Maine is the northeastern most U.S. state known for its rocky coastline, maritime history and the natural beauty of such areas as the granite and spruce islands. Portland is the biggest city in Maine, set on a peninsula extending into Casco Bay with a waterfront of working fishing wharves and converted warehouses hosting restaurants and shops. Portland has a population of just over 66,000 people, one of whom is Ben Ray, a native of Maine and the owner of Evangeline Linens, a line of woven hand heirloom-quality blankets, throws and more.
Always handy, Ben grew up learning to sail as a young boy and throughout his high school and college years, he rescued and refurbished sailboats as his summer job. After studying journalism at the University of Maine, Ben went west to San Francisco, working with a French lighting designer and the textile maker, Angela Adams. After having traveled extensively, Ben longed to return to Maine, which he did in 2008 to start a life with his wife, Alessandra and raise a family.
Ben began to further his knowledge of textiles, and founded Evangeline Linens in 2018. The company was named after the famed Mainer Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic ‘Evangeline’ which tells the tale of a young girl who is on a search for her lost love. Every detail of the brand reflects the poem’s quiet, enduring beauty.
Evangeline Linens captures the essence and feeling of Maine – rugged, comfortable and warm. True to that heritage and quality, they partner only with small, family-run mills in Maine, Ireland, England, and Peru. Over the past three years they have expanded the Evangeline line from the original offerings to add other pieces like wearable wraps, baby blankets, linen and velvet pillows, and hand-poured Deer Skull and Maine Bobcat Skull candles that Ben spent 3 years to perfect with a local 3D printer. All the original designs are also available.
Ben spent some of his time answering our questions:
Tell me about the various mills you use.
Different mills have different looms, use different materials and have different specialties. Our Maine mills make the most incredible cotton products and we take such pride in keeping so much of our business local. Giving back to the local economy is a top priority. They are incredible. When we can’t produce what we need locally we put an immense amount of work into finding top quality producers that take pride in their product and that take good care of their employees. I’m simply a textile nerd. I want to use the highest quality materials to create heirloom quality pieces. I need to touch everything… I want to know where our raw materials come from and how the animals are treated. In many cases, we can trace the yarns that we use to specific farms. Happy sheep make better wool.
Tell me about your journey.
My path to starting Evangeline has been filled with a ton of turns, bumps and detours… It certainly hasn’t been a straight line! I’m sure that other entrepreneurs would say the same. I have worked for A LOT of companies, many were small design companies, since graduating from college. For a long time, I was insecure about the fact I had jumped around. My resume was long and getting longer. Now, I look back at it and see that the old saying is so true, that “everything happens for a reason”. It took me working for other people to realize that to find true satisfaction with my career, I needed to execute my own vision. I can’t tell you how amazing it felt being able to see the incredible response we’ve had to that vision and feeling the success that comes from working on something that I’m passionate about. I learned so many lessons along the way, while working for other brands, and now feel that I’m reaping the rewards from all that work. I am able to take all the good business practices that I’ve learned, note the bad ones, and implement that knowledge into everything that Evangeline Linens does. When you believe in your product, your design, your overall aesthetic and your business practices the sales part comes effortlessly. At least that’s how it’s been for me.
What interested you in textiles in the first place?
I think if you’d ask my parents they would say that I’m particular. I think that my wife would say that I’m OCD and my friends would say that I have good taste. Admittedly, all are pretty accurate.
I’ve always liked things just a certain way and love good interior design. I really enjoy decorating a room. Textiles, along with art and curious objects, are important finishing touches to any room. Layering is everything. I’ve had the good fortune of working for a rug designer, a lighting designer, and blanket company before starting Evangeline Linens. I think that my eye has been trained to notice what’s on the floor, appreciate good lighting, and what kind of blankets, throws and pillows are used when I walk into a room. Exposure to good design is important.
Linens, in particular, was such an amazing revelation for me. It’s crazy how much you appreciate quality bedding once you’ve experienced it. You simply can’t go back. And it feels good to know that it goes beyond just aesthetic and ‘luxury’. We live in a ‘throw away’ culture where so many products are made from bad quality and are not designed to last. I love knowing that our products aren’t a part of that. They are well made, sustainable and created in local/family run mills (including our bedding that’s made right here in Maine) and it feels good to know that we’re making something beautiful that’s also here to stay…
Can you pinpoint the pivotal time in which you decided to go into business for yourself and why?
