The Swans Island process is a labor of love and a meditation on the beauty and value of a handmade life. We approach our weaving and dyeing in a way that honors traditions of craft in order to create a more sustainable future. Each piece is created with techniques honed throughout centuries of fiber arts. Our wool is first carefully selected; each blade of grass removed from the fleece by hand. Washed only in organic soaps that leave the inherent lanolin behind, the wool is then spun, dyed, and woven with age-old techniques.
Our organic fiber is spun in a certified organic mill. Our mill is one of only 4 in the United States that has a Global Organic Textile Standards certification. That means that the mill must be inspected and must conform to certain criteria to be considered organic. What this means in layman’s terms is that less harsh chemicals are used in processing, thus helping our yarn retain more natural lanolin than many other commercially produced yarns. Our extra fine merino is soft enough to wear next to your skin. After knitting and blocking, your finished projects will bloom to have a beautiful soft luster and a wonderful feel.
Our Dye Process
Our yarns are skein dyed. The spun yarn arrives at our facility on cones. We then wind it into skeins, wash it to remove any residual spinning oils and prepare it for dyeing. We then load the skeins onto large racks which get submerged into large, custom built dye tanks. Our dye process is unique in the world of natural dyers. Our large production tanks have been built to accomodate around 80 pounds of yarn in each dyelot – that’s around 360 skeins!
Depending on the recipe for each color, the yarns remain in the tanks anywhere from a few minutes to overnight. Some of our colors require multiple dips into different colored vats to achieve a richly layered look and variegated coloring. How the yarn hangs to dry, how long it stays in the dye, and varying temperatures in different areas of the tank are all variables that affect the unique properties of each and every skein.
Synthetic dyes are derived from petroleum. Natural dyes are produced from living things with little or no processing. They produce a wide range within each dyed color, much like the harmonious colors in the natural world. Our hues are achieved by using only natural dyestuffs.
One of the things that differentiates dying with natural dyes from dyeing with synthetic dyes is that each batch of natural dyestuff is unique. When and where were the dye plants grown? How much rain fell that year? What kind of soil conditions were present? All these things affect each different batch of dye materials. When the dyes are added to the vats there are more variables. How much mineral was in our well water that day? What was the pH of the soap we used to wash the yarns after dyeing? The results of each dye lot will vary each time. Our dyers are highly skilled artisans, making unique decisions about the color achieved in each lot of yarn that goes through the dye house.
Our colors are the colors of the natural world, made only with insects, minerals, and plants. The results of these efforts are heirloom-quality pieces–each one unique, timeless, and beautiful. All of our yarn colors are found in nature and work beautifully together. When asked “How do you choose your colors?” we like to answer “We don’t; our colors choose us!” In our color development process we don’t try to match to current “fashion trends”. Rather, we test out various formulas, with a certain range or target color in mind. Often, many of the colors that we discover along the way we find to be as lovely or more so, than the original shade we set out to create.
When selecting colors to go into our collection, we must consider the complexity of the production dyeing process, how possible it will be to replicate the color, the availability of the raw dye materials, and many other things. We don’t have chemical formulas found in a book–we must develop the unique formula for each color we make. The range of beautiful shades that can come from natural dyes is amazing and we’re excited to continue developing new colors to bring to you. Each one is subtle, sophisticated and has a richness not found in other solid, chemically dyed yarns. The history of natural dyeing is a long and rich one and we are proud to be carrying on this time-honored textile tradition.