Like any other state in the union, Maine has its share of the tacky, the cheap, and the flashy. But those three words aren’t even in the first 100 words that come to mind when you think of Maine. Gorgeous would certainly be on the list, as would rocky and reserved. Mostly, though, the word that comes to mind is authentic.
Swans Island Company, whose line of handwoven blankets spawned a bushel of yarns, accessories, and patterns, springs from that Maine ethos. Their organic, naturally dyed fibers are authentic—well made and luminous. Swans Island was an obvious yarnmaker to include in Field Guide No. 2: Fair Isle.
The Asterisk Hat and Dot Cowl use Swans Island All American to lovely effecT: Airy, soft, gorgeous.
Creative Director Michèle Rose Orne started at Swans Island seven years ago and was a pivotal player in developing the yarns, which were launched after Martha Stewart featured the now iconic blankets in her magazine. Michèle moved to Maine 25 years ago, after starting her career in the garment industry in New York City and traveling constantly to Asia.
She kept her hand in that part of the field even after moving to Maine with her husband to raise their four children. This was before the internet, when she’d have to regularly meet the FedEx guy and warm up her fax machine. While she misses the travel a little (and side gigs like designing ugly Christmas sweaters), Michèle says that her work with Swans Island gives her more opportunity to put her stamp on all parts of a company’s product.
Michèle Rose Orne
“Anything to do with how anything looks falls onto my plate,” she says. “I design all the knitwear. I oversee the concepts for the yarn, the color palettes, and the twist of the yarn. I oversee what all the marketing materials look like. I worked on the interior of our retail store in Camden, including designing the hang tags and the labels. Sometimes it’s a lot to do all those things, but it keeps it interesting. It’s more fun than doing the same thing over and over again!”
Hand dyeing, one batch at a time.
Swans Island gives Michèle free range to explore what she loves without having to rack up frequent flyer miles. “We have our own dyehouse here,” she says. “It’s fun to be able to come up with a concept and go work directly with the dyer and develop new product ideas on the spot. Because we’re vertically integrated, we can do everything from come up with the actual yarn base and work with the spinning mills to get the right twist and make it into something great.
Made in America: yarns, dyeing, designs.
“But that’s not the end of the project. We can make stuff out of it—and it’s all done in this country. That’s exciting. It’s challenging and exciting both,” she says.
A favorite shade emerges from the dye vat.
That’s not to say that all parts of the process always run smoothly. “There are still surprises—like, oh, that didn’t come out the color we were expecting because it rained yesterday and there’s more iron in the water today. Huh. There are a lot of surprises when you’re working with all-natural dyes,” Michèle says.
It all begins with beautiful base yarns.
But the surprises are just part of the job—and the job keeps growing and changing, just like children do. Michèle is down to one child still at home; the rest are scattered around the Northeast. And the company has grown and changed as well.
“I look at the big picture of where we started as a company that just made handwoven blankets. People were interested in the yarns they were woven from, which at the time came in nine colors and one weight—the weight you need to weave blankets from. To have ideas and a vision and be able to execute them into something that becomes a reality, that’s pretty cool,” she says.
It also feels more authentic and true, both for knitters and the designer.
“For a while I designed ugly Christmas sweaters,” Michèle says. “It paid great—but you can only do that for so long. Now I enjoy designing high quality things I might actually wear. I think I’m more in it for the artistic satisfaction now.”