Worth the Walk

Stroll up High Street to North Light Fibers and you’ll find the alpaca, the shawl, and everything in between
Mon, 02/24/2014 - 4:00pm

The brightly-colored sign on the storefront reads “North Light Fibers,” the lettering sandwiched between two rows of yarn rolled into round bundles. As you step across the threshold, you enter another realm, a world of fiber: jewel-toned skeins of oh-so-soft alpaca yarn, neatly tucked onto shelves; delicate, feathery shawls; intricately woven mobius wraps, some with wavelike patterns reminiscent of the sea; elegant fingerless gloves of soft white; handsome handmade rugs. 

Sven and Laura Risom, proprietors of North Light Fibers, opened their mill and retail store to the public in 2011, introducing Block Island to its first manufacturing business: producing yarn. Most island businesses open only in the summer, courting the throngs of visitors who are drawn to Block Island’s natural beauty— North Light Fibers is one of the few that remains open during the off-season. Sven explains that, “The goal at the end of the day is to have a sustainable business that we can pass on….to have a sustainable business that we’re all proud of, which will be actualized in the fact that we can actually live out here [on Block Island].” 

Laura and business partner Karyn Logan run the mill, above the retail shop, transforming raw fiber into beautiful yarns, from fine “Forever Lace” to pleasingly thick and chunky rug yarn. It’s a lot of work. 

“We could actually import finished alpaca yarn on a skein with a label cheaper than we can buy the raw fiber from American farmers,” remarks Laura. “The cheaper way, or the way to make more money, would probably be to just import it and say, oh, it’s my yarn. But that’s not the way it works.” 

Though they do use fibers from the Abrams Farm alpaca and others, it’s not nearly enough, so they import raw fiber, primarily alpaca. All of the subsequent work is done on the island: the washing, sorting, dying, and spinning—it is truly a labor-intensive process. 

For knitters and weavers, North Light Fibers is a treasure trove, an alluring jackpot of high-quality materials. But all visitors can appreciate the beauty and grace of the fine handiwork displayed about the store. They might not realize, though, that each of these items has a story to tell. Those gloves? They are made in Bosnia, knit by hand in a small village. That little mouse hat? Crafted by a native Block Islander. The rug hanging on the wall? Woven by a visually-impaired artisan. Each of the products here has a story to tell. 

On a morning visit to North Light Fibers, you will likely meet Renate Fitzgerald. A year-round islander, she works in the retail store and is a skilled knitter whose hats, for both babies and adults, are proudly displayed about the store. Ribbed caps in autumn orange and brown and a cabled hat in sunflower yellow, join a colorful splash of “Leaning Squares” hats in vibrant red and muted purple. The elegant “Doris Hat,” has a dainty flower affixed to its side; in keeping with Block Island’s close-knit community, it is named for a dear friend who recently passed away. In another corner, an array of whimsical pumpkin hats, complete with little green vines on their tops, are arranged next to the beloved mouse cap, sporting a shy smile and ears. 

Renate learned to knit as a child growing up in Aachen, Germany. Taught by her mother and grandmother, Renate has no use for patterns, instead creating her own designs. “ I don’t follow a set pattern. The patterns that are there—I made them up myself. I have them up here, in my head,” she says, tapping the side of her head for emphasis. When she first learned to knit, she would study old sweaters and knitted garments as models. “I tailor it to my imagination, how it should look and go from there,” she explains. “It’s nothing totally complicated but it’s something you can easily adjust to what you know how to do.” Not complicated for her, that is. 

If you venture farther into the store, you will find yourself surrounded by delicate lacework in soft pastel hues. Shawls of blue and pink and subdued brown are draped on the shoulders of mannequins— and eager customers, who delight in the opportunity to try them on. Above shelves aglow with cozy, bright skeins of yarns sit a variety of fingerless gloves, knit by the same group of women who craft the gorgeous shawls. Unlike Renate, though, these women don’t live on Block Island— in fact, they live in Bosnia. The Risoms ship their yarn to Sarajevo, in cooperation with the non-profit organization Women-for-Women International, whose purpose is to “work with socially excluded women in…countries where war and conflict have devastated lives and communities…” According to their website, women who participate in the organization’s one-year program “learn job skills and receive business training so they can earn a living,” 

Sven explains that, “In essence, it’s geared toward how to run a business and self-sustainability.” The Bosnian women are learning about “things like quality control, financial statements, and importing and exporting. We allow them to use their skills in order to gain advantage… [rather than] be forced into cheap labor. The long-term vision, Sven explains is to “help get a business started, then let the women continue it independently. 

The Risoms “come up with patterns on a visual basis. We say, basically, what is it we want? We then send them pictures of what we want. It’s long and thin, or short…We send them the kind of lace pattern we like and then a picture of the garment… they come back with some drawings and ideas.” Laura, as a long-time knitter, is integral to the technical side of the design process. What happens next? North Light Fibers yarn, made on Block Island, is shipped to Bosnia, returning in the form of shawls, wraps, hats, and gloves. 

But North Light Fibers also works with organizations closer to home. As you stroll around the store, you will certainly pause to admire the soft, thick rugs made of alpaca yarn, some in vibrant blues and reds, others in quieter shades of grey and brown. Beside beautiful—and functional—rugs hang intricately woven scarves and mobius wraps, which form a simple yet elegant poncho shape that drapes about the body. These woven products are crafted at the Hartford Artisans Weaving Center in Hartford, Conn., by a group of weavers who are visually-impaired or blind and/or are age 55 and older. Each participant receives weaving instructions, a loom to use, and weaving materials.” 

“Hartford [Weaving Center] is a core part of our business. It’s fine to work with contract weavers, but we really want to work with people who are philosophically aligned,” Sven remarks. 

Laura comments that when she first began operating the mill, the Hartford Artisans were “very supportive in helping me know what a weaver needs in yarn… we really trust the people there.” The Artisans even made a pilgrimage to Block Island at one point. They toured the island, visited the Abrams Animal Farm, and had the opportunity to see their work displayed for sale—a moving experience, both for them and for the Risoms. 

For customers, too, knowing the stories behind the products makes visiting the shop at North Light Fibers more meaningful, too.