At the Loom with Swans Island
Crafted from carefully-sourced wool and all-natural dyes, a Swans Island throw is the gift we’d most like to find under our tree. Beautiful and useful, Swans Island textiles have gained a Smithsonian Blue Ribbon for Craft as well as countless fans around the world. We chatted with president Bill Laurita about the roots of wool production in Maine, the making of a Swans Island throw, and how the rugged landscape influences these timeless designs.
terrain: Though you work on the mainland today, you began crafting throws on one of Maine's historic “sheep islands.” Can you tell us about the history of wool production in Maine?
Bill: Not many sheep are raised in Maine now, but the region was once home to many “sheep islands.” Maine’s coastal islands are a perfect environment for raising sheep because they don’t have any natural predators, and there’s no need for fencing. Many of the islands are also all pasture, which helps the wool stay clean so it requires less processing later.Our most special fleece, the natural and dark brown rare wool, still comes from island-raised sheep. Our winter blankets are made entirely from New England fleece-- the closer to home, the better.
terrain: Materials are key for a Swans Island blanket. What is unique about the varieties of sheep that provide the wool for your blankets?
Bill: While our rare wool does come from sheep raised on Maine islands, there isn’t a lot of wool to be found in New England, so we also source high-quality fleece from other places. Our goal is to get the best fleece possible, which can be tricky because we’re very particular. We work with only certified-organic growers, and always take into consideration how the sheep are treated-- that benefits us, too, because good conditions create cleaner fleece to work with. Some years ago, we started working with merino sheep, which produce a very fine, soft fiber. There aren’t any sources of merino in New England, so we work with organic farms in South America.
terrain: How is a Swans Island throw made?
Bill: Once the fleece comes to us, the first step is cleaning. Fleece directly from the sheep can be greasy and dirty, so most processors dip it in acid to burn out the lanolin and chaff. Swans Island throws are unique because we work to preserve the natural lanolin, which creates more supple yarn. Wool without lanolin is like a motor without oil; it can be scratchy and rough. Lanolin stays with the yarn forever-- Ice Age mummies have been found with wool clothing that still contains lanolin.
To preserve the natural qualities of our fleece, we wash it in organic soap before passing it on to the local spinnery that we’ve worked with for 20 years. Once it has been spun into yarn, we weave it into cloth and dye it. The final step is finishing, a pretty laborious process of removing any leftover chaff by hand.
terrain: What drew you to the idea of crafting blankets by hand?
Bill: Our founder, John Grace, was initially inspired to found Swans Island when he discovered some vintage wool blankets. They were at least 100 years old, but still functional and well-crafted. I love being a part of the company because I’m a very detail and process-oriented person. I enjoy taking our raw materials and being involved in every step of the process, seeing how the wool becomes yarn, how that yarn becomes a throw, and how I can make every throw the very best so it will also last 100 years.
terrain: Your wools are colored using natural dyes. Where do you derive your dye ingredients?
Bill: When selecting our dyes, we make sure to choose materials that are color and light-fast, so our throws won’t fade quickly or run in the laundry. Natural dyes have been used for thousands of years, but have become increasingly rare since the invention of synthetic dye in 1850. We source natural dyes from around the world, including indigo, madder root from Turkey, and cochineal, a South American dye made from beetle shells.
terrain: Swans Island is known around the world for quality and craftsmanship. What are some of the characteristics that define your products?
Bill: Our customers tend to have a strong connection with us, and we take that responsibility and trust very seriously. Every time we create a new design, we consider it carefully to make sure it won’t disappoint. Rather than trying to compete with mass-produced products, we are always focused on the details that make our throws the absolute best. Authenticity is important to us-- creating items that have a provenance. We want our blankets to last forever; each one comes with a card that lets the owners write down their names, with spaces for future generations to fill in as well. We also work to develop designs that are traditional with a twist. For example, right now we’re working on our version of the ancient ikat dyeing process.
terrain: We can imagine that a Swans Island blanket would be quite useful during Maine winters. Does the landscape influence your designs?
Bill: I think the timelessness of our look speaks to the coast of Maine-- our blankets couldn’t be produced anywhere else. We like designs that focus on simple, spare lines, nothing busy or trendy. Maine is a very clean environment, both literally, in that it's free from industry, and for its clean shapes and surfaces. Crisp air, clear vistas, water, exposed granite-- our environment is very inspirational.
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What a sweetie she is (the sheep in the photo!) Congratulations on your Smithsonian Blue Ribbon for Craft. I'm fascinated by your cleaning process of the wool--thanks for keeping it natural...I hope to find one of these under my tree.