A skein of Rowan Fine Art
Fine Art knitted up
click each image to enlarge

Yarn Profile: Rowan Yarns Fine Art

First Impressions
At first glance, Fine Art might seem late to the game. After all, who doesn't offer a handpainted sock yarn?

Rowan doesn't, that's who. There's a lot to appreciate in the company's first foray into these waters, which will begin shipping the week of May 6. First, the fibers. One of my biggest issues with hand-dyed yarns is that most of them are the same yarn base, or pretty close. Usually, it's a superwash Merino—sometimes with a dusting of nylon and cashmere. As soon as someone comes up with a successful new base, others follow suit.

Fine Art begins with a base of 45% Merino wool. Not machine-washable wool, which has been treated with bleach or enzymes, but good old-fashioned Merino the way it came off the sheep. To this they add 25% polyamide, which is a raised-pinkie name for nylon. While 25% is about 5% above my personal comfort level, it's still a good amount to guarantee long-lasting abrasion resistance without overpowering the moisture-management properties of the wool.

Now comes the fun ingredient: Mohair. I've long been a firm believer in the power of Mohair for pretty much everything—but especially for socks. The fibers tend to be much stronger and longer than Merino, giving natural abrasion resistance to anything you knit while also enhancing any dye you throw at the yarn. Most mohair comes from South Africa these days, and this yarn comes from there.

Finally, as if the gloss from 20% mohair weren't enough, they've also added a dusting of 10% silk to round out the blend's color-boosting properties. Both mohair and silk also enhance this yarn's suitability for other fine-gauge projects, notably glorious, slinky shawls.

The yarn is dyed by hand, using sponges to apply color in pre-set patterns, in batches of five skeins at a time.

That's a lot of blotting.

To keep this yarn reasonably affordable while scaling production to the demands of a company like Rowan, with its wholesale accounts in stores around the world, you need a reasonably affordable workforce. To this end, Rowan has partnered with South African yarn manufacturer Cape Mohair Spinners, which is responsible for sourcing the fibers and spinning the yarn. Cape Mohair Spinners sought the help of hand-dyer Ines Khoury to build an easily repeatable colorway, currently featuring eight hues (here are five to whet your appetite).

Once the colorways were set, they built a team to do the dyeing. As explained in a press release, they chose women from some of the poorest, still marginalized communities in the Port Elizabeth region of South Africa. Their goal was "to introduce and develop the ideas of personal responsibility and integrity and to create an opportunity for genuine improvement in the living standards and experience of the people who work with us."

Knitting Up
Fine Art knit up swiftly on my slick Signature needles, allowing the pointy Stiletto tips to slide right in with nary a complaint. Only once, near the cast-on row, did I discover I'd left one of the yarn's four plies behind. After that, I was able to knit and purl by touch—albeit a little carefully—with success.

While the yarn is slinkier than you'd get with 100% or even 80% Merino, it still hugged my fingers enough to make controlling tension easy.

Blocking / Washing
The label recommends cold wash, but I used warm just to see where the dye would go. The swatch released a vague poof of greyish tan into the wash water, but it immediately rinsed clear. My dried swatch had no change in stitch or row gauge or color saturation.

This is a worsted-spun yarn, which is to say the fibers have all been combed into tidy submission before getting spun. This produces a smooth yarn with fewer loose ends sticking out. There's less air within the yarn, giving the fibers less room to move around in the wash, translating into a fabric that changes very little before and after washing. I didn't get any kind of significant blooming.

Between the nylon and the Mohair, this is one tough yarn. Just breaking it with my hands took great fortitude.

But make no mistake: It's tough, but it isn't rough. The fine fibers, worsted preparation, and well-twisted four plies combine to produce a soft, smooth yarn with very little prickle.

I finally gave up trying to destroy my swatch after significant abrasion failed to produce anything more than two vague pill-like clusters on the fabric surface.

Although billed primarily as a sock yarn, Fine Art can be used for anything that requires a fine-gauge yarn. But with a few caveats. First, traditionally open, airy lace thrives in a two-ply construction, where those two plies hold open space around each stitch. Four-ply yarns like this one, on the other hand, tend to produce stitches that hug one-another and form smooth, cohesive fabric. If you want to use this for lace, consider lace projects with broad brushstrokes of stockinette patterning, like those by Susanna IC.

Second, consider the colors. While not sharply contrasting, the variegation in each colorway is enough to overpower any complicated stitch patterning. I consider this a blessing, though, because it frees you from thinking about what you should be knitting and lets you choose something more meditative in its simplicity.

Fine Art will retail for $29.95 per skein, each skein containing a generous 437 yards. A 400-yard skein of Colinette Jitterbug will run you $25, 420 yards of Tosh Merino Light $19.50, and those are both 100% Merino.

The release of Fine Art could be seen as a sign that we've reached the tipping point with hand-dyed sock yarns. The work of all those lone people in their kitchens has finally built upon itself, skein by skein, until one of the biggest and most venerable yarn companies in the world has finally jumped on board.

But there's more to it than that. It would've been very easy for Rowan to jump on the bandwagon years ago, providing a basic hand-dyed superwash Merino sock yarn like all the others. But they didn't. They waited until the right opportunity presented itself.

While conforming to market standards, they managed to choose a path less traveled—they picked a thoughtful blend of unexpected fibers, spun well, and produced by people who seem to care about building a production infrastructure that benefits more than just their pocketbook. We'll get to see how the yarn is received, and if it succeeds. I hope it does because I'd love to see what they do next.