A Fiber Renaissance

Out of the small farm revival and the rising demand for handcrafted goods comes a new future for Maine textiles.

By Rebecca Martin Evarts / Photographed by Susan Cole Kelly

Everything Nanne Kennedy does to make yarns and blankets happens within a five-hour radius of her Meadowcroft Farm in Washington. To augment the fleece she harvests from her own 125 grass-fed sheep, she buys only from fiber farms that adhere to “strict standards of grass-based systems to minimize petroleum use.” To process her wool, she uses an organic spinnery. To color her yarns, she uses environmentally friendly mineral dyes fixed in seawater and vinegar and slowly heated by solar technology. To weave her blankets, she uses antique power looms at a century-old woolen mill. To make the sweaters she designs, she hires local knitters. “I wanted to create something that was China-proof,” she says. “I’m just trying to keep the whole system alive and kicking.”

Kennedy is part of a fiber crafts revival that is taking place across the state. “Fiber is having a moment,” says Gretchen Jaeger of Halycon Yarn in Bath, a longtime center for knitting, sewing, and fiber arts supplies, “and we’ve got a great textile heritage to build on.”

Not that anyone expects Maine’s shuttered textile mills, once the backbone of the state’s economy, to spring back into action and generate thousands of jobs. Rather, Jaeger says, a new economy is emerging, one that is in part a product of the small farm comeback as farmers expand their businesses and offer more products. It is further fueled by savvy Internet marketing, renewed interest in domestic crafts, such as knitting, spinning, and weaving, and by growing consumer demand for locally and sustainably produced handcrafted goods. “People want to know where things come from,” Jaeger says. “We are seeing a growing interest in the sustainability of the fiber supply chain that parallels the interest in local food.”

Adding to the energy is the addition, in 2013, of a textile and fashion design major at Maine College of Art. Last winter the school hosted a Textiles and Sustainability Think Tank that was attended by students, artists, designers, and representatives from a new generation of textile companies like artisan blanket makers Swans Island and Brahms Mount and sustainable wool clothing maker Ramblers Way. “We had a great conversation about how to build on what we’ve begun in order to develop Maine as a textile hub, involving fiber growers, designers, manufacturers, and retailers,” Jaeger says. “We at Halcyon Yarn are specifically interested in the notion of a fiber shed — creating a viable and growing economic model from dirt to shirt, from sheep to shawl.”

So what does this fledgling textile industry look like? It is a web of small businesses that include farms harvesting fleece from sheep, llamas, alpacas, angora rabbits, and even the occasional yak or musk ox; individual crafters selling their wares at craft fairs and online; dye houses and spinneries, some of which have taken up shop in those old mills; Millenial designers creating stylish clothing and accessories patterns; retail shops and studios offering workspace and equipment to do-it-yourselfers; and manufacturers of blankets, rugs, linens, and other textile products who are buying some — though by no means all — of their materials in Maine. Here is a glimpse at a few.

The Small Farmer

A sunny summer day finds Kelly Corbett in her kitchen, which functions as the command center for Romney Ridge Farm, a sheep-to-shawl yarn company in Woolwich. Skeins of market-ready yarn are heaped on the kitchen table where Corbett’s teenaged daughter (who easily could be cast as the beautiful milkmaid in a costume drama) is just finishing a bowl of cereal. A large dog lumbers through the open door from the deck where Corbett hangs newly dyed yarn to dry. Outside, chickens scratch at the dirt, and a confused rooster crows. Corbett’s iPhone dings, and she glances at it. “Facebook is my thing,” she says.

Corbett’s nearly 3,000 Facebook followers — all actual or potential customers — get frequent updates, with photographs, about life at Romney Ridge. “My followers are passionate about knitting,” she explains, “and most of them live in cities. I guess they like my story. It’s very personal. I feel like I know these people even though I’ve never seen their faces.”

Corbett is, by her own admission, a nontraditional farmer. “For one thing,” she says. “I don’t eat my lambs.” For another, Romney Ridge’s rocky 11 acres don’t have much pasturage, so Corbett supplements her 26 sheep’s diet with organically grown hay. She describes herself as a “yarn engineer,” who starts the yarn-making process with sheep and shearing, has the fleece washed and spun, then skein-dyes it by hand in colors she concocts using low-acid dyes from W. Cushing & Company in Kennebunkport.

Over time, Corbett has had to modify her “all-Maine” stance. Like many organic yarn producers, for example, she processes her yarn at Green Mountain Spinnery in Vermont because it has Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certification. And although she continues to show at venues like Boston’s Greenway Open Market, more and more of her sales occur online.

