Today on the blog we’re excited to feature the first part of an interview with Michele Rose Orne, Partner and Creative Director at Swans Island. Michele has been designing hand knits for over 25 years. She brings a rich combination of passion and experience to Swans Island’s line of all-natural, hand-dyed yarns and timeless patterns that are inspired by classic favorites and daily life along the coast of Maine. Michele is the author of Inspired to Knit (2008), and has published her patterns in many knitting magazines and now designs for Swans Island.
Could you tell us a little about what you did before you joined the Swans Island Team?
Before becoming a partner in Swans Island, I was a long-time freelance knitwear designer for many major yarn companies and major knitting magazines. I graduated from Yale in 1985 and moved to NYC to worked in the garment industry as a knitwear designer (Knit design was not something I studied at school… it was just a hobby!). That experience took me around the world to London, Paris, Italy, Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, mainland China and various parts of the US both designing and working on production teams making large volumes of machine and hand knit goods that were sold in major retailers across the country. (I even did a stint designing hand knit “ugly” Christmas sweaters for a few years—tens of thousands of them—that job paid for the addition on my house!)
I designed finished knit goods for large retailers and labels such as Talbots, Anne Taylor, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Eddie Bauer, Nautica, and more. During that time I also did freelancing knit pattern designs for companies including Classic Elite, Tahki Stacey Charles, Reynolds, and magazines/books including Vogue Knitting, Interweave Knits, etc until 2002 when I “retired” after the birth of my fourth child. The international travel was fun at the time, but impossible with 4 kids! I started to get back into the design world in 2008 with publication of a book with Interweave Press.
Then in 2009 my friend Tom Laurita, who is also on the board of Swans Island approached me for some advice about the yarns that Swans Island was making. They had received a few inquiries from interested knitters whether or not they sold the yarns used to make their blankets. Up until that time the answer had been no. I agreed to “consult” and gave them some advice about the yarn and hand knitting industry and I came on board as an investor and partner in the company in 2010. As it was a small company just up the road from my house, it seemed like a good opportunity to do something related to my previous life as a designer and yarn fanatic without all the far-flung travel.
What’s Your Role at Swans Island?
After working in so many environments abroad, and designing for other people, (many times things that I wasn’t particularly fond of on a personal level) I was excited for the opportunity to build something from the ground up that was based in the USA that had a classic design sensibility as well as a dedication to quality and Maine. It was important to me that I could have control over the creative process. I initially came into the company on a very part time basis (I still had four young kids!) as the Yarn Division Director to develop a yarn business from scratch.
At that time, all the dyeing was done on the porch of the 1790’s farmhouse in Northport, in a couple of small pots on burners. There was no way that model was scaleable—so we built a big new dyehouse and learned how to dye our own naturally dyed yarns on a somewhat more commercial level. It was a work in progress with a substantial learning curve! We developed our own unique dyeing technique in large 500 gallon tanks—and we have become the only large scale commercial natural dyehouse in the country. My contribution was to coax the expansion of the yarn offerings from a merino fingering to add worsted and grow to 22 colors. I designed an initial offering of about 6 patterns, designed skein bands, color cards, and all the other materials needed to develop a sales presentation and attend The National Needle Arts (TNNA) trade show. Our first show was a huge success, even with our limited offering of 18 colors. The gorgeous saturation in our naturally dyed colors was not available anywhere else in the market and struck a chord with buyers and yarn shops.
Since then I have continued to be heavily involved with growing the yarn portion of our business—I have designed many of the patterns for the Swans Island collection and have directed the development of several other new yarns.We continue to offer our original naturally dyed collection but now offer 5 different yarn bases in multiple weights with well over 100 different color recipes, and we continue to develop new, domestically produced, high quality yarns. I am involved in every step of the process from fiber sourcing, to spinning, to setting the color palettes, and working with designers to develop the pattern support for all those lines. It remains a priority to focus on the sourcing of the fiber, the quality level of the fiber, and the high quality level of the finished product. Our very talented yarn team brings an amazing skill set and level of dedication to this process—we are all fiber and knitting fanatics and we each bring our passion for fine fibers and years of varied experiences into every product we make.
