Three different colors of Rowan Denim
A mitered square in Denim with a Rowan label
click each image to enlarge

Yarn Profile: Denim

By special guest reviewer Kay Gardiner of Mason-Dixon Knitting

First Impressions
With six loosely twisted plies, and dye that seems to float on its surface like ink (especially in the darkest of the three available shades of denim blue), Rowan Denim is intriguing.

This yarn, even when compared to other pure cotton yarns, bears a remarkable resemblance to twine. The fourth shade, Ecru, is undyed; it looks like you could use it to truss a chicken (and you can).

Rowan has been designing beautiful garments in this humble, oddball yarn for decades, but at first glance it is hard to explain its lasting appeal to designers and knitters. Isn't the dye supposed to stay ON the fiber, in this day and age? Isn't it a bad thing for a handknit garment to shrink rather noticeably in the first washing?

To Rowan Denim's many loyal fans, the answer to both questions is a resounding NO! These two qualities—fading and shrinking—are the very reasons the yarn is as beloved to its fans as a favorite pair of bluejeans. There are few sights in knitting as breathtaking as a cabled pullover in worn Rowan Denim, darker in the twists and lighter on the raised areas. Denim baby pant legs will go white at the knees over time, and become a handknit heirloom like no other.

Knitting Up
It will come as no surprise to cotton knitters that Rowan Denim has no spring in its step; for a knitter accustomed to more elastic fibers, this can tire the hands and take some getting used to. But the most remarked-upon aspect of knitting with Rowan Denim is that the blue shades will turn the knitter's fingers blue. The darker the shade, the bluer the fingers.

If your needles are bamboo, their tips turn blue, too. The blue washes off fingers instantly with soap and water, but the needles are blue permanently.

The looseness of the dye—that it rubs off—is the price to be paid up front for the beautiful fade. Once the yarn has had its first wash, it doesn't turn skin—or anything else—blue.

As one who has knit with Rowan Denim for years, your reviewer would like to debunk a persistent rumor: The dye does not come off on furniture or the knitter's clothing while knitting. It would have to be an extremely humid day, and the upholstery, clothing, or yarn would have to be downright wet, for that to happen. Your reviewer, resplendent in white linen muumuu, has knit with Nashville—the darkest shade of Rowan Denim—on beaches and boats and in Adirondack chairs, with no discernible blueing of the muumuu.

Blocking / Washing
Rowan Denim handknits do not have to be blocked. Instead, before sewing up, the pieces are machine washed in hot water—yes, hot water—and then dried in a tumble dryer on the hottest setting. This process shrinks and fades the pieces. If you're knitting with the darkest shade, the fading makes it easier to see the stitches when sewing up, so I recommend prewashing, if only for that reason.

Is it strictly necessary to wash the pieces first? No. Nor is it necessary to follow Rowan's instruction to wash a few yards of the yarn that will be used to sew up. This is a bit of fiddliness that, in my experience, serves no purpose except to discourage knitters from wanting to bother with the yarn. If you like, sew the sweater up before washing, and it will shrink and fade beautifully.

How much does it shrink? That's the question that creates the most anxiety for knitters, and it cannot be answered with great precision. A garment knitted in Rowan Denim will shrink by 10-20 percent—IN LENGTH ONLY—after its first washing in hot water.

The shrinkage will depend on the density of the stitch pattern, how hot the water is, and how hot the drier is—all variables that are difficult to predict or measure. For example, washing machines vary widely in how hot they heat the water, with European washers being particularly fierce.

After the first hot wash-and-dry, the garment will not shrink noticeably any further, but it will continue to fade, gently, with each laundering.

What does "in length only" mean? It means that a garment that is constructed conventionally, by knitting the pieces from top to bottom, or from bottom to top—with the rows stacked vertically—will get shorter, but not noticeably narrower, in fit. A garment that is knit from side to side, or in miters, will shrink in the direction of the knitting. A mitered square will retain its square shape after shrinking, but a garter or stockinette square will become a rectangle, wider than it is high.

Another persistent question arises when the Ecru shade is used together with the blue shades: Will the Ecru turn blue in the wash? It may turn pale blue, again depending on how hot the water is. To prevent this, purchase a "dye magnet" in the laundry aisle of the supermarket, and use it the first few times the item is washed.

If you don't use a dye magnet, and the Ecru turns pale blue, do not despair. Over time, the Ecru will whiten, especially if you use cold water for subsequent washes, and also use a dye magnet.

Despite its rough feel in the skein and on the needles, Rowan Denim garments become very soft, even silky, with time, washing, and wear. They feel great, and they look amazing, with a depth and variation of color that cannot be achieved in the dye pot. That's why people wear jeans instead of blue pants, and why knitters put up with Rowan Denim's peculiarities.

On Choosing Patterns for Denim
Rowan continues to include designs for Denim in its spring/summer magazine, and in other books for adults, children, youth, and the home. There are two Rowan books of patterns exclusively for denim, and they are glorious. In addition, the noted British designers Jane and Patrick Gottelier, who at an earlier time in their careers produced cabled denim pullovers for the Artwork retail collections, published Indigo Knits: The Quintessential Guide to Denim Yarn From the Founders of Artwork. Sadly, Indigo Knits is out of print, but it is available secondhand from online sellers. For those who are interested in knitting denim Ganseys, and learning more about denim knitting in general, the book is a treasure.

What about substituting Rowan Denim for yarn in a pattern that was not written for it? For simple garments without much shaping—pullovers, cardigans, children's items—it is quite easy; simply knit the pieces 10-20 percent longer than the pattern specifies.

When waist and bust shaping come into play, however, it gets a bit trickier. The basic principle is that the shaping must be spread out over a slightly longer distance. If you're intrepid and have a bit of experience working with Denim, it will work out fine. If not, stick to patterns designed for Denim for a while.

One obvious point (which did not occur to your reviewer for many years of knitting with Denim): If you don't want it to shrink, wash it in cold water, the same as you would treat any other handknit cotton garment. It'll still fade when washed in cold water, although perhaps less dramatically on the first wash and a bit more slowly over time. If you don't plan to shrink the garment, you can substitute Rowan Denim for any other pure cotton yarn of comparable weight.

Your reviewer's love of Rowan Denim goes back 15 or 20 years, so she makes no claims to objectivity. Rowan Denim is an unusual yarn that repays the time spent learning its quirks with exquisite, comfortable and hardwearing knitwear that gets better with age.

Note: Full bags (20 balls) of Rowan Denim include a garment label (shown in the photo at the top of the page).


About the author
Since 2003, Kay Gardiner and Ann Shayne have been holding forth at their beloved blog, Together, they have written two books, Mason-Dixon Knitting: The Curious Knitter's Guide, and Mason-Dixon Knitting Outside the Lines.