I do. The timing was… well… HORRIBLE. We had just had our second baby and finished a big renovation on our historic house here in Portland, Maine. It was Christmas time. I was working for a well-known company from Canada handling national sales and, despite great numbers and lots of hard work, the company decided to bring all their sales under their roof up north and to shift directions a bit with their product. I got let go and it was STRESSFUL! Financially it couldn’t have been worse timing and, as I was about to turn 40, it made me feel like I was truly treading water career-wise. I was having trouble stomaching the idea of doing this same dance for the rest of my life. My wife and I were on a long drive one day and we just started talking about what I would do if it were all up to me and ultimately, we went all-in on going solo. It was scary and exciting and the BEST thing that ever happened to me professionally.
I love your childrens’ names: Atticus 7, Harlow 4 and Hazel 1. How did you come up with them?
Atticus has been my favorite name for as long as I can remember. I didn’t know anyone named Atticus but, like everyone, I read Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and admired the name (as I am sure you know, Atticus was the main character). I also loved reading Into The Wild by Jon Krakauer in college and where there was the alter ego of Chris McCandless – Atticus Supertramp. I was a runner throughout college and would run local road races under the name Atticus Supertramp and then later Atticus Miles. Years later, someone else started running under Atticus Miles too. I got a real kick out of that.
Harlow was supposed to be named Giovanna, as my wife’s family is very Italian, but Harlow came out with bright red hair, so Giovanna didn’t fit anymore. She’s a Harlow. Harlow Giovanna Ray. Her nickname is Lolo.
And we thought that Hazel was certainly a boy (all our kids were big, but my wife swore our third had the strength of the Hulk). Surprise! Hazel was a not-so-little girl… tipping the scales at over 10lbs (turns out my wife is actually the one with superhuman strength!). Hazel Altana Ray. Again, the Italian influence for her middle name… We found out after naming her that my wife had a great aunt named Hazel, so it was meant to be.
The packaging you send with your blankets is beautifully done, tell me about it.
We try to be different at Evangeline and focus on the little details. We source the best materials from around the world to create heirloom quality blankets and throws. We wrap all of our throw and wrap retail orders with black paper, sealed with gold wax and top them with cut flowers from our garden. Who doesn’t love getting a pretty wrapped gift?!
There’s a lot of competition out there. We work hard to be different. I think this shows in our quick growth. Our authentic and organic brand seems to really resonate with people. Rather than really trying to ‘sell’ we just try to tell our story by using poetry and photography that speaks to us and that lets people see a little sliver of what makes Maine so incredible. We try to show the world a different Maine; one beyond lobsters and lighthouses. Our Maine is wild. It’s moody. And it’s authentic. It’s how we live.
Then where do you hope to take Evangeline from here?
We’re growing rapidly in both brand recognition and in sales. We’re only 3 years old. Our goal is to become a trusted brand known for high quality goods and great customer service. As we expand our products and sales our primary goal is to stay true to what has made the brand what it is thus far… We will never sacrifice the quality of our products and want to be totally hands on as we grow.
There are so many people that still haven’t heard of Evangeline Linens and, obviously, I have a list of stores that I want to partner with. We love working with boutique hotels, interior designers, architects, catalog companies and collaborating with like-minded brands.
As a brand, diversity and inclusion is important to us. With each photoshoot we try to cast a wide net and seek a diverse group of models from Maine. Our next goal is to incorporate a more diverse age range and more men into our shoots. We’re a young company and are just getting started!
Ali, my wife, of course is part of Evangeline Linens. I mentioned that she is great with color. She, obviously, plays another role in decisions and support. I wouldn’t have started Evangeline Linens without her support and encouragement. She is my rock.
Evangeline Linens are found in over 300 stores around the country.
- Cotton is sourced from the Carolinas, Alpaca from Peru and Merino Wool from New Zealand.
- Cotton blankets are pre-shrunk and machine washable and will last 25+ years.
- Blankets and throws can be found in luxury boutique hotels like Lowell Hotel, NYC and the Press Hotel in Portland, Maine.
- All photographers and models for Evangeline are women from Maine.
- Many of the Evangeline catalogue props come from great objects and furniture discovered in estate sales or flea markets, and then refurbished and now found in Ben’s home, including his handmade canoe.
- Has partnerships with Anthropologie, Garnet Hill, Neiman Marcus, Goop, McGee and Co.