Indie Untangled Everywhere Untangling: North Light Fibers

A group photo with people and dogs.

This is the fifth in a series of blog posts featuring the fabulous sponsors of Indie Untangled Everywhere, taking place from October 15-17, 2020.

North Light Fibers, which I had the pleasure of visiting in 2016, is the very definition of a fiber escape. It’s based on Block Island, a Rhode Island community reachable only by ferry that feels like a combination of coastal New England and the Irish countryside. I’m excited to be working with them after admiring their yarn and business for so long.

Sven Risom, who runs North Light Fibers with his wife, Laura, has a wonderful way of describing what he refers to as a “micro yarn mill,” so I’ll let him take it away!

Tell me the story of how North Light Fibers came to be.

Laura and I started North Light Fibers in 2010. We knew we wanted to move to Block Island (Rhode Island) which is a small community of 900 people in the winter and about 15,000-20,000 in the summer. The island to 7 miles long by 3 miles wide and the place that we wanted to call home. It is lovely.

We then had long discussions about what to do when we moved to Block Island since we wanted to do something with fiber. We had moved all over the country doing different jobs in business or nursing and wanted to do something together with lasting impact. While we considered starting a yarn shop, that was not truly feasible given the seasonality of the island. We then met the people that make the equipment which is now in our yarn studio and fell in love with the plan to produce and create yarn here on the island. The equipment is small and to the scale of Block Island as we produce small batches of kettle-dyed yarns and design the fiber blends to our liking. Laura is a phenomenal knitter and designer and develops different fiber blends, weights, colors and patterns in addition to all the designers that we work with.

Unfortunately, when we decided to move forward with the yarn studio and had negotiated for a long-term lease on a building, we were informed by the Town that there was no “permitted use to make a product” on Block Island. So, we had to spend the next year and 12 public hearings to change the zoning laws by creating a “light industry” permitted use. Since then, a few other small companies have started and now a furniture maker is starting up on Block Island making small-batch furniture. We are one of the only year-round businesses and the only manufacturer and exporter from Block Island.

The only offshore wind farm is located 3 miles off the Island’s south bluffs. Based on this, it turns out that North Light Fibers is the only manufacturer in the U.S. that is 100% powered by offshore wind! We also installed solar panels and have developed extensive green practices. Our vision in 2010 was to have a zero carbon footprint and we have attained that goal!

A pile of colorful yarn sitting on a rock.

North Light Fibers Water Street.

How do you source the fiber for your yarn?

North Light Fibers is located on a small animal farm, the 1661 Farm and Gardens. The animals range from alpacas, llamas and camels to yaks and Scottish Highland bulls as well as Jacob sheep and a variety of goats. There are also many more animals that make the farm quite an interesting place. While we use the fiber from the farm in our felting kits, bird balls and dryer balls, we do not use it for yarn as it is older and not to our quality standards.

We have been very fortunate over the years to work with many small alpaca and sheep farms around the country, mostly in the Northeast, including Virginia and West Virginia. While at one point we were sourcing fiber from 116 different farms, we have narrowed that down a lot and have also been sourcing fibers from around the world more broadly.

Over the past 10 years we are have learned a lot about fiber and how the environment, animal health and feed can dramatically impact the quality of the fiber and therefore yarn. For example, our Cashmere comes from Mongolia and some of our wool from the Falkland Islands. This is very important for we also use a lot of domestic Merino. While all of our wall is a Merino they are not sourced from the same location by intention. As you may know, the Falkland Islands Merino has a longer staple length, is finer (smaller micron count) and also has a different shaped crimp compared with the domestic Merino. Each is very good in their own respect. For example, we designed for our Water Street yarn (40% Cashmere/60% Super fine Merino) with the highest-grade domestic Merino and blend it with Cashmere. The fiber length and crimp blend well together to create an amazing yarn. On the other hand, our Atlantic and Spring Street yarns are 100% Merino wool sourced from the Falkland Islands. The fiber for it is softer and has better drape than the domestic Merino. So not only do we use different fibers but we also source similar breeds from different locations to make the best yarn possible.

How much yarn does your mini mill produce each year?

That is a very interesting question, but before talking about capacity, I would like to make a few clarifications. First of all, we do not consider North Light Fibers to be a mini mill. In the past, we have called our business a “micro yarn mill” which is very different. Mini mills follow a service model as they process fibers for different farms. For example, if a farmer has 40 alpacas or 30 sheep, they can send the fiber to a mini mill, which will turn their fiber into yarn. North Light Fibers does not produce any yarn for other businesses. Our business is more like a microbrewery — a small-scale brewery, or in this case a small-scale yarn producer or mill.

Over the past two years, we have begun to shift our focus to the two key areas of our business: the Dye Studio and the Yarn Studio. As we will share during the Indie Untangled event, we kettle dye all of our fibers in 10-pound batches. Usually we produce 20 pounds when we dye as we have two vats. The key thing is that we dye fibers and not finished yarn.

