From New York’s Fashion Avenue to Kittery Point
David Stensland combines his love of design, knitting, producing, and alpacas to create eco-friendly RedMaple Sportswear
Fashion designer David Stensland felt compelled to move from the trendy, bustling streets of New York City’s fashion district to the coast of Maine more than a decade ago. It was not the peace and serenity of the surf that drew him in, but the beauty and grace of his beloved alpacas. It was in Kittery Point, Maine, where he wanted to merge all his life’s passions—designing, knitting, producing, and alpacas—to create his clothing line, RedMaple Sportswear. Now in its fifteenth year, RedMaple offers eco-friendly men’s and women’s apparel, accessories, gifts, and home furnishings and boasts more than over 1,400 customers in the United States, Canada, Norway, and Japan.
While working in product design for Polo Ralph Lauren and J. Crew in the 1990s, Stensland discovered he liked using lustrous alpaca fibers. Many brands such as Louis Vuitton and Versace were showcasing the fiber on runways in Paris and Milan, and it was really catching on. He purchased several alpacas, began breeding them to obtain selective fiber outcomes, and started crafting an idea he had for a clothing line geared toward active, outdoorsy individuals. “I was constantly discovering new yarns and fabrics,” Stensland says. “Creating new colors and fresh looks is a fun, inventive process.” He knew he could combine his artisan skills—knitting, weaving, and handcrafting his own textiles—with his knowledge of the process side of the fashion industry to run his own business.
Originally from the Midwest, Stensland drew inspiration from the American frontier, hiking trails, and prairies he loved to traverse. He envisioned hip, durable clothing with “staying power,” rather than trendy, disposable apparel. Jumping headfirst into the industry, Stensland joined the Alpaca Fiber Cooperative of North America (AFCNA) in 1999, where he helped double sales each year, to reach $1.3 million in revenues in just three years. When AFCNA decided to discontinue the alpaca apparel segment, Stensland quickly sought to fill a void in this growing industry.
So in June 2004, he packed up his life in New York, moved to Sea Hill Farm in Kittery where he was boarding alpacas, and launched RedMaple Sportswear. There he was reunited with Kozmo and Sparkler, his favorite wide-eyed Huacaya alpacas, along with the rest of the herd, and got started.
Luxurious to the touch yet warm, cozy, and lightweight, alpaca fiber is strong, sustainable, and as desirable as the finest cashmere or angora. Alpaca fleece grows naturally in more than 22 gorgeous colors, including shades of ebony, chestnut, brown, and white. When other colors are required, they can be easily achieved with commercial or plant-based dyes. RedMaple uses “baby alpaca,” a premium-grade fiber from babies and high-quality adults. From time to time, the company may use other high-end, innovative natural fibers such as organic cotton, copper, and viscose bamboo, mixing and blending them to achieve optimal results. The fabrics contain no lanolin, making them hypoallergenic.
Cozy as Cashmere
RedMaple’s wide-ranging products, from blankets to cat toys, can be found in farm stores throughout New England (Sea Hill Farm in Kittery, Maine, and Island Alpaca Company in Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts) and in independent boutiques (Rhinebeck Department Store in Rhinebeck, New York, and Maine Alpaca Experience in Unity, Maine). Sportswear and gifts range in price from $22 for alpaca socks in funky designs to $190 for an exquisitely knit sweater. RedMapleSportswear.com
Stensland and co-designer Sarah Drummond custom design 95 percent of their products, while promoting a vibe that appeals to a diverse audience. “Our pine tree hats and nature-themed socks look just as cool on an 18-year-old boy, as they do on a 60-year-old woman,” Stensland says.
RedMaple products are made by a combination of Andean artisans and select American businesses. Most alpacas live in Peru, where Stensland engages a variety of vendors, ranging from two-person workshops to 300-employee factories. Some of these workshops comprise three generations of hand weavers, with six or seven family members working side by side on their looms. As designer, developer, and editor, Stensland chooses materials and manufacturers mostly from the United States and Peru but sometimes from such far-flung places as Ibiza or Nepal to get just the right mix of modern with age-old craftsmanship. He notes, “It’s really a global network of creative people in the design process and many skilled hands that make RedMaple what it is.”
Meet Me at the Farm
Alpacas take care of their own surroundings. Their soft, padded feet are gentle on terrain, and they graze without destroying the root systems. Each spring, they are harmlessly shorn and produce enough fiber for four to five sweaters. To meet these lovable, long-lashed camelids, find a farm near you: New England Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association (NEAOBA), neaoba.org.
Photographed by: Kerry Michaels