Swans Island Blanket Magic

I have long been a fan of Swans Island blankets. They’re beautifully loomed, the wool is soft but still has the rich feel of the natural lanolin, the colors are subtle and so are the designs. They’re expensive, but worth every dollar. These are blankets to be handed down the generations--just the way blankets used to be treasured in colonial times, when they were hand-woven on narrow looms and pieced together in strips. Swans Island is now making baby blankets that can be monogrammed. I cannot wait for more newborns in my life, so that I can give them their first heirlooms. When I walked into the Swans Island shop and studio in Northport, Maine, during my recent Slow Love book tour, and saw the baby blanket they had on display, I started laughing. Zoe is the name of one of my oldest friends, though we didn't share a crib. I felt her presence in the room.

The wool in these blankets is spun from the thick fleece of sheep living on a rocky, windswept outcrop of stone, Nash Island. The process of setting up the looms is arduous; that alone takes several days, yarn onto bobbins, bobbins in shuttles. Then many more hours go into 
actually weaving each blanket. The edges are finished in silk.

The wool that comes off the Nash Island sheep during shearing is so clean and free of sticks and burrs that it needs only a mild washing with an organic soap before it is dyed--and that, too, is done with pure, natural ingredients. When the wool is dipped in the water it spreads out the way seaweed does when the tide goes out.

Madder root gives an orange, indigo buds a blue, the hard beads of cochineal yield reds and pinks, kamala root gives yellows, and greens come from the sharply scented, hay-like weld. Black wool comes off black sheep, of course, and rich and tawny browns come from the fleece of younger sheep, and the graying beauties give us the misty, fog-like colors.

The latest great news from Swans Island is that they are now producing skeins of wool, for all the knitters among us. These are made of merino wool--from sheep living in South America. But unlike nearly all other wool, which is cleaned with an acid solution that strips the lanolin from the wool, leaving it feeling dry, Swans Island wool is all organically treated. And the colors for their yarns are made the same way as with the blankets, so your hand knit sweaters will have the same beautiful, rich hues with the subtlest variations.

We tend not to think about blankets as luxury items any longer, the way we do handbags or silk scarves or hats. We used to treasure our linens and blankets much more, when we were aware of the labor involved in making them (because, actually, we housewives were the ones making them, most of the time.) If you are traveling along Route 1 in Maine anytime, the Swans Island shop is worth a stop--the looms are right there, as are the vats of dye and the jars of herbs and organic matter. You'll understand much more about what goes into these precious things--and not just from Swans Island, but from any weaver. 

I love visiting crafts fairs because of the pride, care and artistry that go into so many of the things being sold; it annoys me to hear people complain about the prices being too high. It isn't too often that a craftsperson gets rich off her labors, frankly. And sadly. You can amortize the cost of any fine, handmade item over your lifetime, and that of your loved ones. Or learn to weave; find a local shop and borrow time on a loom. As for the Swans Island blankets, I think they're well worth the investment--if you're in spending mode. (I'm glad I bought mine before I got forced into the Money Diet I'm on.) They give us cover every night, while we dream and refresh ourselves for the next day’s labors--and pleasures. 


c said...

"It isn't too often that a craftsperson gets rich off her labors, frankly. And sadly. You can amortize the cost of any fine, handmade item over your lifetime, and that of your loved ones. Or learn to weave"

Absolutely right. Few things bother me more than the insanity of "rewarding" athletes and bankers much more than craft people [and teachers] in our warped society.

Deana Sidney said...

A NYC friend of mine with a place up in Vermont raised sheep and decided to have blankets made with their beautiful black wool. Done just the way you describe and loomed by hand, it was crushingly expensive to raise the sheep well and pay everyone along the way a good wage for their work. The blankets were terribly expensive even at cost but so beautiful and worth every penny. In the end it was too much for her with a city job as well. She gave up the project with great sadness.

