Thursday, 15 September 2011

Rowan and Ravelry

I am frequently frustrated, when browsing Ravelry's immense database of knitting patterns, either while in search of something to knit for myself or while helping someone out on the forums, by the lack of Rowan patterns in the database. It frequently means that I simply do not knit the designs myself and do not have the opportunity to recommend the designs to others, a pity, since they have some extremely good ones. Rowan do have their own website on which some of their designs are pictured, but since the new site was launched it is no longer possible to view them closely enough to see the details, for example is it a dropped or set in shoulder? I have been lamenting this absence for a while now, but some interviews with Rowan designers, in their latest magazine (kindly lent me by a friend for me to read) have made me consider the subject again.

From what the designers were saying it was clear that Rowan are currently wrestling with how to approach the new realities of the digital age, where knitters from all over the world can communicate with one another instantly and self publishing has never been easier. Some of this phenomenon is not all that new - Elizabeth Zimmermann blazed a trail self-publishing through her Schoolhouse Press and her Wool Gatherings news letters as early as the 1950s. However, the realities of publishing, involving as it used to, the costs of printing and distribution, did mean that until the rise of the internet self publishing was not easy to accomplish. Now it can be done at the press of a button and yes, as Sarah Hatton cites "people like Ysolde Teague [sic] and Jared Flood... have just created themselves" and worked hard to create excellent professional brands and beautiful, stylish designs. These independent designers have used the internet to communicate directly with their customers and build up their brand, there is no reason why Rowan cannot do the same.

Indeed knitting always has been a very grass roots movement, passing from person to person and finding new ways to create. Knitters have always improvised, changed patterns to suit their circumstances and come up with innovative new designs - Kate Davies' excellent article on Shetland lace knitting a few pages earlier in the same Rowan magazine makes this point superbly. However, now instead of only being able to share their ideas with knitters in their immediate vicinity, or by post, we can share our ideas, our designs and put them out there. In terms of design there is little difference between the Shetland women's lace innovations of the early 19th century and a knitter today coming up with a design and sharing it for free or selling it via her blog or Ravelry. It is all part of the same creativity.

I can see how a more traditional company like Rowan could feel quite threatened by the internet, but actually it offers a great opportunity to interact with customers in a new way and to get your designs out there cheaply and effectively. And of course it is worth bearing in mind that important though Ravelry is to many of us, it is not the entirety of the knitting world. But at one and a half million members strong, it does represent a huge market for yarn and knitting companies and I feel it is a pity that Rowan has not yet made the most of this opportunity. Rowan yarns already have quite a profile on Ravelry, there are more than 15,000 projects listed using Kid Silk Haze for example. I have used the yarns far more than the designs and love their quality, a jumper I made in Rowan pure wool aran is still going strong after more than two years hard wear.

If more Rowan patterns were listed on Ravelry, together with pictures and tags to identify the techniques, used then more knitters would buy Rowan booklets and knit Rowan designs, very probably buying more Rowan yarn in the process. As Rowan is ultimately a company that exists to make money, this surely makes sense?

Personally I would also love to see at least some of the amazing Rowan back catalogue on sale as individual patterns, as Interweave Knits and Vogue Knitting both do. Back copies of Rowan magazines and booklets often sell on ebay for eye-wateringly high prices, yet Rowan itself gets none of that money, why not put the back catalogue to work?

As the designers said again and again in the interviews this situation is exciting, things have been changing and bringing us all new opportunities and creative possibilities, so Rowan, please make the most of it!