July 10, 2012
Text by Jaci Conroy
As a little girl growing up on Nantucket, Karin Sheppard loved visiting her mother at her job as a seamstress at Nantucket Looms. “I’d watch the women sitting at the looms weaving these beautiful things with their hands,” she recalls. “It seemed magical to me.”
After graduating from college in the early 1980s, Sheppard planned to become a teacher, but when a position in education didn’t materialize, she took a job as a weaver at Nantucket Looms and stayed on for twenty years.
She struck out on her own in 2000 after realizing that there was a void in the market for fine handmade throws and blankets. “I felt that designers had limited choices. A lot of the chenille blankets that were out there seemed like they would fall apart. I wanted to create heirloom-quality goods that would stand the test of time,” she says.
Under the label Island Weaves, Sheppard crafts throws of Peruvian alpaca that feel luxurious and come in soft, light hues as well as herringbone patterns. She buys East Dennis–based Frog Tree yarn produced by a nonprofit cooperative in South America. The cooperative starts with the raw alpaca fibers and completes the entire process, from color-sorting the fibers to cleaning, spinning and dyeing the yarn. Sheppard finds Frog Tree’s mission to provide continuous work and fair wages to farmers as appealing as the array of colors the line offers.
She also creates silk and mohair throws and baby blankets of cotton chenille that can be thrown in the washer and dryer.
Sheppard does all her work by hand; there’s nothing mechanical about the process. A typical blanket may take two days to craft, though she seldom focuses on just one project at a time. “I’ve figured out ways to be more efficient over the years,” she says.
For example, she’ll set up her loom—the most time-consuming aspect of weaving—to create six blankets when she has orders for only two. “That will take me about six days to complete, but in the end I’ll have four blankets that I can put on display in the shop,” she explains.
She often has more orders than she can keep up with, but Sheppard prefers to work alone, sometimes using apprentices on small projects. “I’m afraid that in a few generations the process of handweaving will die out,” she says. “So it’s so important to me to teach the practice to others with the hope that they’ll continue to pass it on.”
Rather spontaneously, a few years ago, Sheppard began making bath mats. About to take a shower, she removed the lovely rag rug she’d woven and replaced it with a terry-cloth bath mat. “Suddenly it hit me,” she recalls. “I wanted to be able to drip all over the rug I’d made!” And so was born the idea of making bath mats out of towels.
Sheppard comes by the towels at the Nantucket landfill, in the “take it or leave it” building. “There is a great selection of towels there. I love to see how the different colors blend together in the finished rugs,” she says. She enjoys cultivating something refined and beautiful out of things that have been discarded by others; she also crafts rugs out of discarded jeans, khakis and the iconic salmon-hued pants known as Nantucket Reds.
While Sheppard sells some items in her Old South Wharf studio—an antique fishing shanty overlooking the Nantucket Boat Basin—most pieces are made to order. She creates upholstery out of wool and cotton exclusively for designers, including the lauded Vladimir Kagan, known for the spare, curved furniture he’s been designing since the 1950s. Kagan consults with Sheppard on custom projects: he’ll tell her what colors and textures a client is looking for, and she creates samples for him.
“The contrast between the handwoven fabric and the modern curved edges of one of Vladimir’s sofas is stunning,” says Sheppard. While most handweavers shrink away from creating endless yards of upholstery, it’s a practice Sheppard relishes. “It’s intensely physical, but something about the process is very calming for me,” she says. “While I work I look out onto the ocean and feel so peaceful.” •
Island Weaves, Nantucket, Mass., (508) 221-8343, www.islandweaves.com