The Crafting Studios

Seven women and one man, all north of 50, sit companionably in a circle, chatting to the easy music of clack and whir. They have taken their shoes off, the better to manipulate the treadles on the spinning wheels they have brought to this weekly gathering in the showroom of PortFiber, Casey Ryder’s fiber arts shop near Portland’s Back Cove. “Spinning fiber mimics REM sleep, studies have shown this,” says Susan Cossette, who is working wool from curly “teased” fiber and makes fluffy hats. On the opposite side of the circle, Jenny Smith, running between her fingers a fleece mixture of lambs’ wool, angora, and Pygora, concurs.

“I’ve been known to fall asleep at the wheel,” she jokes. “I can also drink and drive.”

In the tradition of the sewing circle, fiber shops around the state are opening their doors to knitters, weavers, and spinners, who enjoy working in the company of others. Ryder, for example, holds workshops and group sessions for weavers and hand-spinners. Looms are set up in one room, and at the back is a small kitchen where Ryder tends her hand dying in a spaghetti pot, her dye recipe book on the counter at her side.

PortFiber’s neighbor, A Gathering of Stitches, takes the concept a step further. Proprietor Samantha Lindgren has established a “maker space” modeled on stitch lounges in other parts of the country. In addition to workshops, there are three kinds of sewing machines, silk-screening and dyeing equipment, a cutting table, and a dress form that can be rented for an hour or up to a week.

On a recent morning, people drift in and out. Regulars inquire about the health of Lindgren’s dog, who has lung issues. A harried woman rushes in. “Do you have a machine that will sew leather?” She’s ecstatic when Lindgren shows her to a heavy-duty model. “I’ll be back,” she exclaims. “There’s nothing like this anywhere else in Maine!”

The Designer

Bristol Ivy is easy to spot among the other customers at Portland’s hip Bard Coffee. She is wearing a simple but elegant hand-knitted beige linen camisole. A knitting project in a luscious blueberry yarn is spread out on the table alongside her iced tea and open laptop. Ivy is one of several members of the yarnerati, as the new generation of knitting designers is known, who call Maine home. Their names — besides Ivy, they include Cecily Glowik MacDonald, Mary Jane Mucklestone, Kristen TenDyke, Carrie Bostick Hoge, and Quince & Co.’s Pam Allen — are well known to members of Ravelry, an online knitting and crochet forum whose 4 million members shop for patterns and yarns, exchange advice, and organize their projects.

As well as designing patterns, Ivy works full time at the New York yarn company Brooklyn Tweed, which recently moved part of its operations to Maine. She racks up another dozen or so hours each week knitting to develop her creations. She writes about knitting, designing, spinning, and more on her blog, Where the Red-Winged Blackbird Flies. “I love every aspect of the knitting business,” she says.

Even with a following, the economics of being a knitting designer are hard. She supplements her income by giving workshops and presentations, as well as appearing at knitting retreats, both here and in Europe.

“The main goal with designing is to establish a reputation so that the residual income on patterns eventually — very eventually — covers the man hours in place,” she says. “It’s a career you pursue because you love it.”

The Manufacturer

Swans Island Company is easy to miss. Located on Route 1 a few miles beyond Lincolnville Beach, the diminutive 1780 farmhouse with a border of pink and purple flowers flanking the front door could easily be mistaken for someone’s home. Which, in fact, it was for Bill Laurita and his wife, Jody, after he and his partners bought the company in 2003 and moved it from the eponymous island to Northport. A small apartment upstairs housed the couple for 2 1/2 years while they acquainted themselves with all aspects of the business. Created almost as a hobby by two retired lawyers 10 years before, the company’s hand-loomed blankets were already famous, having been awarded a Smithsonian Blue Ribbon for Craft. “We fell in love with the aesthetic and the craft,” Laurita says, “and we wanted to make it profitable without renouncing its essential nature.” That meant “not cutting corners, charging what it costs to make the blankets, and keeping it local.”

Today the company makes 1,000 blankets and throws each year, some priced as high as $1,000. All weaving and dying is done in the small barns behind the farmhouse. But as the company has expanded from blankets to wraps, yarns, and knits, Maine can no longer provide sufficient fiber, so it buys most of its fleece out of state. The fleeces are sent to the same Vermont spinnery that Kelly Corbett uses. The yarns are then dyed onsite, using natural dyes, such blues from the indigo plant and reds from the shell of the cochineal beetle. Each dye lot is slightly different. “That’s one of the beauties,” Laurita says. “What is beauty anyhow? Is it having things always the same?”

Once dry, the yarn passes to the weaving studio, where weavers hand-loom each blanket. Warping a loom for a king-size double-weave blanket requires 3,456 knots tied by hand; weaving the blanket takes five to six hours. Finally, artisans use surgical tweezers to remove any bits of straw and grass that may yet be stuck in the woven wool.

“I’d like for fiber to get closer to where food has gone, where consumers want to know where the color and fiber in their clothing come from,” Laurita says. “We don’t ingest clothing the way we eat food, but it does touch our skin, and how it is made impacts our planet. It matters where things come from.”