2013 Joan Abrams Award honoree: North Light Fibers
Sven Risom, his wife Laura and their partner Karyn Logan sit in a room on the first floor of their company, North Light Fibers, surrounded by yarn, by articles about yarn and fabric, and by the machinery that helps create and dye the yarn the company makes.
But they are talking, passionately, about jobs. About Block Island. And about the struggle that they have had — and they frankly hope others will have — to build a company that is open year-round on this small island.
These are the two threads that paved the way for the Risoms and Logan to be named this year’s Joan Abrams Award honorees, an award that recognizes business people who also contribute in a positive way to the quality of life here.
“This is not about the yarn, this is about what we’re trying to do,” said Sven Risom of the award. “It’s nice that people are listening because one of the things we’re trying to foster is more light industry on Block Island.”
“I’m honored,” said Laura Risom. “I’m surprised.”
“I’ve only been here a year-and-a-half,” Karyn Logan started to say, but Laura Risom cut her off. “We couldn’t have done what we’ve done without you.”
“It’s nice to be recognized,” said Logan.
While North Light Fibers is not the only year-round business on the island, it is the only manufacturer that’s open all 12 months. In addition to the three partners, there are three others who work at the shop: Renate Fitzgerald, who knits the vast majority of hats and assists in the retail shop; Paige Gaffett, who leads North Light Fibers’ needle felting classes and weaves baby blankets and rugs; and Brooke Ortel, who assists with the store and kit building. Risom has spent time traveling to other small islands to better understand how these communities sustain their economies, and he’s come away with a distinct impression: “If Block Island doesn’t become a year-round economy, we’ll be servants to the landed gentry,” he said. “Our whole goal, as a business, is three-fold.”
These goals are to produce the best yarn in the country, to continue being a year-round business, and to enjoy life on the island. “Pride in product,” said Risom. “We concentrate on quality rather than volume. We don’t see ourselves bordered by the island; we see ourselves as having the ability to compete anywhere.”
As an illustration of this first point, the group points out that they have just shipped off 70 yarn kits to Hand Woven Magazine, a leading trade journal, that will be sold through the magazine’s website. It’s an entrée into a national, if not global, market. “We’re trying to fight above our weight class,” said Risom.
The Risoms and Logan are also working on what they call a “counter-seasonal model.” That is, they don’t offer a product that has an appeal during one season, specifically summer. In fact, Laura Risom pointed out that yarn products, and the people who use them, aren’t usually associated with summer. Their products are purposefully appealing for use during the off-season. Their model is to generate 25 percent of their revenue during June, July and August, rather than have it top-heavy during summer, so they can keep their doors open year-round.
“Obviously, our goal is to make money,” Laura Risom said. “We’re not a charity.” But the balance, they said, is not to maximize their time making money while minimizing their ability to enjoy life. They realize it’s not easy. Their revenue projections are on track, and they fully understand that making a go of it on Block Island entails more than simply creating a high-quality product. There is housing. There is electricity. There is the cost of goods and services. They know all of this comes into play.
“Does the town need to be an incubator for small businesses? Do they need to invest in small business? I think they do,” said Sven Risom. They all believe the community is supportive of the idea of more year-round businesses. “I think the vast majority of people want that,” said Risom. “They want a good, thriving community.”
Sven Risom said he feels, to some degree, that ancillary issues such as housing and the cost of utilities has overshadowed the true engine of a sustainable economy: jobs. Create the jobs, he believes, and the other issues will eventually work themselves out.
“It all starts with an income,” said Risom. “And the other things will come.”