In addition to that yarn stuff, I evolved from Yarn Director to become the Creative Director of the whole company. So with that, I have become much more heavily involved in every aspect of the company. For those that only know our yarns, Swans Island was actually first known for our beautiful handwoven blanket collections. A feature by Martha Stewart and purchases by notables such as Mrs. Obama have propelled the small company to worldwide acclaim. I am now involved in the planning and execution of marketing, product packaging and branding, as well as all product development. We have put a great deal of effort lately into developing a line of knit products that are made with our yarns. We are working closely with several domestic knitting mills to produce a line of knit accessories which have been selling out in our new Camden store this summer. I am involved in designing and developing new products for our woven blanket lines as well. Pretty much anything that needs to be designed, I’m either doing it or directing it! It is exciting to be involved in the creation of so many beautiful products but also to be so thoroughly entrenched in the making of them. I go to the farms where the sheep live, go to the spinning mills where the yarn is spun, work in the dyehouse to develop the colors, design myself and work with designers to develop the styles and patterns, and work on the branding and presentation of the finished products. I am responsible for conceiving and setting the tones for our photoshoots and working closely with the photographers to try and convey a Swans Island look. I attend every photoshoot to oversee the images that capture our products. Many of these roles as Creative Director are new and evolving, so every day brings exciting new opportunities for me to learn something.
We recently opened our new flagship retail store in downtown Camden—st three minutes from my home. I was involved in selecting and designing the space there was well: layout, finishes, colors, signs, everything! It is a busy time here as Swans Island and the future only holds more promise as the brand continues to grow and more people become aware of us. We really go to extremes to pay attention to every detail of everything we do. Swans Island is truly an authentic American brand. Being involved in every single step, from farm to finish, is a lot of work…but it’s also pretty cool. Not many jobs have this much room for creative expression.
In our next post we’ll be asking Michele more about her current knitwear design and her designs for Swans Island!
Today’s Legacy Story comes from Swans Island Legacy Contest Winner, Carey from Nashville, TN.
This Peter Rabbit quilt was made by my mother in 1982 when she was pregnant with me. I can only imagine the patches were sewn while she was daydreaming about days, months, and years to come with her first child. I have loved this quilt my entire life and it has accompanied me through many adventures! Growing up in Nashville, TN, my college years in Charlottesville, VA, young adult years in New York City, and finally back to Nashville where I am raising a family of my own. It lived through over 11,000 days and had become tattered and worn, many of the patches shred.
When my mother asked me what I wanted as a gift during my pregnancy with my daughter, I told her that all I wanted was for her to repair my Peter Rabbit quilt so it could be passed on to Campbell. She did a beautiful job reworking the quilt and I know those days at her sewing machine were filled again with daydreams of her first granddaughter. Campbell and I have already spent many precious days wrapped together in this special quilt and I only hope it will accompany her on adventures of her own!
I am sure you also notice her beautiful Swans Island blanket! This has become a tradition in my family after my parents stumbled upon the company while visiting Maine several years ago, before they had any grandchildren. During the tour, my father decided he would purchase a blanket to bring home- a baby blanket he would give to the first grandchild born. Unbeknownst to him, I was pregnant at the time with my son! Oliver received the white and yellow baby blanket purchased on that first trip. Since then, my parents have visited again and now my nephew and baby girl have also been lucky enough to receive their own Swans Island blankets!
Today’s post comes from the President of Swans Island, Bill Laurita.
I own a lot of Swans Island Blankets. After all, I am the head of the company and truly love sleeping under a Swans Island Blanket. It sound’s crazy, but I actually enjoy making the bed in the morning and watching my blanket float over the sheets and settle in with its rich texture and gorgeous color.
A summer weight indigo queen, is my favorite. We made that blanket in the first couple of months after we moved the company from Swans Island to the coast in Northport. My wife, Jody, was our first dyer. We decided that we would do all of the indigo dyeing for the winter, summer, and indigo throw blankets at once. This proved to probably be not the best idea. Indigo is almost a separate art form from other natural plant dyeing. There have to be many protocols in place so that things do not become a complete mess. Well, we hadn’t developed those systems yet. Jody dove into dyeing what for us at the time was a huge amount of yarn: 100 pounds.