When one can, it is great to buy these treasures... and they are treasures. I have a handmade blanket that is over 100 years old and still gorgeous! Such craftsmanship should be rewarded lest is slip away. Thanks for sharing this wonderful resource.

pve design said...

I have always wanted a swans island security blanket.
Heck, I would even take it with me to the grave.
Artistry above all is my motto.

Meg Mitchell said...

I've never heard of Swans Island Blankets but thank you so much for opening my eyes. They look lovely and I appreciate your post describing the work that goes into this treasure.
I just finished reading your book. I'm going back now for an even more leisurely read through again. Loved it.

mary said...

I am in complete agreement. While living in Northern Spain, I bought hand loomed blankets (the looms were over 200 years old) for all of us. The blankets are still gorgeous and warm and filled with wonderful memories. Anything handmade or from the creative world carries with it a certain "soul" that cannot be equaled by any other means. We are so accustomed to "cheap" imported (usually) products that we have forgotten the joy of that special feel of creation. Thanks, Mary

Splenderosa said...

OMG, Dominique, so happy you have told us about Swans. I am a new grandmother 3 days ago to a beautiful baby girl named Archer...this is perfect for her.

Ronnie said...

I’ve also lusted after Swan Island blankets ever since I read an article about them in Martha Stewart's mag. Your description makes them ever so much more worthy of their beauty. Now I must knit with that yarn. Thanks for sharing this goodness!

Barbara said...

They are indeed lovely, but most (of the people who would cherish such a keepsake) do not have the yearly income to justify the purchase of a two thousand dollar blanket. Wish such possibilities weren't so skewed towards the rich!

Anonymous said...

As a weaver, I especially appreciate your comments about the time that goes into making something beautiful, and you are absolutely right about the cost of handmade items being worth every penny when they are thoughtfully and well done.

Väva! Veve! said...

Absolutely refreshing to read of your appreciation for things handmade, especially things woven! I am a professional handweaver, weaving bath towels from Belgian linen. The most often asked question I hear is, "How long does it take to weave one of these?" When I educate people about how long it actually takes from design concept, to importing the yarn (because there is no one yet in the Americas that processes flax as beautifully as Europe. We are in our infancy in that venture), to winding the warp, threading the loom, and finally weaving the linens, hemming and finishing, and then traveling across the United States selling my wares, people are quite amazed at how long it takes to actually weave a towel! We are so used to instant everything that we even expect handmade crafts to be quick and easy too. There are ongoing discussions about 'Slow Cloth' and 'Slow Craft' that highlight the fact that high craft takes time, thought, skill and in every piece is the investment of a bit of the artist's soul. I have been honored recently to have been selected to show at the American Craft Council Show in San Francisco and the One of a Kind Show in Chicago, with OKS in New York pending. The level of artistry and craftmanship, and pride in a job well done is evident at every booth in these shows. I remember first seeing the Graces and their Swans Island Blankets years ago at an American Craft Council Show and was proud of the work they were putting out before the consumer, blazing a trail for weavers and craftspeople everywhere.

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Kathryn McMahon said...

If you appreciate Swan Island blankets you may be interested in my fledgling weaving mill in central NY state.
I left suburbia to follow a life long dream of raising my own sheep, using Colonial weaving tools to produce my own yarns and handwovens.

I raise Finnsheep which have Merion like softness ( determined by Yocom McColl labs ) as well as purchase wool from select local shepherds. I employ local people and send my fiber to a local mill that doesn't use chemicals to remove debris from the fiber so it retains its softness.

I rescue and restore 18th and 19th century weaving and hand spinning tools preserving tools/tradition and techniques from Colonial times. I shear my own flock which gives me total control over the handling of the fleeces, and have the wool custom spun per my instructions by a mill experienced with processing according to specifications.

In addition to blankets, we also weave wool rugs.

Old School Hand Wovens
Norwich, New York 13155

email: oldschoolhandwovens@yahoo.com
for further info.