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Category: Inside the Studio

Spotlight: Michele Rose Orne

Michele OrneToday 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.DSC_0950_2

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!

Celebrating Family Legacies: Shelby

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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. 

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Celebrating Family Legacies: Alessandra

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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.

Artisan spotlight Swans Island Weaver Alexandra

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.

Artisan spotlight Swans Island Weaver AlexandraNext time we’ll be featuring Shelby’s interview and her legacy item.

Custom Blanket in Tar Heel Blue and Summer Weight

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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.

Tar Heel Custom blanket

Natural Dyes

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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.

 

Natural dye process at Swans Island

 

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.

Dried Cochineal for the natural dye process at Swans Island

 

These students are breaking up the roots of the Alkanet plant, which will be later used to create a deep purple. Notice how it’s staining their gloves!
natural dye process at Swans Island

 

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.

Cochineal for red, part natural dye process at Swans Island

 

Natural dyestuffs in their pots!  Tansy, Butternuts, Alkanet root and Butternut wood shavings.
Assortment of natural dyes in their pots

 

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.

Yellow is the most common natural dye

 

The beginning stages of the Cochineal dyepot!  After some heat is added, these yarns will turn a deep, rich red.
Cochineal Dyepot natural dye progress

 

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 jackie@swansislandcompany.com

Behind the Scenes: At the Spinnery

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I recently had the privledge of visiting two of New England’s wool spinneries, S & D spinning mill in Milbury, Massachusetts and Jagger Brothers spinnery in Springvale, Maine.  I just love New England’s textlle history, from cordage plants to dyehouses, spinneries and weaving mills.  Sadly, few of these mills still exist today, but a few treasures still spin on, and S & D is one of them.  They occupy an amazing old brick building that is America’s oldest continuously running mill.  Talk about patina!  S & D is a woolen spinning mill, which has to do with the style of yarn they are able to produce.  They  take raw materials and process them into yarns.  Below is a mountain of wool that has been sprayed with an oil mixture to condition it and control the static.  It will rest like this for a day or so before heading to the picker.

At S&D Spinning Mill, a wool processing mill

The picker is a big messy machine that fulffs up and picks apart the wool so it is nice and loose.  If the yarn is going to have more than one fiber type, they throw it all into the picker and the blending begins.
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Spring

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Welcome Spring!

Swans Island Saco River Dryhouse

It would seem that Spring has finally sprung here in the Northeast. We are always inspired by the natural palette that exists around us, and with that in mind, have been hard at work developing the color line for our new almost-in-stores yarn, Eco-wash. We are really excited about this yarn, it is organic merino that has been gently treated with an organic enzyme to render it washable. read more

A little more on Indigo

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In honor of our Limited Edition Indigo Breeze throw, we wanted to share a little about the process of indigo dyeing. Indigo has a long tradition of providing deep, rich blue shades to every aspect of the textile industry. It is unique in the natural dye world, as it’s pigment is insoluble in water and must be reduced and oxygenated in order to release it’s dye potential. Dyeing with Indigo is a broad topic, but in a nutshell in order to dye with indigo, you must create a dye vat with precise chemical specifications: pH, oxygen levels and temperature. If any of the conditions are unbalanced, the indigo vat will not fulfill it’s color obligations. Our potent organic Indigo comes from India, in powder form.

Swans Island Indigo Dyeing Powder

Indigo powder

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Staff Blanket Spotlight: Becky’s Blanket

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One of the perks of being on the Swans Island team is that every year, you get to create and keep a blanket of your very own.  Check out the blanket that our talented seamstress and monogram designer Becky designed for herself.  It’s a beautiful oatmeal base accented with alternating stripes of raspberry, brown, and early thyme — inspiration enough to introduce in your own Swans Island custom blanket.
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Swans Island Company, Handcrafted in Maine USA Since 1992

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