It was not long before indigo was everywhere. It was on our clothes, smudged on our faces, we were walking it all over the weaving studio, the showroom and our apartment (at the time we lived on top of the showroom). It started to feel like the wheels might be coming off the bus, we couldn’t seem to tame the indigo. In every serious endeavor there seems to come a point where the existential question, “can we do this?”, presents itself. This was it. We looked at each other, wiped the indigo off our faces, which only smudged it more, and decided then and there that we were not going to let indigo defeat us.
We scrubbed the place from top to bottom, organized some better protocols for the next go around, and realized that despite the mess, Jody had dyed some stunningly beautiful indigo yarn. Out of that batch came the our indigo throw blanket – still just as beautiful as the day we brought it home. When I fold that blanket back to hop into bed at night, if I’m still awake and alert enough, I get just a slight tinge of that feeling of being overwhelmed and of not giving into it. That experience is in my blanket.
I continue to be inspired by the challenge and beauty of creating hand crafted blankets each and every day. Our newest endeavor, the Whitecaps Throw, was inspired by living on the coast of Maine. Every day I come into work I drive through Lincolnville Beach, right on Penobscot Bay. Very often the seas are churning, producing white caps amidst the deep blue waters. Sometimes, when the sky is overcast the sea takes on a more charcoal hue. For years I had wanted to somehow capture the impact that compelling view had on me in a throw blanket. We tried several versions over the years, but nothing really captured the right feel. Last year Jackie, our everything fiber expert, was working with some roving. Roving is fiber in a state after raw and before yarn. Everyone at Swans Island loved the quality and feel of Jackie’s roving. Laura, our floor manager, decided to use a little of it in making her employee blanket (everyone at Swans Island gets to make their own blanket once a year). When I saw that woven into Laura’s blanket I knew I had found our whitecaps!
We placed our naturally dyed indigo yarn on a grey warp to help get across the quality of the light hitting the water on Penobscot Bay, with the roving artfully placed here and there as whitecaps licking up on the surface when the wind is whipping around. We decided to make a second version with our charcoal yarn to better capture this effect when skies are grey. Each piece is woven to the weavers sense for how best to convey these sentiments.
Today we continue our series introducing you to our weavers. At Swans Island we hand craft each piece to become an exquisite piece to be passed on from one generation to the next. Each family has their own treasured heirloom items. We paint these items with our memories and meaning, cherish each piece as a part of our own family history. These special pieces signify our love–for an individual, a moment in time, or an annual ritual.
Keep reading to learn more about Shelby, one of our weavers, and her the scrapbook she made of her great-grandfather, in this artisan spotlight.
What inspired you to become a weaver and what do you love most about the craft?
I have been a knitter for 20 years and have always enjoyed fiber arts. My Mom taught me to knit when I was a teenager and it was a nice way for us to connect when I was that age. We still enjoy getting together and knitting. I love the process of creating and find it gratifying to be involved in the creation of something beautiful and tangible. To be able to see and touch what I have made is really rewarding. It’s a great way for me to spend my work day.
What part of you is most engaged by weaving?
I like to create something that is functional and lovely to look at. I’ve worked in the service industry before and while I enjoyed getting to know people, it is not as gratifying as being involved in the creative process. Weaving touches a part of me that has just not been engaged by other work.
Do you have a particular process when you weave? For example, do you listen to certain music, do you have any tricks to throwing the shuttle? Is there a certain way you manage the warp? What’s special about how you weave that differs from any other weaver?
I take a conscientious approach to my weaving. For instance, I’m a stickler for making sure that there are no skips in my selvedge edges. I know that after I have completed weaving a throw it will be going up to the finishing room for stitching the binding and quality control. I’m friendly with that crew and I want to give them a piece that has few if any errors in the weave.
Do you have something something special in your life that you will pass on to your next generation?
