Swans Island is celebrating thirty years in business: 1992–2022.
It is somehow fitting that we have spanned two millennia, as thirty years of dedicated blanket making feels somehow historical. Thirty years is a solid anniversary to be celebrating. We are still in the prime of life, but old enough to know ourselves and be masters of our craft.
“We are still in the prime of life, but old enough to know ourselves and be masters of our craft.”
Thirty years ago on Swans Island, we started with an idea: How could we make a contemporary blanket that our ancestors would recognize and appreciate for its quality and beauty? This simple question involved solving a great many modern-day questions that our progenitors could not have imagined.
What sort of loom makes the sort blanket we want to produce? Most historical blankets were actually woven on narrow looms and then stitched together. Those old hand looms were not practical for weavers plying their trade day after day and living into a healthy old age. We fortunately found a new company, AVL, that had just solved this dilemma. They made new hand looms that could produce a 90” width and had some labor and back saving features, but were still hand looms—one weaver making one blanket at a time. Voilà, problem solved.
Where could we find yarn that that wasn’t “run of the mill”?
We did not want just basic “run of the mill” yarn in our blankets. The fill (weft) yarns that were available were produced with an emphasis on price and thus were not of a quality that interested us. Hand spun yarn was wonderful, and what early blankets were made with, but completely impractical. Enter the Green Mountain Spinnery, an upstart right in neighboring Vermont. They took fleece we sent them, scoured it organically, and then spun a singles yarn using the woolen system (like our ancestors). A perfect source, and great partners, for a yarn worthy of weaving special blankets.
Where would we get the fleece to make this special yarn?
There are many breeds of sheep out there and each seemed to have an ideal use: some for socks, some for sock heels, some for rugs, some for sweaters, etc. Word had it that the Corriedale breed had actually been developed for blanket production some one hundred years prior. It had great crimp (coil), it was not too fine (flimsy) nor too coarse (scratchy) and it was available from two Midwestern farms that were happy to provide fleece for a venture such as ours.
What should our blankets look like?
This is an essential question to answer if one wants to be in business. We were inspired by living on the coast of Maine so we made blankets that look like they came from here: restrained, subtle, simple designs, the colors we see around us—granite, blue ocean, autumn leaves.
How could we mark our products as unique?
We wanted a symbol that marked our goods and something that could only be woven by hand, thus serving as a seal of authenticity. We designed our weaver’s mark, or logo, with four squares, two over two and a rectangle on the right side of the squares. It is elegant and in the negative space spells ABC for the Atlantic Blanket Company. Little known fact—that our parent name is that. Our better-known brand name was a compromise between our two founders: one wanted the more formal Atlantic Blanket Company and the other the more evocative, Swans Island Blankets. The latter really stuck and as we grew our product offerings we become Swans Island Company.
Should we have more variety of color than what the natural fleece produced?
Or just the all-natural ivories, browns and earthy greys made by blending the two? We started with no dyed colors, but that grew a little boring. Our first colors were made in a maple sugar vat using natural dye materials: indigo, madder root, cochineal, kamala. All hand manipulated in small lots.
Dyeing skeins by hand imparts beautiful variegation to the tones. There is nothing monotoned in nature. A rose for example, upon close inspection, has many shades of red. We have since also included synthetic dye substances along with the plant-based ones which gives us more color possibilities and in some cases longer lasting colors. Regardless of the dye substance, each color is made in a small tank with hands-on craft and stunning results.
What would be our level of commitment to so many details?
We made a conscious decision early on that we would not bypass or skimp on any of the details required to make the best product we possibly could. From picking out farm chaff with surgical tweezers (because we would not burn it out with harsh chemicals) to hand tying thousands of knots every time we changed the loom to a different design, to embroidering custom monograms by hand with old-fashioned cross stitches.
One has to go back to the well on a regular basis to renew that commitment to detail. And that commitment is refreshed every time we hear the love and admiration our customers feel toward Swans Island Company and the blankets they’ve purchased to sleep under and give. We often receive hand-written notes such as this:
“Over the last few years, we have come to greatly appreciate the dedication of your team and the quality of your products. As I may have mentioned to you, a Swans Island blanket is our wedding present of choice for very special people… and they always appreciate what a wonderful gift it is.
We are now thirty years old.
The answers to the above questions continue to form the bedrock of what we do at Swans Island. Today, we are not just Swans Island Blankets but we are Swans Island Company. We have stayed true to our original intention while evolving in ways that more broadly serve our customer’s needs. We have done that by offering different price points and products that allow for multiple points of entry into the Swans Island world. This includes the ability to wear Swans Island in the form of hand-dyed knitwear. To create one’s own Swans Island products with hand knitting yarns. To carry your belongings inside a Swans-Island-made or curated bag and to sleep in the ultimate Swans Island bed, with our luxurious linen sheets.
Thirty years and counting.
We are looking forward to our next chapter, as we continue to grow and continue to make new and beautiful things for your Swans Island home and life. If I’m still writing to you thirty years from now I know we will still be doing all of the above and more, but certainly with our original intention securely at the foundation of all that we do.
Bill Laurita, president
Bill Laurita — Way back when . . . and now!