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!