These Are A Few of Maine Makers' Favorite Things

These Are A Few of Maine Makers’ Favorite Things

In Maine, our tradition of handmade craftsmanship runs deep. Here in the season of giving, we asked a few of the state’s talented artisans to tell us about their most treasured heritage items, the heirlooms and objects of art that have inspired them, shaped their lives, and informed their craft.

By Adrienne Perron, Brian Kevin, and Arielle Greenberg
Photographed by Clayton Simoncic
From our December 2022 issue

A Father’s Axe

Steve and Mark Ferguson, Brant and Cochran

The object: Steve and Mark Ferguson remember that their father’s Hudson Bay axe only came out of its box when it was time to go canoeing. The Fergusons grew up chopping wood for the woodstove in their basement, but only on paddling trips did they ever use their dad’s lightweight axe, which he bought in the 1970s, for splitting firewood or clearing ground for portages. Their father’s axe traveled on every river trip the Fergusons took with him, until their last one together, in 2009. Now, it lives in the South Portland workshop of their company, Brant and Cochran, reminding the brothers of why they do what they do: forging long-lasting traditional Maine wedge-pattern axes.

On memories and certain objects: “Every time you use an axe, it tells a story, whether it’s about a canoe trip or camp or making your daughter a grilled cheese on the woodstove. You can’t say a screwdriver does that.”

On craftsmanship and commerce: “We want to build an heirloom axe that will last 100 years. Maybe it’s a poor business plan to make something that someone will buy once and never need to buy again, but that’s what we’re building.”

If you’re gifting: The Allagash Cruiser, $299, is Brant and Cochran’s flagship and smallest two-handed axe.

An Heirloom Blanket

John Grace, Swans Island Company

The object: In John Grace’s early memories, his grandmother’s wool blankets were for draping over headboards to build forts, for twisting into ropes, for wearing as shawls — and yes, the durable coverings were also wonderful to sleep under. Machine-made in the late 19th century, they breathed in a way that only wool can: none too stuffy on summer nights, when it was hot and humid at his grandparents’ Massachusetts farm, and plenty warm come the cold mornings. In the early ’90s, when John and his late wife, Carolyn, wanted to augment their inherited blankets with a few new ones, they found that man-made fibers like nylon had largely displaced wool on the market. They left Boston-area law careers behind them, learned to weave and dye, and started Swans Island Company on Maine’s eponymous Jericho Bay isle (today, the company, which the Graces sold in 2004, is headquartered in Northport).

On use over beauty: “These were not made as heirloom blankets — they were just what people had in those days. And not all of them are equally beautiful. One of my favorites as a kid has a rather substantial ink stain that I probably caused. But they’re so treasured that people still use them, and I think that’s the point.”

On longevity: “Wool has tremendous endurance. If you take a strand of fiber and bend it back and forth, you can do that exponentially longer than with a cotton fiber. We told people that as long as they took care of their blankets, they could keep them for generations. I’ve distributed quite a number of my grandmother’s blankets to my children.”

If you’re gifting: Signature handwoven wool blankets from Swans Island, including the Grace Blanket, with the classic stripes on either end, begin at $895.

A Dear Friend’s Art

Catherine Fisher, Catherine Fisher Clothing

The object: Before she was a clothing designer, Catherine Fisher was, among other things, a biographer, a baker, an innkeeper, and a poet. When she decided last year to launch a slightly high-concept clothing line inspired by her own verse, she drew gumption for the undertaking from a papier-mâché house that sits atop a sideboard in her home. It was a gift from a friend, artist Niki Ford, who now lives in California and once paraded through a town square during a festival in Massachusetts, wearing a mask and a nightgown, reciting a poem, and trailing strings that dragged five such houses. For 20 years, Fisher says, she’s looked to the piece as a reminder that her own artistic pursuits are worthy of parading. To her line of tops, jackets, and pants — made with sustainably sourced fibers and sewn by a family shop in Scarborough — she adds small, artsy embellishments, including, on one jacket, a hand-painted outline of a gabled-roof house.

On possessions as proxies: “I think objects can stand in when the people who’ve influenced us are no longer present, either because they’re deceased or just because they live 3,000 miles away.”

On artisan apparel: “As we assemble a wardrobe, choosing more thoughtfully things that will last longer and represent who we feel we are, we ask ourselves questions: How does this feel? Does it feel good to wear it because it, you know, it feels genuine?”

If you’re gifting: A poem about abandoned houses inspired Fisher’s double-breasted and reversible Latchkey jacket, $390, made with hemp and organic cotton.

