What do you think of when you think of Maine?
Is it a soft coastal breeze, warm and salty with the smell of the ocean? Is it livestock grazing in an endless, rolling field? Is it the vibrant green of summer, the breathtaking reds of fall, the stark white of the winter or the flowers of spring? Or maybe it’s your friends and neighbors, the community that steps up and surrounds you with that comforting sense of home.
To Nanne Kennedy, Maine is all those things and more.
Nanne runs a farm in Washington, Maine, that’s home to more than 150 sheep, along with one donkey and a handful of border collies. The first building that greets visitors at the end of a short driveway is a large barn filled to bursting with skeins of yarn, hand-made sweaters, and one-of-a-kind blankets. Off the side of the building are cast iron tubs full of lilac colored water. Swinging from the eaves outside are skeins that softly sing in every color of the rainbow, the late summer sun beating on them as it slowly sets.
And then there’s the platform next to the barn that towers only a few feet to the right, where more skeins hang to dry and huge, enclosed boxes, almost like mini-greenhouses, that harness the heat of the sun to warm large vats of yarn, Maine seawater, vinegar and natural dyes that “melt” together to create something simply beautiful.
This is GetWool and Seacolor Yarnery: Nanne’s fibercraft business. Decades in the making, Nanne’s business is both a one-woman show and the result of countless artisans across New England — she owns, operates and participates in many aspects of the crafting, but she also contracts with many artisans, farms and businesses within a 5-hour drive of her house. She’s trying to keep things “bioregional.”
When Nanne first started, though, she thought she’d be doing something else entirely: meat.
According to Nanne, a lot of our agricultural thinking in the U.S. revolves around the meat and grain industries. When she first looked into starting a farm in Maine, she found that much of the advice from “big thinkers” in agriculture focused on feedlot systems. But it didn’t take much research to discover that it wasn’t something that would work well in Maine.
“That really wasn’t the sort of agriculture that I believed in, that I felt was sustainable. And it wasn’t something I felt I could bring back to Maine and be a comfortable fit because we didn’t live in or near the grain belt,” Nanne told me.
She said that feed is more expensive in Maine because it’s not near grain industry, plus our long winters mean the animals need more of it for longer. And you just “can’t build an industry based on those economics.”
So instead Nanne decided to try something else: sheep. A double commodity of meat and wool. But that didn’t turn out exactly as planned, either. As an experiment, Nanne once tried spinning 40 hours a week and then selling her wares at the farmers market to test her opportunities in the fiber industry. She grossed maybe $300 that first Saturday and quickly decided she couldn’t make a living doing things that way.
“I couldn’t feed my family. It was ridiculous.”
So Nanne decided to go big or go home. She started having the wool from her flock spun commercially and then dyeing it herself; her solar-seawater technique slowly developed, and kept true to her idea of what Maine should be — as well as making her product “China proof,” or unsusceptible to mass production or outsourcing to China.
Yarn eventually turned into sweaters, which eventually led Nanne to make blankets. And all the while Nanne tried to stay true to one other very unique aspect of her wool.
It doesn’t itch.
It’s because Nanne doesn’t use sheep that itch. Even though carpet breeds (the itchy ones) produce around 40 pounds of coarse grade wool each year, whereas parafiber breeds (the soft ones) only produce two to four pounds of “soft, springy, no itch fiber.” The problem with raising fine fiber, however, is that wool in the U.S. is purchased by the pound — not by the grade. So, economically, raising soft wool can be difficult. But to Nanne it’s important: who wants to wear an itchy sweater?
“I loved spinning the carpet breeds but it still itched. No matter what you did to it, it was still itchy,” Nanne said.
But where there is demand, there is supply. So Nanne generated it. She developed and bankrolled a three-year program where she paid local farmers to clean their barns, taught them proper shearing techniques and then at year three turned away all the “junk” (aka dirty) wool that kept coming in and started working exclusively with who was left. She now has over 500 fine fiber sheep under contract across the state to supply her business.
“I go at shearing and I personally make sure that my quality control standards are there,” she assures me. The stuff that’s high enough quality for her apparel line goes into one grade and the rest goes into her blankets.
Along the way, all of the fiber is touched by Nanne at one point or another. Whether that’s at shearing, during dying, or when she takes the panels hand-knit by women in homes across Maine and finished them off for her one-of-a-kind, self-designed sweaters, it all passes through her hands.
“It’s time for the fiber movement. And I believe in it and the only way to do it is to keep plugging away at it and be a successful business model,” Nanne says, and then gestures out to her farm around us.
“It’s very affirming.”
45 Hopkins Rd.
Washington, ME 04574