When the dying is finished, we bring the fibers up to the yarn studio where are we pick, card, spin, ply, steam and finish the yarn. While there are machines, a significant amount of hand work goes into the yarns along the way. We physically touch each yarn at least 20 times during the process and QC all the yarn by hand.

As far as the total volume that we produce, it’s very subject to the types of yarns and blends that we are making. Most importantly, we produce enough so that our knitters can purchase yarn from the same production date to finish their project. I mention a “production date” because we blend colors within the manufacturing process — therefore the date of dying is less important to us as the date when the colors are blended on the carder or throughout production process.

A pile of marled yarn.

North Light Fibers Seaside.

What inspires your colors?

Being 15 miles off the coast and located well into the Atlantic, we have amazing light and colors as well as different shades of earth tones here on the island. The bluffs show layers of soil millions of years old and the number of ponds is amazing… all within 1.5 miles of the ocean. The animals on the farm, the island itself, the ocean, the beaches, the sunsets, the sunrises and the rocks on the shore inspire us daily. If you follow us on Instagram, you’ll see that we post a lot of pictures of the island and different colors and blends. The island is an inspiration.

In addition to inspiration about colors, we also get really inspired by how to blend fibers and make the colors in unique ways. For example, Water Street has beautiful heathery colors that come alive when the garment or accessory is knit or crocheted. The flecks of different colors creates a unique palette. For example, we produce a green color in Water Street that we called Enchanted Forest. While one may think of this color as a dark green, there are actually flecks of purple and light green within the yarn that bring it alive and make it very complex and exciting.

In our recent introduction of Seaside, we have blended 50% Supima cotton and 50% Merino wool to create a very exciting worsted weight yarn. Given our acid-based kettle dye process, we are not able to dye plant fibers so therefore Seaside has a very soft palette as the cotton is white. The color, though, is unique as the yarn is designed in a marled fashion with each ply being a different color, creating a beautiful fabric or textile that really moves with the colors.

The water Street and Seaside colors differ greatly from our Atlantic and Spring Street yarns, which have much deeper hues.

Another big aspect of North light Fibers yarn is that all our lines have at least 14 colors. Forever Lace (80% alpaca/20% bamboo) has about 27 colors! We work hard to have a full line of colorways with exciting and unique main and contrast colors for different designs.

A pink cabled poncho modeled on a beach.

The Sailboat Poncho in Seaside designed by Deborah Newton.

Can you talk about some of the business challenges you’ve had to overcome during the pandemic?

Being on a small island connected by only a ferry or small airplane creates unique challenges. As we mentioned earlier, some of the zoning issues that we faced impacted our business for the first two years, but we overcame those. Of course, shipping gets to be a little bit more expensive, but the island provides an amazing inspiration and a beautiful place to live and enjoy. Nothing like being in the middle of nonstop inspiration!

Probably the biggest challenge that we faced in those early years was “how to make a really beautiful yarn that we were proud of.” While it seems relatively straightforward, making a high-quality yarn is not a simple task. On a daily basis, we have challenges in the dye studio or with a spinner or on one of the carders, but that honestly is part of the fun of running North Light Fibers: being able to overcome those challenges and create a product that we love.

2020 has been especially difficult for everyone in the yarn industry. We’ve been working very hard to present our yarns in the best way possible, yet clearly, the reduction in shows and delayed retreats has impacted our business significantly. We are very excited to be part of the Indie Untangled Everywhere event and look forward to helping knitters, crocheters and fiber enthusiasts learn more about our business.

One of the things that we have enjoyed most has been working with designers. We are awed by the ability of many of the designers we work with to create unbelievably stunning fabrics and garments in creative ways. Seeing their inspiration and their ability to turn a design concept into reality is fantastic.

Does everyone on the North Light Fibers team knit or do other fiber crafts?

Yes, everyone is involved in fiber in different ways. While Laura is clearly the leader of the company and an amazing knitter, weaver and crocheter, she is also the inspiration for so much of what we do. Many of us have made hats and different garments, done a lot of needle and wet felting, created kits and designed new knitting and crocheting kits. But Laura is the clear leader and knitter. We all feel and know the pleasure of creating a finished garment or design from the yarn that we created.

A green and white geometric shawl.

The Islander by Melanie Berg.

What are some of your favorite FOs you or your customers have made with your yarn?

