Vermont Arts Council

Art in the Time of Covid: Swan&Stone Millinery

Millinery is the art, craft, and trade of hat-making, and for milliners Nora Swan and Samantha Stone, it is at its best a highly social affair. Nora, Sam, and their sheep produce handcrafted felt hats on their farm in Brandon, and pre-pandemic they loved touring craft shows and connecting with costumers out in the real world.

When Covid-19 brought the social part of their work to a halt, Nora and Sam went virtual. They started with cocktail hours with their artist friends who were also feeling the isolation, and these informal gatherings became a way to recreate the craft-show experience they all missed. They opened their gatherings up to the public to create Art Party Central, an online art platform where artists pool their audiences and present in groups at virtual art party nights. To date, Art Party Central has grown to feature about 100 artists from across the country, connecting each of them to new audiences of thousands. While Nora and Sam look forward to the return of in-person craft shows, their virtual art parties are here to stay.

As part of our series featuring creative professionals’ responses to the virus, Nora and Sam shared their thoughts with the Council.

How has the pandemic challenged your creative practice and/or business?

Hands down, the biggest challenge has been the isolation. Nora and I love our quiet, solitary work in our studios, but during “normal” life our days were punctuated by the time we spend together as we finish hats, prepare for shows, and strategize for a coming season.

Equally important as our collaborating time is the time we spend with our customers venturing out in the world. Our hats are deeply communicative garments, meant to be worn and enjoyed in a social way, and that’s where we draw our energy and inspiration. We often say that each hat we create is a piece of art, but the artistry comes alive when the hat joins up with someone’s persona and makes their character shine. The thrill of witnessing that magical synchronicity fuels us through our long in-studio Vermont winter hibernation each year. Creating hats in a vacuum—without experiencing the final “ahah” moment—is just not the same. As we cast about for ways to recreate the magic of in-person craft shows online, we co-founded an entirely new venture we call Art Party Central. It’s a virtual art platform that customers say is like “a craft show, an art gallery and a night out with friends all in one!”

A virtual art party organized for Art Party Central.

How have you found strength or support since the pandemic began?

Very early on in the pandemic, we reached out to our closest artist friends to get together virtually and commiserate. At first we just shared cocktails and held tight to each other’s company. Rather quickly, though, cocktail hours turned into strategy sessions, and it dawned on us how much stronger we were collectively.

We formed Art Party Central and began curating virtual art parties, with 6 to 7 artist presenters for each party, marketing to all the artists’ mailing lists and through social media. By pooling our followers, each artist could effectively get in front of about 10,000 people through email alone. And the people who came loved it so much, we just kept going!

We started by inviting artists we already knew and loved, and we’ve now grown to about 100 artists from all over the country, sharing stories, supporting each other and “cross pollinating” our customer bases. It’s been really fun to get to know new tidbits about how different makers work, catch glimpses into their workspaces, and celebrate the joys of creating and buying unique handmade goods. Life is better when you surround yourself with meaningful, beautiful treasures—and sharing that energy and inspiration online has kept us going this year for sure! Having an Art Party to look forward to has kept us making fresh new work, and clients wear their new hats to the next party, which is so gratifying. We’ve met the most loyal and supportive customers through APC, and we hope to continue throwing Art Parties long past the end of this pandemic. It’s all about the fellowship of living a creative life, whether your medium is paint, metal, fiber or the creative practice of curating your wardrobe and home decor.

What are your plans or hopes for the future?

We can’t wait to get back in to doing at least some in-person craft shows, but at the same time it’s been wonderful to discover this new world of online communication. We think Art Parties will continue to complement and enhance our business past the end of the pandemic, and we hope to keep hosting Parties for other artists who may be trying to find their voice in the virtual space.

What are some ways people can support your work right now? 

People can support Swan&Stone by visiting our website to check out our hats, engaging with us through social media, sharing stories and images of things you love, and setting up a Zoom (or FaceTime) retail therapy session or two! if you’re intrigued by Art Party Central join us for as many parties as your schedule allows. We’re always on the lookout for new artists to collaborate with, too. Basically, when you see any form of art or craft that resonates with you, tell your friends and keep the energy flowing! When it seems appropriate, bring your conversations around to why you value and support the makers of special handmade items. Drawing attention to, enjoying and promoting all forms of art—from fine painting to wearable fiber—will help keep Vermont lively, creative, and thriving.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

This past year has been a real wakeup call for us as artists (and admirers of art) and more generally as engaged consumers and community members. We’ve found ourselves shopping closer to home and making sure every purchase is meaningful, whether it’s a handmade gift or an artisanal cheese from the farm down the road. We’ve been so moved by the support we received from our fellow Vermonters, and we’re recirculating those resources as close to home as possible! It just feels better that way. As spring arrives and (hopefully) the pandemic wanes, we want to remember the lessons we’ve learned about the power of conscious consumerism and living in a vibrant, creative, and mutually sustaining community.

Swan&Stone Millinery is a collective of six sheep and two artisans. Together they grow hats on their Vermont farm. Sam Stone, the farmer and felter, makes felts using farm-raised wool, local alpaca, mohair and other natural fibers. Nora Swan, the designer and milliner, works with the unique properties of each felt to create hats, fascinators and other whimsical wearables using antique hat forms, vintage trims and feathers from the farm and beyond. What they can’t grow themselves, they source as close to home as possible. Although their hats begin in a pasture, they transcend the farm in style and artistry.

Visit the Swan&Stone website and follow on Instagram.
Visit the Art Party Central website and follow on Instagram.
Watch this WCAX feature on Swan&Stone.