An Antique Boat Anchor

Beth Greenlaw, Sea Bags

The object: Three decades ago, Beth Greenlaw found an old boat anchor at an antique shop in Searsport, on her way to visit her family on Isle au Haut. She bought the anchor as a décor piece because it reminded her of home during a period of when she was traveling frequently for work. In 2004, after moving back to Maine, she met Sea Bags cofounder Hannah Kubiak, and they incorporated Sea Bags together in 2006. As the pair brainstormed different ways they could embellish the recycled boat sails used to make their bags, they thought of Greenlaw’s anchor. Sea Bags came out with an anchor collection, and the symbol quickly became central to the brand. Even today, the line of navy-blue anchors, which tilt just like the one in Greenlaw’s home, are Sea Bags’ best-selling collection.

On nautical symbolism: “An anchor grounds you, it keeps you from straying. Handmade things are what make our economy go round, and we’re providing jobs here — it’s what makes us feel grounded in this community.”

On giving old materials new life: “Sails are beautiful, and Mainers by nature are thrifty. I think being able to give something beautiful a new life is part of who we are.”

If you’re gifting: Sea Bags sells totes with the classic anchor design in various sizes and styles that start at $160.

A Father’s Fly Rod

Jeff Davis, Maine Fly Company

The object: To help process his dad’s passing, in 2015, Jeff Davis took time off from his job and built a barn in his father’s backyard. He found solace in the work and eventually realized that he didn’t want to return to his corporate job. He had inherited his father’s fly-rod collection, and although he’d never been fly-fishing, he became obsessed with the sport. He learned to cast using his father’s gear and became curious about the rods themselves, wondering why it was so hard to buy an American-made rod from big retailers. He noticed that one of his father’s rods was inscribed with the words “custom made fly rod,” and he wondered how complicated it would be to make one himself. He and his brother-in-law ordered kits to build their own, and then Davis wanted to build more. His newfound love for fly-fishing and rodsmithing was transformational — and it brought him closer to his father than ever.

On challenging norms: “People told me I couldn’t make a rod with a wooden handle because it would add too much weight and would be slippery, but now it’s our bestseller. We’re going back to the days when people needed to whittle wood to fish and survive. We want to be really raw and authentic to the outdoors.”

On slowing down production: “I was critiquing every piece of my dad’s rods when I was learning how to make them. Mass-produced rods are a business, not a craft. We make rods to match the beauty of the flies we tie and the fish we catch.”

If you’re gifting: Maine Fly Company staff can help customers design a custom rod, starting at $399, in the company’s Yarmouth shop, online, or by phone.

An Inherited Bookshelf

Aaron Moser, Thos. Moser

The object: Joseph Moser was 21 years old when he built this simple cherry bookshelf in 1925. He was a stereotyper by trade, says his grandson Aaron Moser, and as far as any of Joseph’s descendants know, he never built another thing out of wood. But Joseph’s bookshelf made a lasting impression on his younger son, Thomas, Aaron’s father and the self-taught woodworker who, in 1972, founded Freeport’s handmade-furniture company Thos. Moser. Aaron, today the chairman of the board, says the only other objects his dad has hung onto as long are small enough to fit in a dresser-top “treasure box.” A couple of years ago, Aaron’s parents built nine replicas of the spartan little shelf, one for each of their grandchildren.

On value beyond craftsmanship: “It’s a very simple bookcase, very primitive. From a woodworking and design standpoint, there’s not a lot of substance there. It’s really about the story it symbolizes, how it spans this almost 100-year trajectory, and the idea that an object can be a vessel of meaning, no matter what it is or what the quality is.”

On serendipity: “It’s interesting how cherry, which is the wood that Thos. Moser ended up really specializing in, was the wood my grandfather chose to build his bookcase. I don’t think everything is an accident. I think there’s some destiny in everything we do.”

If you’re gifting: The design of Thos. Moser’s Windward Bookcase, which starts at $1,760, is inspired by the Arts and Crafts style of Joseph’s piece.

Hand-Me-Down Kerosene Lamps

Rose Normann-Morefield, Dippermouth

The object: Rose Normann-Morefield has glowing memories of childhood — literally glowing, bathed in the honeyed light of kerosene lamps at her parents’ self-built home, in Frankfort. Her back-to-the-lander parents hadn’t intended to live off-grid, but as their house neared completion, they realized they couldn’t afford to have utility poles installed. Instead of abandoning their vision, they bought every kerosene lamp at Liberty Tool. Normann-Morefield still has them, plus some of her own, which she keeps around, she says, as reminders of her family’s credo, about valuing the rewards that come from inconvenience. The mentality infuses her small-batch clothing company, Dippermouth, and her techniques of hand-printing patterns, plant-dyeing fabrics, and hand-sewing details onto dresses, vests, robes, and jackets.

On modesty and beauty: “My parents’ house was modestly built, but my mother made it beautiful with paint and flower gardens, which I recall in the antique botanical prints and dye shades I make. When you do something the hard way, it becomes a grand romance.”

