Marcia MacDonald of Long Plains Alpaca Farm and Lana Plantae, her line of colorful fiber products, has been raising alpacas on her farm in Buxton since 2001. She spins yarn from her animals’ fiber, which she then hand dyes.
“I use natural dyes only,” said MacDonald. “Chemical dyes are another issue. You can equate what you wear to what you eat. You think about what you put in your body and should think about what you put on your body.”
MacDonald, who also has a few Icelandic sheep on her farm, is an avid gardener. She uses her own plant material to create the dyes for her fiber.
“With our yarn you can create a garment that is very local, right down to the color,” she said.
For MacDonald and others like her who are part of Maine’s vibrant fiber industry, products that are grown and produced locally or regionally are at the heart of sustainability. And demand for such products is growing.
“I think it’s the blow-back to mass-produced goods. Sourcing more locally is the revolt to mass production, and I think it’s here to stay,” she said. “For me, knowing were materials come from is important, much like the awareness of where your food comes from. The fiber that is available (in Maine) is wonderful and raised by a farmer that cares about their animals. I’m really passionate about the buying local and I’m obsessed with fiber.”
Maine is a good place for the buy local/sustainable movement, MacDonald said.
“I think Maine is ahead of it in a lot of ways,” she said. “The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association has been around since the 1970s and does a great job pushing buying local.”
Pamela Drew of Pamelamas in Arundel has also been raising alpacas for the past 13 years. She was introduced to llamas in the mid-1990s and became intrigued with the animal’s fiber, but found she preferred the texture of the alpaca.
“I’m a knitter from way back,” Drew said. “My interest has always been about the fiber. Alpacas are a good size and bred for their fiber.”
Drew said alpaca fiber blends well with wool. Although it does not have much elasticity, it is very warm, which makes it excellent for use in outdoor wear. Alpaca fiber enhances the warmth of wool and wool has the elasticity to help hold shape. There are many ways alpaca fiber can be utilized, depending on the grade and length.
“Something can be done with every grade of fiber. Rugs can be made with the coarser, shorter fiber and it’s great for shoe inserts,” she said.
Drew sells yarn spun from her animal’s fiber, along with hats, purses, socks and other finished products, made by herself and others, from a small shop in her home.
She said she has seen a resurgence of textiles home grown in Maine and a trend toward customers being more interested in products that are environmentally friendly.
“I sell products from a co-op. We get a good response from the general public in welcoming our products,” she said. “People will say, ‘This came from your animals, it’s better than what you get at the store.’ The products are made in a way that makes it something people want to have. There is a connection to the animals themselves and a connection to nature.”
Both Drew and MacDonald find that customers are willing to spend a little more for products that are sustainable, stylish and long-lasting.
“You can go to Walmart and buy a sweater that in six months or a year you throw away, or you can spend $100 on yarn and create a sweater that your grandchildren will still be able to wear,” said MacDonald. “What is more cost effective? And buying products made close to home – now that’s stylish.”
Drew said that while products made from alpaca fiber for general wear can be pricier than those bought at a department store, they’re going to last much longer.
“I sell heavy work socks that cost about $25. A man who works outside buys them from me and he thinks $25 is great. He wears them every day and they hold up. The warmth and quality makes it affordable, really,” she said.
Eventually, even the best-made fiber goods begin to wear. Enter Jack and Mary Designs. The York-based company creates “eco-friendly, American-made, hand-crafted, fashion-forward accessories made from recycled sweaters.” For 10 years, fabric artist Marilyn Robertson of Jack and Mary has been repurposing old knitwear into gloves, mittens and more.
Robertson’s commitment to producing functional, stylish accessories that are hand-made in Maine has earned the company a following. The former interior designer said she “channels her eye for design and love of color into creating one-of-a-kind, artful accessories.”
While the company first focused on making handbags from sweaters, it now makes mittens, headbands, boot cuffs and flower pins. The products of Jack and Mary Designs are the epitome of upcycling by converting old or discarded materials into something useful and often more beautiful.
“I love good design. I like the challenge of finding uses for materials that otherwise may be discarded,” said Robertson. “I think there is a trend to buying items that have a story and are made in the USA. “
Robertson thinks companies have become more aware of sustainability and are looking at ways to integrate it into their businesses. And while she said she is not sure what the motivating reason is for most companies she is sure the movement toward sustainability is a good thing.
“It’s about taking what we need to live now, without jeopardizing the potential for people in the future to meet their needs,” said Robertson. “I look at sustainability as a responsible and fiscally responsible way to live. I do what I do because I love to design and create. The one theme that has been constant in all of my businesses has been reusing materials. I believe in redesigning.”
Fingerless gloves are a popular item at Jack and Mary Designs, based in York. Marcia MacDonald has been raising alpacas at her farm in Buxton since 2001. She uses the fiber from her animals to make yarn and other products. Lana Plantae yarn is hand dyed with all-natural, plant-based material. The yarn is spun from the fiber of alpacas at Long Plains Farm. The mittens pictured here are made from recycled sweater material, as are all the fiber products available through Jack and Mary Designs.Pamela Drew sells a large selection of fiber products in a small shop at her home in Arundel, as well as at fairs and festivals throughout Maine.