PORTLAND, Maine — Many people look at fall as renewal, but Dory Waxman takes it to the extreme.
“I have 96 capes to sew in the next three weeks,” said the plucky blonde on a recent sultry fall morning.
Inside Old Port Wool and Textile Co. she has her work cut out for her. Undaunted, the former Portland city councilor is ready. When she sold her first company, Casco Bay Wool Works, after 11 successful years of keeping Portlanders warm in the winter, she needed a break.
Fast-forward a decade and she is itching to get back to wool.
“I thought I could change the world by sewing a wool cape,” she said. “I didn’t really change the world, but I can still try.”
The self-taught craftswoman, who made capes and shawls of Maine-made wool from 1992 to 2003, attracted high-profile customers. Lily Tomlin owns several purple capes. Martha Stewart has two shawls in canary yellow and light blue.
Inside her new Danforth Street shop and sewing factory, which opens next weekend, Waxman is doing her part to keep the wool industry alive and vital in Maine. That, along with strengthening the local workforce — she hopes to hire up to 10 people in the next five years — is the reason she is back in business. Plus, she needed a job.
“We are workers as a nation. We like to work; there’s too many people unemployed. Let’s do manufacturing, bring it home and make it here in our country,” said Waxman, whose father worked in a tool and die shop for 40 years in Massachusetts. “We have a lot to be proud of.”
Fashion and Maine have not always been bedfellows, but lately that’s changing. And capes, a poncho that parts in the middle with clasps and a hood, is timeless. “We used to say we are wrapping our customers in the warmth and romance of this beautiful red, wool cape,” said Waxman, who uses 100 percent Merino wool.
Beyond a bank of windows, she can be seen bent over a sewing machine working vibrant red, purple and black wool through the dancing needle. She caresses the fabric like an old friend.
“There’s human touch in wool. All the women who inspired me are the ones who worked in the factories. They put wool and cotton on the map in New England by doing good quality work,” said Waxman.
In the 1940s, the city of Lewiston had seven major textile mills. Its largest, the Bates Mill, employed between 7,000 and 8,000 people, according to an archivist at Museum L-A, an institution that chronicles the city’s textile, shoe and brick industries.
In the last few decades, wool manufacturers have left the state in droves, making sourcing a challenge.
“By the time I sold my business, six mills had closed. It was heartbreaking to watch it,” said Waxman. “No one knows what it is to make a yard of cloth.”
Cathy Corbett does.
Having worked for 30 years at Robinson Manufacturing Co. in Oxford, one of the last woolen textile factories in the state, which closed 10 years ago, she knows the business is risky.
“Having gone through the demise of it throughout the country, it’s difficult, but the U.S. is resilient,” she said.
Corbett, who runs Oxford Mill-End Store and sells wool from her former plant, sees newcomers such as Old Port Wool and Textile as bright lights. Waxman’s capes and shawls are crafted from the last yards of the last wool cloth to be made in Maine.
What she is doing won’t reboot the wool trade, said Corbett, but reviving interest in wool products is pivotal.
“You can’t expect to start an industry again if there isn’t a call for it. If people don’t see it, they don’t know a thing about it,” said Corbett. “I wish her good luck in her endeavor. It’s difficult for her to start up. But she is supplementing our business here.”
Long-time cape customer Claudia LaBella Adams applauds Waxman’s return and will be lining up for more.
“I own three of her capes,” said the Brunswick resident, who was thrilled to hear that Waxman was firing up her sewing machine again. “Quality for Dory is absolutely job number one.”
To LaBella Adams, capes have a timeless appeal that “never goes out of style.” And they have more flair than a pea coat or ski jacket. “I love the drama. You can make an entrance into any room if you know how to throw it,” she said.
Besides staying warm and chic during a Maine winter, LaBella Adams is impressed by Waxman’s work ethic.
“One of her MOs historically is buying the fabric in America and hiring American workers. She makes a point of making it a local product. She worked hard to make it from Maine wool, that’s important for her,” said LaBella Adams. “And that’s laudable.”
Twenty years ago, Waxman would have dozens of wool manufactures to choose from in Maine. Today the pickings are slim. But new textile mills, such as Maine Woolens in Brunswick, are changing the landscape.
Jo Miller opened the cotton and wool blanket factory five years ago and this year business has increased eightfold.
“People are wanting to buy products made in Maine and made in America. When you tell people that it’s made all right here in the mill, they get very excited about it,” said Miller.
Waxman will carry blankets by Maine Woolens and might eventually buy their cloth for her capes.
Though Old Port Wool and Textile is small compared to Miller’s catalog accounts, every client counts.
“When you work in Maine and do things in Maine, you need all the business you can get,” said Miller. “She is one of the small specialty types of businesses that helps our industry keep running.”
For Waxman, supporting a workforce with a living wage and solid working conditions is as important as creating a fabulous frock. In her shop she is adding a mini museum to “The Belles of New England,” the mill girls who labored in cotton and wool factories from Lowell to Lewiston.
“If I can be successful selling a beautiful wool garment then I can be employing people, not just in my shop, or a mill in New England, but all the way down to the farmers. I think we can bring that back.”
And a woman who wears a cape is confident, said Waxman. “People feel good when they put on my capes.”
Must be the wool?
“It’s the love.”