Arts & Minds (Part 3 of 4)

Posted in Vol 12 No 3 by bsaab on September 3, 2009


Profiles in the Creative Economy: An economy isn’t about policy; it’s about people.

I spoke to four people who solve old problems with new methods, who discover old solutions to new problems. They are combining interests and information in innovative ways. In doing so, they are building new communities. None of this work happens in solitude. It all requires a critical mass of resources: intellectual, technical, economic, and artistic. While the reach of these enterprises is international, they are rooted in local communities that encourage cross-fertilization between different kinds of expertise, that find new paths for knowledge and intuition. Art and commerce are once again becoming more comfortable with each other. In this new atmosphere we are seeing the results of a convergence of these two basic human impulses. It is a whole new world.

Susan Williams: creative director of Swans Island Blankets

Photo by Sarah Szwajkos.

Photo by Sarah Szwajkos.

Swans Island Blankets is a company based in Northport, Maine that produces handwoven blankets from flocks of local sheep. All the dyeing and weaving is done in an old house, and sheep pastured on a small island off the coast supply thick wool for winter blankets. The designs — single colors, subtle color blocks, and stripes — rely for their effectiveness on the natural shades of the wool and on vegetable dyes. Susan Williams, one of the owners and the creative director, has built an international clientele for their products.

Deborah Weisgall: How have you combined old-fashioned technology with modern marketing?

Susan Williams: I wanted to apply the aesthetic of the product to the company as a whole. There is a great story behind the company — John and Carolyn Grace left law careers in Cambridge to pursue a more satisfying life weaving classic blankets on Swans Island. We’ve moved the operation to the mainland, closer to where we live. The core issue is to introduce the blankets to a broader market without wrecking their integrity. I’ve captured the story on our website and in our printed materials; it’s no baloney when someone understands what “timeless beauty” means. Our aesthetic has substantially helped the company’s growth, which is part of the reason why we receive so much media coverage — we operate on a minuscule marketing budget.

Deborah Weisgall: How do you set goals for growth?

Susan Williams: Our goals for growth are more or less driven by our financial and human resources. There’s been some trial and error and postponing of great products — we produced some coats a couple of years ago that proved too labor-intensive and expensive. We quickly learned what we could accomplish while maintaining the highest standards, given the current scale of our business. We have four looms. Last March, when Michelle Obama wanted to give one of our throws to the prime minister of Ireland, we were lucky that we had a green one already on the loom.

We like to think of ourselves as the Slow Food of manufacturing, which probably sets us apart from other business models. We also offer a blanket hospital for cleaning and repairs. And this summer we introduced a line of yarns for hand-knitting, in colors that are consistent with our aesthetic.

Our aesthetic has substantially helped the company’s growth, which is part of the reason why we receive so much media coverage — we operate on a minuscule marketing budget.

Deborah Weisgall: How would you describe the satisfactions of the business?

Susan Williams: They come from knowing that I am contributing to making products that are genuinely exquisite, practical, and simple. Our customers come from all over the world; they are unimaginably varied.

Deborah Weisgall: What is Swans Island’s impact on the community?

Susan Williams: Obviously, we employ people — and it fits into this place because there are a lot of interesting and talented people running small businesses here. There seems to be a deep understanding and desire for our standard of quality — not only locally, but globally.

Photo courtesy Swan Islands Blankets.

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