When Lynn, Mary Ruth, and I started South Street Linen, we shared some core business ideals: we wanted to design the clothes ourselves, we wanted to use a pure and noble fabric (linen), and we wanted to hire cutters and stitchers locally in the greater Portland, Maine, area.
It turns out there are lots of people in the industry who shared our ideals. There are enough of us now that people are calling it the slow fashion movement: keep your production local and high quality; use sustainable raw materials; know your workers personally.
We can't imagine doing business any other way.
Amongst the Biddeford Mills lies the Saco River Dyehouse, a rarely seen glimpse into the old textile world. It is one of a handful of independent Dyehouses in the U.S., the only one situated in the upper northeast. Inside the brick façade are many microcosms, working independently and simultaneously. The Dyehouse has yet to transition to newer dying technology and so there are many hands, processing and color matching and hanging to dry the bundles of saturated yarn before they become twisted into skeins or spun onto cones. This is one of the reasons South Street Linen has been drawn to Saco River. Much like our operations, the Dyehouse produces in small batches, carefully combing through the yarns. We are both woven into the textile of the slow fashion movement, taking a closer look at where and how our clothing comes to us.
Claudia, one of the Dyehousesʼ original founders tells us the origin story of Saco River and how in 3 short years, it came to be the facility we were standing in today. The building itself is much like what you imagine an old mill building to look like- wooden beams, brick, cement. There are rows upon rows of metal shelving separating each hue of yarn, pops of color that permeate the space. Through the front entry, a woman could be seen using an automated metal hook mechanism to spin bundles of crimson yarn into twisted skeins, uniform, with their own irregularities.
The center of the building houses different machines to wind yarn onto cones, pull yarn into manageable bundles, and prep the textiles for dying. There are rows of identical apparatus, long metal, spider like arms to manipulate material. All the machines run with the aid of a set of hands. It was incredible to see how analog the facility remains, relying mutually on these tools and the individuals' ability to operate them.
There was a door off of the central space which housed the actual dying facility. It was smaller than imagined with a separate room for formulating each dye. A husband and wife team of dye chemists work on each formula in large metal pots like those you might use in an industrial kitchen. Here they work with organic and non- organic dye powders. A bag was pulled out, from it came the cochineal bug, used to make a bright red crimson dye. This and other botanical dyes arenʼt often used in the Saco River Dye House for a number of reasons. Because of the inconsistency in sourcing and processing, dyes made from this matter vary greatly from dye lot to dye lot which is not favorable when dying for a company that requires consistent coloring.
Smaller ventures, like South Street Linen can work with Saco River on unique projects. In our case, fully realized garments are soaked in small dye lots for custom runs of color. Because of the flexibility and capabilities the Dyehouse has South Street is able to imagine any hue, including those unavailable in the general linen market and apply it to our designs. The citron dot scarves we drape over mannequins were once a gauze linen floating in a bath of color at the Saco River Dyehouse. To be able to collaborate in such an interpersonal way is a unique experience.
This little laboratory of sorts, empties out into a room of steam. It smells like hot wool, thick, humid clouds rising from the metal tanks. A small crane pulls the dye lots from each vat and men aerate the batches. Through the open doors we saw long, indigo strands limply draining into colored pools. The bunches are transferred to the main room, where they dry in aisles of their comrades. Similar dye lots hang together, fans gently swaying them. They sit for two days this way. They move like something else, seaweed or branches or wheat fields.
You leave Saco River, feeling like youʼve witnessed something otherworldly. Places of this kind are quickly growing obsolete. Hands replaced by metal. Warm bricks to sleek industrial walls.