My great-grandfather, Robert Weymouth, performed in air shows in the 1960’s through 80’s as Maine’s Flying Farmer. I have very fond memories of him, and I treasure a scrapbook that I made as a young child that contains photos, articles and other memorabilia. Robert started his career as a fighter pilot in World War II. His act really brought out both his skill as a flyer and his sense of humor. After working the crowd, he would hop the fence and run to his J3 Piper named “Mr. Ed”. The shocked crowd would watch as he took off and performed stunts like stalling the engine and hanging out of the cabin.
He passed away in 1987 and Mr. Ed is now part of the Owls Head Transportation Museum collection. I want my son to know about his great-great-grandfather. I hope he gets to know him not just as a performer, but also as a wonderful person who loved his family, made the most of each day, and brought joy to many people’s lives. I see these qualities in my one year old son already, and through him I remember my great-grandfathers joyful smiles and hair raising stunts. ￼
At Swans Island we believe in creating items thoughtfully and responsibly. We craft items that are meant to last and be passed on from one generation to another. Today we’d like to introduce you to one of our weavers in this artisan spotlight. Alessandra hand weaves blankets and wraps here at Swans Island.
What inspired you to become a weaver?
The first time I visited Swans Island I brought my kids and we toured the workshop. The sales person gave my kids raw fleece which they played with while we watched the weavers ply their trade. I knew then, in the back of my mind, that I would come to work here some day. The fact that weaving is a traditional woman’s trade really inspired me.
What part of you is most engaged by weaving?
My timing comes through my feet. My feet need to be in rhythm with the loom in order to engage the shed pedal. My non-work life is very busy and involved in a multitude of daily tasks. My work at Swans allows me to be in the now, focused on the task of building this blanket. I’m able to get lost in the concentration.
Do you have a particular process when you weave? For example, do you listen to certain music, do you have any tricks to throwing the shuttle? Is there a certain way you manage the warp? What’s special about how you weave that differs from any other weaver?
When I get to my loom I like to do a thorough check of the loom. I pay particular attention to the pedal position. I like to listen to classic rock because I know all the words and love the uptempo beat.
Each of us have items that are special to us–legacy items that are passed down from one generation to another, could you tell us about something that’s special to you?
My Granddad retired the year I was born. He became my primary babysitter. I’d spend the summers with him on Sanibel Island in Florida and he’d take me fishing, shelling, and woodworking in his workshop. Each day we’d spend hours on the beach watching sand pipers weaving in and out of the waves. From an early age, I brought him his tools as he worked on various woodworking projects. Eventually, I was allowed to help finish sand the pieces. Granddad made many carvings of sand pipers, and I have one that I actually sanded. It lives in my kitchen next to my cookbooks.
My own children knew my grandfather when he was alive and love to hear stories about my early childhood with him. They are captivated by the carved sand piper. It’s a piece of him that is also a part of our household and reminds me of those warm summer days spent with Granddad.
Our blankets tell a lot of stories. Of people, place, history, and tradition. But we’re always ready to add new chapters, especially at the request of our customers.
Last summer, one of these customers visited us in our Northport showroom, excited about the prospect of a custom blanket. He talked with General Manager Scott McCormac about what he had in mind: a summer-weight blanket with larger gingham-type checks in the colors of the University of North Carolina, where he is a professor. It was going to be a special Christmas gift for his wife.
Coincidentally, Swans Island President Bill Laurita had been wanting to translate the large-checked design of our winter-weight blankets into a summer-weight version. “Making a custom blanket like this was the perfect opportunity for us to do a little research and development,” says McCormac, “and find ways to perfect the blanket.”
Wovens Production Manager Laura Matthews and her weavers warped the 90-inch loom with alternating four-inch swathes of blue and white yarn. For the weft, they chose an alternating scheme of white and sky blue. “The interesting thing about this is how dark the indigo seems on the warp,” says McCormac. “But the effect is diminished when combined with the white and sky blue weft. It lends itself nicely to Tar Heel colors”—as well as to the ever-growing Swans Island story.
