The Finest Kind: Swans Island Company

_1-signThere’s an expression in Maine used to describe something of top quality or appreciation – finest kind. Maker of iconic blankets, throws and other delights, the Swans Island Company of Northport, Maine is worthy of this vernacular accolade. Swans Island is so special because it invests the time and skill to make products by hand, and make them well.

I had the pleasure of meeting with Bill Laurita, president and general manager, to learn about the company’s time-honored process of making blankets, scarves, yarn and accessories.  Bill also gave me a personal tour of their space. Housed in a 1780s cape style home with exposed beams and wood plank floors, the showroom’s ambiance resembles a cozy bed and breakfast more than a company headquarters and workroom.

Glass jars filled with natural dyestuffs, such as red madder, various roots, and cochineal, which is actually a little insect that yields a powerful crimson-colored dye, greet visitors at its front entrance.

Bill then filled me in about fleece.  Explaining the cross between a Lincoln and a Merino sheep, at first I thought he was starting off with a joke.  Humor aside, the outcome of this encounter in animal husbandry is the famed Corriedale, bred for its soft fleece. Corriedales vary from light to dark in color.

Swans Island’s prized fleece is washed in organic soap and spun by an spinnery in Putney, Vermont.  Bill pointed out this process maintains the lanolin in the wool, which gives the yarn its softness. In contrast, harsh synthetic washing strips the lanolin from the fiber and weakens it. Fleece is then spun on varial spinning frames, which creates wonderfully diverse yarn with a slubby thickness. Fleece is spun as natural-colored, a blended grey made of white and dark fleece, or a chocolately brown, coined as ‘rare’.

A beautiful shot of the showroom

A beautiful shot of the showroom

The cones of yarn are sent back to Swans Island, where they are formed into skeins. If the skeins are to be dyed, they’re done so in small lots.  It’s time-consuming, but dyeing in this way produces yarn with the greatest loft, or fluffiness and is the least intrusive method.  Bill pointed out, “The company’s decision was to go with what’s the best way to do this, not the cheapest.”

Each dye batch is one-of-a-kind, with a wide range of tonal value and color variation.  Bill explained how much dye the wool takes and the disparity between dye materials themselves are affected by weather, annual rainfall, and soil conditions, to name a few. Design by nature, so to speak. Color variation is actually desired by Swans Island, as uniformity is associated with synthetic dyes and dreaded commercial sameness.

Sometimes a color comes out other than what it was intended to, but Swans Island considers it a happy accident and sells it as a second.  With a repertoire of 30 standard colors, I was fortunate to see Tony, one of the dyers, stirring a vat of cutch (an Asian plant) and logwood that was to be over-dyed with indigo overnight and then dipped in an iron bath.  Custom colors (custom anything, really) is possible.

Dye material on display at entrance

Dye material on display at entrance

Laura, one of the weavers, was midway in skillfully weaving a blanket on one of four air-assisted hand looms. The hand looms create an over-under weave to slowly bring the piece to life. “It’s a simple weave that creates a simple product,” Bill added.  What’s not simple are the 3,456 hand-tied knots that have to be contended with when changing over the machine.

Laura will also over-weave the logo in by hand, which is an abstracted, blocky abbreviation of the company’s name.

Traditional striped and checked woven patterns are Swans Island’s mainstay. Checked patterns are actually winter weight, a double-weave blanket that creates air pockets, like a quilt.  The pockets act as insulation, creating heat within the pockets while wicking moisture away from the skin. Summer weight blankets are soft, light and airy – perfect for cozying up on a porch on a chilly evening.

Weaving isn’t the final process. In charge of finishing, Louise straightens the edges, pick out chaff (little bits not removed in cleaning of the fleece) with surgical tweezers while Becky trims up the logo and adds any customized hand-embroidery.  The piece is then soaked in water, spun out and blocked on an antique lace stretcher to dry. Linen storage packaging with built-in aromatic cedar planks are the final destination for these modern-day heirlooms.

Swans Island Company has deep roots – not just in Maine, where it’s been in operation since 1992, but rather in its honor of nature and tradition.  “It’s infused into everything we make.”

link: Swans Island Company

making skeins

making skeins

skeins

skeins

dyed samples

dyed samples

_5-tying

Laura weaving

Laura weaving

detail of logo

detail of logo

blanket on stretcher for finishing

blanket on stretcher for finishing

A view of the main showroom

A view of the main showroom

Natural grey throws

Natural grey throws

Rare wool throws

Rare wool throws

Variegated solid throws

Variegated solid throws

Sweater and knitting yarn

Sweater and knitting yarn

Crates of knitting yarn

Crates of knitting yarn

Baby blankets and pillows

Baby blankets and pillows

Throw pillows and elegant shawl

Throw pillows and wrap

Elegant packaging

Elegant packaging

Front door to Swans Island Company's 1780's farmhouse showroom

Front door to Swans Island Company’s 1780’s farmhouse showroom

Speak Your Mind

*