Maine’s fiber future: Textile innovations lead the way

Posted Feb. 07, 2014, at 3:13 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Forget the sepia-toned photographs of workers toiling over a welter of looms in a congested textile mill. The fabric future in Maine is surging into the 21st century in solar-powered, geothermal studios offering high-end, sustainable fashions.

In Biddeford, a portion of a sprawling mill hums with activity. An ambitious dyehouse on the Saco River turns yarn, hanging like giant strands of spaghetti, into vibrant organic hues. Add workout clothes made from recycled polyester by a company in Brunswick and a revolutionary shopping bag culled from tree pulp, and the state’s fiber future appears vital again.

“Historically, the textile industry in Maine was very strong,” says Anne Emlein, chairwoman of the new textile and fashion design department at the Maine College of Art in Portland. “A lot of companies took their business offshore. There is a resurgence to bring the manufacturing business back to this country.”

Though no one believes the mills will ever roar back to life full throttle, pockets of innovation are knitting together across the state. In southern Maine, where most of the new job growth is occurring, Maine College of Art is extending the traditional arts school notion beyond studio sketches.

At a crowded colloquium at the college last week, scores of leaders in Maine textiles and apparel gathered to brainstorm ways to make the textile industry strong, as well as collaborate with young, local talent.

Entrepreneurs such as Tom Chappell of Ramblers Way and Jeremy Litchfield of Atayne addressed industry peers and students.

Chappell, who sold his previous company Tom’s of Maine to Colgate-Palmolive in 2006, has funneled his fortune into high-end garments made with wool from rambouillet sheep. Based in downtown Kennebunk since 2009, Ramblers Way makes plant-based, naturally dyed clothes that sell for $125 and up. Robert Redford is a customer.

“We are in the doubling and tripling stages,” he said.

However, his fabric is not made in Maine. His wool is sourced from Montana and Utah, turned into fabric in the Carolinas and cut and sewn in Allentown, Pa.

“You can’t do it all in Maine, you just can’t,” said Chappell, revealing the challenges of an industry where the local supply chain has deteriorated over the years.

Before launching his business, Chappell visited sheep ranchers and spinning and weaving operations across the country. He discovered an industry “amazed to find an American entrepreneur coming forward,” he said in an interview this week in his LEED-certified headquarters, where 14 of his 20 employees work. “Everything they had done decades prior was to prepare something to go to China.”

He’s found that after five years of solid growth, the public is hungry for sustainable clothes made in Maine.

“There is a tremendous interest in natural fibers and evidence that people want to work with natural materials,” said Chappell. “It’s a matter of time before Maine entrepreneurs find their way to a market.”

Strengthening the supply chain

In order for more local companies to produce fabrics, missing links need to be built in the textile supply chain, according to Claudia Raessler, CEO of the Saco River Dyehouse, who addressed the crowd at the Maine College of Art last week.

As owner of the only dye house in Maine, and only yarn dye house in the country with Global Organic Textile Standard certification, Raessler, a former lawyer, has become a key player in Maine’s textile industry.

Her mill colors 500 to 600 pounds of yarn a day using dyes developed by an on-staff, world-class chemist. Customers vary from shops in New York’s SoHo neighborhood to Plimoth Plantation to manufacturers and designers.

Now in its second year, the Saco River Dyehouse employs 13 people and is crackling with energy and innovation.

Raessler, 64, hopes to work with institutions such as Maine College of Art to develop fashion-forward colors to attract new clients. In addition, she expects to begin dyeing synthetics, which would allow the company to double its workforce by the end of the year.

However, she warned that “if the industry has to continue to outsource all production, then we can’t build a supply chain and make a product that’s market competitive.”

Job growth

In the next three years, Maine’s textile industry is projected to add nearly 500 full-time jobs and 166 part-time jobs, according to a survey from the Manufacturers Association of Maine. In 2012, textile jobs made up 8 percent of all manufacturing jobs in the state, according to the most recent data from the Maine Department of Labor.

Keeping these projections on track takes cash.

“All we need is seed money and financial resources,” said Lisa Martin, executive director of the association, a nonprofit that helps industry in the state thrive.

Though established companies such as Ramblers Way are attracting deep-pocketed investors, what’s a startup to do?

“The way to move it forward is to have a dedicated facilitator to help coordinate the business-to-business needs,” said Martin, who is taking the lead in that role. “Someone to say, this is what we need. Assist them, figure out where the gaps are.”

The association has 90 textile companies in its database, but besides the number, what’s more significant to Martin is the products they are making.

“They are continually developing new and exciting things,” she said, singling out popular Portland company Sea Bags, which makes satchels out of recycled sails that sell worldwide.

Martin and leaders like Raessler say research and development is needed to create market-leading, innovative products.

At the Maine College of Art event last week, Claudia Brahms and Noel Mount unveiled their newest product: a brown paper bag made from tree cloth. The founders of Freeport-based blanket company Brahms Mount, “tried to take a tree and turn it into a textile,” said Brahms.

Made of virgin kraft paper, the biodegradable bag, which retails for $38, is too high a price point to make an impact on the commercial market, but it’s a concrete example of how Maine’s textile industry can move forward through innovation.

“For the textile industry to survive in Maine, it has to be a niche product made by good artisans to a market that values authenticity,” said Mount, who grew up working in his father’s factories in England.

The tree bags and fabric are manufactured in Maine through a collaboration between True Textiles of Guilford, Custom Cordage of Waldoboro and Port Canvas of Arundel.

Mount said reigniting the textile industry in Maine is important on many levels.

“We had a language that was textiles, and it’s being lost,” he said. “And when it’s lost, we lose a part of our cultural heritage.”

Textiles are good for tourism

As Maine cements its reputation as a textile hub, tourists are starting to flock here for fabric.

“Last year, we had a busload a week of people that wanted to come in and see yarn being dyed,” said Raessler. “We think that’s a really important piece for the state of Maine.”

A new bullet point in the buy-local economy could soon be wear-local. Longtime fiber enthusiasts look to Maine’s thriving food scene for guidance.

“Locavore is sexy, what can we learn from it?” asked Linda Cortright, publisher of Wild Fibers magazine based in Rockland. “The local food movement is really leading the way.”

Like craft coffee and microbreweries, could small-batch, custom spinners enter Maine’s sustainable lexicon?

They already have, according to Jeff Edelstein, founder of Greater Portland Sustainability Council and co-organizer of the Maine College of Art talk.

“Greater Portland is becoming a hub for textile, fashion and design and is a real sparkplug in our creative economy,” he said.

“People are so aware of the role of food in our lives, but we don’t realize how much textiles are around us, every day. It’s what we wear, what covers our furniture, windows, floors,” said Edelstein. “Textiles can be part of solutions to environmental problems.”

With a much smaller domestic textile industry, “American wool doesn’t stay here,” Chappell said. “We are keeping it here and adding value.”