Here at Swans Island we love to highlight the natural beauty of the materials we use. Our Natural Colors line of yarn uses only the highest quality certified organic merino wool which is spun here in Maine, and then all dyed by hand with natural dyes in our studio here in Northport, ME. We’re lucky to have working with us our color creator and dye maven Jackie Ottino Graf, and today we’re sharing some photos from a class she taught last summer on the natural dye process.
When using natural materials to dye yarn instead of adding synthetic dye to a pot of water, we add vegetable matter (plants, minerals, or insects). This is dried Cochineal, the dried bodies of the cochineal beetle, used for centuries to create rich, vibrant shades of red. At Swans Island, we use Cochineal in our Garnet and Beetroot colorways.
In this pot the Cochineal beetles have been finely ground and boiled with water to create the dye bath. In Medieval Europe, Cochineal was highly prized, and used to dye the robes worn by Cardinals in the Catholic church.
After the natural dyes are mixed we place the yarn in the pot and heat dyepot so that the yarn absorbs the color. Yellow is the most common color achieved with natural plantstuffs, this pot contains the pigment from the Tansy plant.
Would you like to take a natural dye workshop with Jackie? You can find her next at Halcyon Yarn in Bath, Maine where she’ll be teaching a Natural Dye Workshop and an Indigo Dye Workshop. For a complete list of 2015 offerings, feel free to contact her at email@example.com
You can’t miss Margo Moore Interiors. Driving North on Route 1 into downtown Camden, the shop is one of the first points to catch your eye. Its ever-vibrant, ever-changing street-front window display room engenders a distinct joie de vivre that is the mark of the Margo Moore sensibility.
Walking into the shop gives one a complete picture of the breadth of its offerings: boldly colored home wares, elegant furnishings, bedding, carpets, lighting, soaps, gift trinkets, and more can be found for sale on the first floor of the shop. Also on the first floor is their famous display room usually showcasing a thoughtfully laid out and well-curated bedroom or cottage dining room. On the second floor is an interior design studio complete with thousands of fabric swatches, a textile library, trims and wallpapers, and other design samplings. The desks of Marcy Van der Kieft and her daughter, Megan, also live on the second floor.
It is a family affair, with Marcy at the helm, her husband Peter focused on the marketing and the designing of the window displays, and Megan instilling her own personal touch as a partner in both the interior design aspect of the business as well as in the curation of the shop’s offerings. On this particular day, Megan and staff are rearranging displays on the first floor. Marcy is tending to her golden lab, a friendly fixture at the shop.
We’ve long been fans of Margo Moore Interiors, which has been a staple of the community for more than 40 years. We were so thrilled when they started to carry Swans Island blankets, so we decided to stop in one day and hear a little more about the history of the shop, which we were surprised to learn started neither in Maine nor in interior design. The seed was first planted with Marcy’s mother (and the shop’s namesake), Margo, who opened a women’s clothing shop in Darien, Connecticut. Margo’s passion for fashion and clothing and her keen sense of style greatly influenced daughter Marcy, who went on to a career in textiles and fashion, which included a stint as associate fashion editor for Mademoiselle. Marcy took over the Darien shop but eventually moved headquarters to Camden and shifted her focus on to interiors. Ever since then, Marcy and Co. have established themselves as authorities on the Maine style vernacular — transforming houses into homes by incorporating their distinct warmth, meshing old traditions with new, refreshed styles, and elevating simple elements with pops of color or with unique twists on pattern combinations. All the while ever respectful of and highlighting the beauty and splendor of Maine.
“This is a very special, magical place,” says Megan. “I’ve traveled to a lot of places, but there’s nothing like Maine. And the sense of community you find right here in this pocket of the midcoast is something we don’t take for granted, not in our personal lives nor in our work.”
Indeed they are designers who pride themselves on their ability to listen to their clients and to balance this with their own respective design philosophies, which, as you can imagine for a mother and daughter, are slightly distinct from one another. Marcy favors traditional styles and bold colors. Megan, who grew up in Camden and graduated from the Wentworth Institute of Design, has a more understated and modern palette. Yet they work together in complementary ways. And their experiences have offered them an intuitiveness and a knack for what patterns and styles will go well together.
