Summer warmth from sheep's clothing

Email|Print| Text size + By Letitia Baldwin
Globe Correspondent / February 18, 2007

NORTHPORT, Maine -- Summer nights in Maine can be great for sleeping. A breath of salt air, a bell buoy's clang, and the melodic lapping of waves along the shore combine to ease the mind and soothe the soul.

The perfect night's sleep also requires crisp, cotton sheets topped with a light summer blanket. The classic covers, cream with pastel stripes or checks, are snug but don't confine the sleeper. Such blankets dating back decades are still being used -- despite a mothhole or two and split silk bindings -- in century-old cottages all along the Maine coast.

When these heirlooms finally do wear out, Swans Island Blankets stands ready to replace them with a new, finer generation of summer blankets. The Maine company, based in an 18th-century clapboard farmhouse on US Route 1 in the mid-coast town of Northport, makes pure wool coverlets in solid white with pink stripes or checks and other subtle hues and combinations. The blankets, which are woven by hand on wooden looms, are made from the fleece of Corriedale sheep raised in central Maine.

Corriedale sheep were first bred for their wool to be used in blanket making on New Zealand's South Island in the 1860s. The breed's fleece has a natural crimp.

"The fibers are very curly and have a springy quality," said William Laurita, co-owner of Swans Island Blankets. "That gives the blankets their lively summer weight."

The company carries the name of the Maine island where a Massachusetts couple founded the business more than a decade ago. John and Carolyn Grace, who practiced law in Boston and spent summers on Swans Island, treasured their own hand-me-down blankets and saw their potential as a unique product.

John Grace apprenticed with a Maine weaver and studied at the Rhode Island School of Design before he and his wife gave up their legal careers and moved to Swans Island in 1994.

On the island, located six miles off Mount Desert Island, the Graces used only the finest grade of fleece from a local flock of Shetlands and other Maine sheep to make their blankets. They developed a palette of rich colors, mostly from plant dyes, to complement the natural wool shades of white, black, and brown. Teal, for instance, comes from the osage tree and indigo plant while pink is derived from the cochineal beetle's shell.

Two years ago, the Graces retired and entrusted the business to Laurita and Jody Spanglet. The couple, who worked as Waldorf School educators in Charlottesville, Va., before moving to Maine, have kept up the artisanal tradition and standards. They select their fleece from flocks in the town of Starks and on Nash Island, a tiny, treeless islet east of Penobscot Bay. The wool is then scoured with organic soap before being spun.

"There is something about being windswept all year long that makes the wool very lush," said Laurita, referring to the Nash Island flock, which supplies fleece for Swans Island's winter blankets. "Wool provides more warmth for the weight than any fiber I know."

At the post-and-beam studio in Northport, visitors can see how some of the wool is dyed. They can also watch the blankets being woven and finished. Silk bindings are woven into the blankets, not sewn on separately. The blankets are gone over with tweezers to remove any chaff. Each blanket goes into a handmade linen bag with aromatic cedar slats. Prices range from $375 for a throw to $2,200 for a king-size Equinox blanket made from brown and black fleece.

"Many, many hands go into these blankets," said Laurita, who previously made furniture, wrought-iron pieces, and other traditional crafts. "I've always liked the idea of taking a raw material through a process and ending up with a beautiful and useful product."

That their blankets become keepsakes is also gratifying.

"We have ended up with people who have them for generations," Laurita said. "It is very rewarding to be involved in this."

Contact Letitia Baldwin, a freelance writer in Gouldsboro, Maine, at

If You Go

231 Atlantic Highway ( Route 1)

Northport, Maine

888-526-9526, 207-338-9691

Monday-Friday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and by appointment on weekends.

Directions: Northport, Maine, is about 215 miles or about four hours from Boston . Take Interstate 95 north into Maine to exit 113 (Augusta/Belfast). Follow Route 3 to Belfast and take Route 1 north to Northport.

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