On blooming within constraint: “I like working in clothing because the pieces have a practical constraint. The function provides limitations. I’m grateful that I learned to live without modern conveniences, to go slow and engage in hard work, relying on old-fashioned wisdom and skills. When something about the design process is difficult to figure out or pull off, I think, ‘Well, my parents built a whole house.’ They gave me an existential trust fund.”

If you’re gifting: Dippermouth’s Pippa vest — sherpa lined, screen printed, and naturally dyed in whatever colors come out of the dye pot — sells for $210.

A Great-Grandmother’s Sewing Machine

Lauren Beveridge, Scout + Bean

The object: Growing up in Oakland, Lauren Beveridge learned to sew from her mom, but the machine she got the most practice on — and that she credits with planting the seeds of a lifelong maker mentality — belonged to her great-grandmother, Parmelie Sturtevant, who lived down the road, in Waterville. “Grammy Pam” bought her Singer Featherweight 221 new in the 1960s, and Beveridge did her adolescent sewing on it, took it to college, and brought it to her home in Lincolnville, where she now runs her one-woman Scout + Bean studio, designing and stitching elegant and functional bags and baskets. These days, she mostly uses cotton rope, for which she doesn’t use the Singer, but her daughter is nearly five — old enough, Beveridge says, for lessons on Grammy Pam’s machine.

On repairability: “Now, everything’s plastic. If it breaks, you buy a new one. The machine I sew on now costs $180, and if it breaks, it’s cheaper to replace it. The Featherweight is a tank. It’s all metal, and it’s heavy. It was made to fix, and it was made to last.”

On a can-do mentality: “My mom raised me — also my grandmother and my great-grandmother — to be like, “Oh, we’ll fix that. We’ll figure that out.” Whether it’s fixing a dishwasher or mending clothes, it was just ingrained in me from a young age that, hey, we can do that. We will make that. And it will be awesome.”

If you’re gifting: Scout + Bean’s $80 rope pail, with its copper clasps and leather grip, is attractive and versatile — and burly enough to carry a heavy load.

A Century-Old Paddle

Steve Holt, Shaw and Tenney

The object: In 1976, when Steve Holt was a student at the University of Maine, his wood-utilization class took a field trip to Shaw and Tenney, an oar and paddle maker in Orono. A lifelong woodworker, Holt never forgot the way the wooden paddles felt in his hands that day. When the company came up for sale, in 2003, he purchased it with his wife, Nancy Forester-Holt. The paddles and oars are all made the same way Holt witnessed four decades ago — from the same designs as when the company was founded, in 1858. Customers have donated their old paddles to the company for preservation, including this century-old Penobscot Paddle, which is stored in the workshop where Shaw and Tenney workers, including Holt, pass by it every day. Old paddles and oars like this one, Holt says, remind him of what he’s proudest of: making products built to last forever.

On the value of the old ways: “Paddle and oar making is an art. Passing on the knowledge of how to make them is important so it doesn’t become a lost art. The nature of wooden products is different from modern fiberglass. Our oars and paddles have heart and soul and feeling — you get the beauty of wood and the lightness that makes them a pleasure to use.”

On durability: “Walking by antique paddles in the workshop reminds me of how families can pass paddles down from generation to generation. Our paddles tend to outlast the boats they’re associated with.”

If you’re gifting: The Penobscot, Shaw and Tenney’s versatile bestseller, starts at $155.

A Mentor’s Basket

Jennifer Neptune, Basket Weaver

The object: In 1985, when she was 16, Jennifer Sapiel Neptune had a job making beaded earrings for a store on Indian Island. When a small basket made by Passamaquoddy basketmaker Theresa Neptune Gardner came up for sale there, Neptune became enamored with it. A member of the Penobscot Nation, Neptune had always been interested in learning basketmaking but was too shy a teenager to ask someone to teach her. She bought Gardner’s basket, but she didn’t learn basketmaking until she was in her 20s, when she started working for the Indian Basketmakers Alliance. Through the Alliance, Neptune met Gardner and her sister, Clara Neptune Keezer, who taught Neptune basketmaking methods that still influence her work. Gardner’s basket is displayed in Neptune’s dining room, where it reminds her every day of how far she’s come as a basketmaker — and of how she strives to teach others as generously as Gardner and Keezer taught her.

On cultural survival: “During a time when our people were being pushed to assimilate, basketmaking was a way of pushing back on that. Baskets allowed us to gather fish and clams from the coast. Basket trading helped provide medical care for our people and paid to put children in school. Baskets were important to helping the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy people survive.”

On impacting future generations: “Harvesting sweetgrass from a marsh takes hours. You’re out in the elements with wet feet, among the bugs. You’re not doing it to make money. You’re making something to leave behind for your descendants. When you hold a basket in your hands, you are actually holding thousands of years of traditional knowledge.”

If you’re gifting: Neptune’s signature miniature baskets — which are similar in style to the Theresa Neptune Gardner basket — start at $100.

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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