yarns. The vast majority of designs (about 14 or so) are knit in DK-weight yarns; by my estimation, about 6 are knitted in fingering weight, 2 in worsted weight, 3 in aran weight, one in the tricky denim (which is knit to one gauge and shrinks in the first laundering, rendering it particularly tough to substitute for), and 4 in Kid Silk Haze, which can be knit at so many weights that I tend to put it in its own category.

Anice, by Sharon Miller, knit in Kidsilk Haze

As for sizing? Some of the patterns come in S/M/L, calling for bust measurements of 34/36/38, while others go from XS to XL, with bust measurements of32/34/36/38/40, but pay close attention to ease in deciding which size to make. Ease is very tricky here given that the patterns are cherry-picked from thirty years' worth of changing design sensibilities. For example, one pattern may have 1 to 2 inches ease (so that a sweater sized for a 34" bust has an actual chest circumference of 35 or 36", a close fit) while another may have 5 or 6 inches of ease (so a different sweater sized for the same 34" bust has an actual circumference of over40 inches -- a very relaxed fit). Take a look at the schematic and do the math for the actual circumference before making up your mind about the sizing.

Turning to the more technical end of things, Rowan's Greatest Knits is a lovely hardcover book, about 150 pages long, full color. The front section of the book features lots of gorgeous color photographs of the designs, while the pattern section is laid out similarly to Rowan Magazine: a thumbnail photo of the design, (and unlike the magazine, some of the patterns also include inset photos of the pattern stitch or another important design feature of the garment), schematics, charts (some of the charts are black-and-white, others in color), and full directions.

If you're a Rowanaphile like me, this book would make a lovely gift for you -- even if you have all or most of the Magazines, it's fun to read about the history of the company over the years, and it's helpful to have very straightforward directions on how to substitute yarns for the designs. If you don't know much about Rowan, this would also be a great book to add to your knitting library, as it contains a cross-section of versatile and time-tested Rowan patterns.


Anonymous said...

LOVE the pie chart! You are totally nuts, and awesome!

Unknown said...

second on the pie chart! What a great, thoughtful review -- thanks!


Sarah said...

Thank you for another thorough review - I always appreciate these. It sounds like a great book!