North Light Fibers has been honored to work with many great designers such as Deborah Newton, Melanie Berg, Olga Buraya-Kefelian, Andrea Mowry, Bristol Ivy, Thea Coleman, Patty Lyons, Mary Jane Mucklestone, Nora Gaughan, Gudrun Johnson, Charles Gandy, Kate Gilbert, Melissa Leapman and many other world-renowned designers as well as local designers such as Sophia Scallora, Charon Littlefield, Renee Batchelder and others who designed their first garments and patterns here at North Light Fibers. It is hard to pick our favorites, but there are a few relationships that stand out. Deborah Newton, who lives in Providence, Rhode Island, has become a major part of our little company. She has designed many garments and has offered advice along the way that’s been immeasurable. A few example designers and FOs include:

Charles Gandy is an outstanding designer that we met earlier in the life of the company and he designed a pair of wristers with titled welted squares — still one of the most fascinating and intriguing designs we have.

Andrea Mowry designed Ramble in Water Street, which is a stunning blend of brioche and garter stitch.

Fiona Ellis designed one of the most amazing sweaters we have ever seen in Proscenium with our Atlantic worsted-weight yarn. The cables, design, button sides and A-Frame design are truly beautiful.

Melanie Berg recently designed The Islander in our Forever Lace yarn that has a stunning geometric structure. This will be classic design for years to come.

In addition to working with great designers, we have also worked hard to form partnerships to knit and weave finished goods for our studio store, given how many tourists and non-knitters visit the island. For example, we have formed a lifelong relationship with the Hartford Artisans Weaving Center, a non-profit weaving center for blind and visually-impaired people. In addition, years ago we started working with Women for Women International, a nonprofit that helps women in war-torn countries to knit a range of garments and accessories for the store. We have worked with Stitches 22 in Bosnia for over nine years, sending them our yarn and designs, which they turn into finished garments that we sell here. These relationships, and the ability to help those who are less fortunate, is a real actualization of our early vision for North Light Fibers.

IU on the road: A visit to North Light Fibers

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North Light 1

When my husband, Mitch, and I started planning our 10th anniversary trip to Block Island, he was the one who actually told me that there was a yarn mill there. I of course knew of North Light Fibers from Rhinebeck and Vogue Knitting Live, but (I swear) didn’t remember that it was based on the island off the Rhode Island coast until after we decided to go there.

Neither of us had been to Block Island before. In fact, neither of us had been to Rhode Island, aside from passing through it on the way to Massachusetts. The quintessential coastal New England landscape, which had the feel of Ireland, was the perfect backdrop for our anniversary escape.

I ended up making a couple of trips to North Light, which was conveniently located a 10-minute walk from the inn where we were staying. The first was on Saturday morning, while my husband got ready after breakfast.

North Light alpaca

Before you get to the shop, you walk past and through the Abrams animal farm, a collection of exotic and domestic animals, including a yak, a pair of Scottish Highland bulls, camels, emus, donkeys and, of course, alpaca.

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I spent at least a half hour taking in all the yarn, samples and kits, as well as the beautiful woven wraps and scarves that were for sale, created for North Light by a weaving center in Hartford, Connecticut, that encourages people with low or no vision to engage in the craft.

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The yarn I admired included Water Street, a luxuriously soft blend of Merino and Cashmere. A few of the colorways had beautiful heathers, a product of blending the dyed fibers before spinning. The yarn was shown off in Marnie MacLean’s Flechir shawl, published in April’s Twist Collective and on display at the front of the shop.

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I ended up ultimately drawn to Atlantic, a worsted weight Merino from the Falkland Islands — soft, but wonderfully sheepy. The rich brown Sea Lion colorway particularly called to me, and I ended up buying two skeins for a cabled or lacy cowl.

North Light 6

I was also wowed by the rugs on display — also woven by the center in Hartford. I snapped a couple of photos of ones I liked and plotted to get Mitch back there the next day to see if he’d want to get one for our soon-to-be new apartment.

As luck would have it, when we came back Sunday afternoon, one of the owners, Sven, was there. As he rang up the rug we chose, I told him about Indie Untangled and he ended up giving us a short tour of mill, a small space above the store packed with miniature versions of large-scale mill machinery — designed to process 40 pounds of fiber at a time, as opposed to thousands. Before giving us a quick overview of the milling process, he compared the scale of operation to that of a microbrewery, and I could definitely see the parallels to the breweries that we’ve toured.

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North Light is the only manufacturing on Block Island. While it imports the majority of the fiber that becomes yarn, the fiber from the alpaca on the adjoining farm does go into some of its products, like the rug that we bought. In fact, after I left the store on Saturday, the pair of alpacas that I had met on my way in were sheared while I was shopping, so I got to see them sporting their new haircut.

North Light alpaca sheared

Aside from running the mill and store, and selling yarn to shops and at fiber festivals, North Light also organizes annual retreats, including one this fall in collaboration with Vogue Knitting and one next May with Patty Lyons, Deborah Newton and Twist Collective’s Kate Gilbert. Mitch and I are already talking about coming back to Block Island, and I’m sure this won’t be my last trip to North Light Fibers.