“I was working on a woman’s bedroom and she grabbed a bunch of blankets that she then laid out on the bed for styling,” says Megan. “They looked completely fine and beautiful, but I had a sense that I could elevate that warmth and sophistication.”
So she made a suggestion: Replace the blankets with Swans Island blankets. Immediately, Megan says, it changed the setting of the bed and the space, giving it beautiful, understated hues of color and a style that was both classic and modern.
“It just looked so elegant and perfect,” says Megan. “When Mom and I believe in something, we can sell it. When we understand and know the product, like we do Swans Island blankets, there is an organic way in which we are able to incorporate those products into the style of a home. What I love about Swans Island is its natural look; it’s not overly colorful or pretentious. There is a natural touch and feel that is unique to these blankets.”
“Part of our job is not just to make a room distinct but to also make it feel like home. When you add in accents of Maine, it really transforms a house into a home.”
There are few things more comforting than curling up in a handmade blanket on a cold day. Blankets keep us warm in bed, on the couch, on our porch or at our writing desk. They soothe us when we’re unwell, provide warmth for our little ones asleep in bed, and help us unwind after a long day at work.
But what separates Swans Island winter-weight handmade blankets from most other handmade blankets is that our wool blankets are made in the USA and are designed with both practicality and beauty in mind, providing breathable warmth and an inimitably classic style. Thanks to the processes we honor and use at Swans Island, much of the natural lanolin in the wool is retained, making for the softest, most supple and loftiest handmade blanket you’ll ever own. And each Swans Island winter blanket is hand-woven with two layers of 100 wool, which means extra warmth for colder climes. And with a handful of styles to choose from, you’ll find one that suits your personal style. Our natural colors range from solid colors—like our all-indigo or all-white blanket—to checked colors—like our white with yellow checks and the popular white with grey checks. There is also our rare wool equinox blanket, made from naturally brown and black sheep, and designed in longitudinal, alternating lines of dark and light.
Best of all, the lasting quality of our winter blankets make them wonderful heirlooms, cherished and memorialized from one generation to the next. Create memories with your very own Swans Island handmade blanket.
Don’t forget to check out our event this Friday, October 24th at Portland Dry Goods! Swans Island Artisans, dyer Jackie Graf and weaving studio manager Laura Matthews, will be on-hand for demonstrations in spinning, dyeing, and weaving – all processes involved in making our beautiful blankets, throws, wraps, scarves and cowls.
Jackie has been with Swans Island for 5 years, and is heavily involved with product development and colors in the yarn department. She is an accomplished fiber artist who also teaches spinning and natural dyeing at fibers events throughout the country. She will bring her dyepot and spinning skills to PDG for an afternoon of fiber and color! Laura has a degree in fibers and is the weaving manager at the Swans Island studios. She creates custom designs for our clients and keeps the looms running smoothly. She will bring her weaving and knitting skills!
Weekend escapes about Maine in October are our favorite times of the year. The leaves turn delicious hues of red, gold, and orange, giving every town a vibrant glow. Pumpkins abound. And the colder days and nights call for light layers and hats. Swans Island cowls and scarves are perfect for fall days–crafted with the finest organic merino wool and using processes that uphold their natural loft, they’re the quintessence of style and warm sophistication.
We love the way they keep us warm on short walks into town or on long drives to our favorite leaf-peeping spots right here in Maine. Here is a short list of where we like to play, explore, and soak in the natural beauty of Maine. Where do you like to spend your days in October?
Top 5 Spots to visit this Fall for weekend escapes in Maine:
Finding a unique wedding gift for the couple can be challenging. The perfect gift is something that is stylish and beautiful, as well as timeless; something both the bride and groom can enjoy; and something meaningful that can be passed on from one generation to the next. Swans Island products make exquisite gifts and come elegantly packaged in a Swans Island gift box. Handcrafted with care, using the best fibers and processes, Swans Island blankets and throws are a one-of-a-kind way to commemorate new beginnings. We’ll even help you customize them for a uniquely personal, elegantly packaged gift.
Visit our new Swans Island Company Wedding Page, and let us help you choose the perfect gift for the perfect couple! When you arrive at Swans Island Wedding just fill out the form and we will be in touch.