In a recent New York Times conversation, the artist and designer Marianna Kennedy reflected on how she uses her “neighborhood as her muse”. This concept very much coins the experience of John and Carolyn Grace in the early 1990’s as they began a new life in Swans Island (Maine) off the coast of Acadia National Park, launching a small weaving operation using local wool. Bidding adieu to their careers as lawyers in Boston, the leap represented a realization of their dream of living close to the land.
At the time of the Graces’ career shift, many of Maine’s islands had been traditionally sheep islands, yet that local wool sat untapped as textile mills stood idle or repurposed. That bounty inclined the couple to consider hand crafting wool blankets employing time-honored (and still-recalled) traditions.
What came next was total immersion and the birth of Swans Island Blankets… Over time, the couple connected with local sheep farmers, bathed themselves in the rich traditions of dye-making, mastered the art of weaving on hand looms and through these efforts discovered how to produce beautiful blankets brimming with down east hues. We love the Swans Island Company story because it illustrates another example of folks taking steps to alter the course and the pace of their lives. Beyond the personal satisfaction of blending the coastal landscape into objects of beauty and purpose, the Graces’ journey breathed life back into both person and place in their newfound community.
From dye house to finishing room, we make textiles the way they should be made: with unmatched attention to detail, honest provenance, and timeless design.
Today, Swans Island Blankets is known as Swans Island Company with their first retail location opening its doors in downtown Camden, Maine in 2015. The original promise that John and Carolyn Grace made to themselves and their customers to hand-make everything in an authentic fashion and always to the highest possible standard continues to be the foundation of the company. We recently sat down with company President Bill Laurita as Swans Island approaches its twenty-fifth year in operation…
John and Carolyn Grace were ahead of their time in sensing this building yearning to get back to authentic objects of “real utility and beauty”. Can you speak to that and this collective inclination in our culture to live closer to the land some twenty years later?
You see it in slow food, and in the general idea that people are looking for an experience through things, through travel, through growing a garden or going into a beautiful store. Like a totem, people are longing for things with meaning and purpose in their lives. John (Grace) was inspired by the (1880-1910) Arts and Crafts movement in London. He was committed to the workmanship, and to simple things of utility which provide service for a long time. The Graces’ approach with Swans Island Company was perhaps the antithesis to poorly mass-produced things.
Our goal is to share original content which chronicles artisans, chefs, yogis and entrepreneurs opting for some roads less taken, with intention and purpose – and finding bliss in this modern world as they do so. What would you say to someone considering taking a leap, like John and Carolyn did from the legal profession (and a stable income), to a more authentic path of following one’s passions?
There is integrity in every profession. For me personally, joining Swans Island Company was about finding that piece where there is a mission in my job. There is certainly a trade off financially when you work in line with your desires. There’s a lifestyle shift. You may not be making huge amounts of money, but in my case I’m content, and living in a house filled with meaningful stuff. Each person has to sit with what works for them personally. For me, I try to have rhythm and balance in my life. It’s all about that quality of life.
Can you share with our BOSTON YOGA readers your thoughts on the traditions honored at Swans Island? There is a real continuum to your production, your process. How important is that to both the people who craft your products and to the finished product itself?
Most of our products are made with wool yarn. There are two ways to source that – get in touch with a farmer directly, or purchase it more as a commodity. We purchase a certified organic merino yarn and purchase lots of fleece from farmers in Maine and throughout New England. We use three textile mills in New England. One of their mills in Massachusetts actually makes all of the yarn for baseballs. Then the yarn comes here. Everything we do is by hand. We use hand looms. We dye the yarn here. Swans Island Company is the only company dyeing yarn on a commercial level with a dye master on site. Our products are very labor intensive. We make things that go on the couch, on the bed and on the body – intimate, sensual things. Given that, we love the idea of building authentic products made of all natural fibers and made right here on our shores.
There is this level of thoughtful attention that spills over from Swans Island designs to materials to hues into the energy of your Camden showroom… Your marketing materials invite folks to come in and visit the 1780 farmhouse where Swans Island is now headquartered. While there, can a visitor expect to catch a glimpse of that flow?
My business partner Michele (Rose Orne) and I both really believe that this authentic nature contributes to the end product we are producing. There is salt in the air, lots of exposed granite here in our headquarters. You can almost taste the sea. We couldn’t produce these products in North Carolina. Our signature color palette gets back to the natural plant dye. Things colored with natural plant dyes are a moving beautiful array of color. The look has developed and continues to evolve through the work of myself and my partners Michele and Stanley (Hainsworth). In as clear and a precise language as possible we try to tell a story – convey what we are doing here visually.
Scarves, hats and fingerless mittens… You now produce much more than your signature throws? What’s next up? Beyond the Camden, ME showroom, do you have any other retail locations in the works?
We look forward to carefully and thoughtfully building on the success of the Camden location with additional locations.
You’ve got me mighty curious with your career path… From a Waldorf school to designing blankets and overseeing looms? Can you connect the dots and maybe unpack how your chapter as a teacher/administrator in that type of a setting informs your days at the helm of Swans Island?
There are a couple of lines I can draw. First, is this idea of really trying to observe what is before you and react to that observation, not before. This is one of the pillars of the Waldorf approach to learning and something I practice in my role here at Swans Island Company. Also, in the Waldorf classroom, children make their own books. There are no textbooks. Students begin with a blank book and over time fill its pages – in a sense actually “creating” the creative process. The story of that book is how did they make it? That serves as their textbook. Here at the company, we too start with raw materials and through human endeavor transform it. Our finished product mirrors that same arc of the Waldorf student actually making their textbook. The Waldorf model promotes this idea of going through life consciously. It asks the question from an early age, “What is it that I was meant to do in this world?” I personally work really hard to be in control of my destiny. I certainly have love for what I am doing and the craft and tradition here at Swans Island.
The full product line of Swans Island Company can be purchased on their website and in their Camden store. On the west coast, find Swans Island throws and more at Jenni Kayne. You can follow Swans Island on Facebook and Instagram.