We’ve just received Swans Island Certified Organic Chunky in the shop, and it’s just what a yarn with the word “swan” in its name should be: light and soft, yet strong. What’s more, the yarn comes in colors that will make any stitcher drool.
Swans Island began as a company selling woven wool blankets made using traditional techniques (their blankets won the Smithsonian Blue Ribbon for Craft in 1996!). The company started making yarns about a year ago, after blanket customers started clamoring for a yarn line. They asked Michele Orne for help developing a yarn line, and soon Michele had joined the company as Design Director.
Best known before as the author of Inspired to Knit: Creating Exquisite Handknits, Michele got involved with the company more than a year ago, when Swans Island was beginning to explore the possibility of selling the yarns they made for their woven blankets to hand knitters. “It was a serendipitous coincidence that I happen to live just 15 minutes down the road from the ‘factory,'” says Michele, who has more than 25 years of experience designing handknits. “I’d been thinking about developing my own line of yarns and patterns for many many years, and here the opportunity came knocking on my door. When opportunity knocks, one should listen!”
Knitters near and far are fortunate that Michele did listen, because since she joined the company Swans Island has developed three new yarns – Bulky, Worsted, and Fingering – and a gorgeous array of colors. The yarn line is growing so fast that Maine’s sheep can’t keep up – so the fleece for the yarns comes from South America. It’s spun in a mill in Maine that is one of four in the United States that are certified organic yarn producers. “What that means is that the mill is inspected by a Global Organic Textiles Standard and must meet certain criteria,” Michele explains. “Only certain kinds of oils may be used in spinning and our yarns don’t receive the same harsh chemical processing as most commercially produced yarns.” What does this mean for knitters? The yarns that come out of organic mills are softer than most, and Swans Island is one of the softest we’ve felt.
For their gorgeous colors, Swans Island uses only natural dyes – plant-based dyes that have been used traditionally for centuries – yet their shades have a depth of color difficult to achieve using natural dyes. Michele sees using natural dyes as a challenge rather than a limitation. “I quickly realized that in natural dying, you don’t choose the colors – the colors choose you! In trying to achieve certain colors, we were spending a lot of time in development and coming out still not matching the goal…but in the process, lots of other beautiful colors were being produced. So we’ve switched the thinking here, putting colors that we can successfully make on the line rather than matching to a specific target color.” She compares the process to painting: “Many of our colors are created through a process of multiple dips into different dye baths, creating a richness and depth of color much like a painter would build up layers of color on a painting.”
Of course, another aspect of Michele’s job is creating patterns for Swans Island’s fibres, and she’s done a wonderful job. The Clara Cowl, the Sasha Cowl, and the Snow Bowl Hat will be in Space next week, and we can’t wait to show them to you. In the meantime, or if you’re in the mood for a sweater, consider Veera Välimäki’s Twenty Ten Cardigan – a fantastic transitional garment that will look stunning this fall.