Old Town designers launch linen business with an ecofriendly bent

Posted Jan. 24, 2011, at 6:20 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 7:17 a.m.

Christina Wentworth and Janyce Boynton’s creations seem too pretty to use for their intended purposes, but the pair does indeed want you to use them, and often, whether it’s for drying dishes or a five-course dinner party.

Marrying visually pleasing design with functionality and green living is the name of the game for Wentworth and Boynton, aka the design team of Madder Root. The pair makes hand-stitched, hand-printed, ecofriendly tea towels, napkins and, soon, grocery bags at their Old Town studio.

“It’s form and function,” said Wentworth, a Hampden native. “It looks really nice in your kitchen, but it’s usable, and it’s made with every consideration for it being good for the planet.”

The two artists met a few years ago, shortly after Wentworth returned from studying abroad in Australia. They became fast friends. They found many similarities creatively and in their lifestyle choices. Boynton is a lifelong fiber artist — more specifically, a quilter, creating intricate quilts from unique fabrics, ranging in size from a few inches to big enough to fill a wall. Sojourn Quilts, her design company, is on the back burner for now while she concentrates on Madder Root.

Wentworth studied printmaking at the University of Maine and at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Australia, mastering the art of screen-printing on both small and large scales. She works in the print shop at the UMaine.

Both women have a passion for environmentally friendly living, and for local and organic foods and goods. It became clear that they needed to collaborate on something, and from that, the idea of Madder Root was born.

“We needed something that would complement both our unique skills, but could also be a viable business,” said Boynton. “We had both art and business experience, so we knew that was the direction we wanted to go in.”

Old-fashioned linen calendar towels became a source of inspiration — many may remember them as the sheets hanging in many a grandmother’s kitchen, printed with a full calendar and various artistic embellishments. Boynton purchased yards of organic linen. Wentworth invested in water-based, solvent-free screen-printing dyes. A few months of experimenting later, the first tea towels began appearing on the pair’s Etsy site, www.madderroot.etsy.com, in early 2010.

Wentworth’s designs are bold but elegant, combining iconic Maine images — pine cones, mussel shells, buoys — with birds, flowers and garden staples. The colors pop from the clean white linen, in bright shades of red, blue, green, orange, gray and yellow. All Madder Root products are machine washable and highly durable.

“We washed a few of them over and over again, just to see if the dye would stick. And it does,” said Wentworth. “We tried Oxyclean on them. We tried bleach. The color stays. These are things you can use for a long time.”

Boynton’s neat-as-a-pin stitches are sturdy and attractive, the mark of a dedicated, talented seamstress. Far from the mass-produced cloth items found in most kitchens, Madder Root’s products are proud to be DIY.

“We really like the idea of doing all of it by hand, and mixing our own colors, and packaging it all ourselves. Even the cardboard sleeves we wrap them in are hand-stitched,” said Boynton. “We want people to know that this came out of our living rooms.”

Along with keeping it local and handmade, the women also have devoted themselves to finding green alternatives for

nearly every aspect of their product.

“We always think, ‘How can we make even less of an impact?’” said Wentworth. “So, we don’t use any plastic. We air-dry everything, inside of flash-drying. Even our promo shots are from local photographers. It would be cheaper to do it another way, but why not do it this way?”

Madder Root products are available in a number of local stores, including Maine Maven in Orono, Window Panes in Bar Harbor and Archipelago in Rockland. At the moment, the pair are producing only tea towels and napkin sets, though they plan to introduce produce and grocery bags in the spring, as the farmers market season begins. A handful of limited edition, online-only scarves and recipe cards are also available. Other items such as tablecloths, place mats and curtains are requested by customers, but Boynton and Wentworth are taking it one step at a time.

“We don’t want to get in over our heads,” said Wentworth. “We just want to focus on making a quality product that makes us happy.”

Madder Root tea towels are $18, and a set of four napkins is $36. There also are sales on seconds of both towels and napkins online at www.madderroot.etsy.com.

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