September 01, 2014

Featured Interview: Pam Allen, Quince & Co. - Issue 5

デザイナーインタビュー<br>パム・アレン(元Quince & Co.オーナー)

Interviewed by Meri



Our guest this issue is a person both Tokuko and I truly look up to.  We had the pleasure of meeting her in person last June, and discovered that she not just talented, but also a very sweet person.  Pam Allen is the owner of Quince & Co. in Portland, Maine, as well as a greatly admired knitwear designer.  We decided to combine the designer and yarn company feature for this very reason.  We are extremely curious about what drives her massive creativity and vision.


Everyone knows about you in the States and a lot of people might have already listened to your podcasts, but in Japan  and some other countries, people are still discovering Quince and the great stories behind it.  So, let us start with some basic questions.

How did you become a knitwear designer?

I didn’t set out to be a knitwear designer. At some point, a few years after I began knitting, I was sorting through yarn leftovers and decided to make a vest with a bit of color work on the yoke. That vest is long gone, but I still remember how much I wore it. It had a bit of an Austrian feel with a square neckline and a lot of garter-stitch edging. From there, I began to improvise occasionally, a bit on the fly. But when my daughter was born, that’s when I really began to start from scratch. I was also knitting on a knitting machine at that point, big sweaters that provided a lot of space for surface design. I blended different strands of very fine yarn to create different colors within a single piece. I think it was easier then to be original. Today we’re on Ravelry and there are so many patterns out there. We’re surrounded by sweater designs. In the mid-80’s, the only sweaters to look at were in a store or in one or two magazines. To invent was easy. 

What has motivated you to remain a knitwear designer all these years?  What sources inspire you?

I love knitting and I love working on a design. I struggle with wanting to do something different shapewise, something that I’m unsure about. I’m slow with new pieces because I want to knit them myself to see if they work. Also, I now lean very much in the direction of minimal knitting. Having spent years doing detailed intarsia and cables, I love the simplicity of plain stitches in a becoming silhouette. Finding the line between boring and clean is a challenge. But it’s a challenge I’m up for.


Making things simpler while adding a touch of your originailty is an extremely hard thing to do.  But we have to tell you, we truly love the result of your challenge!  Would you care to summarize your journey before you started Quince?

Right out of high school, I worked in a boutique sewing dresses all day long, an  apprenticeship of sorts. Later, I opened my own shop and after sewing at least a thousand dresses in woven fabrics, I began sewing things in knitted fabric. I loved that I could make simple shapes that gave here and there with the body. The body created shape in the garment and I didn’t need to build it in with darts and curved seams. And I began to applique the surface. It was a natural thing eventually to turn more to actual knitting. I could make the fabric and knit in any pattern or motif I wanted. 

After the boutique life, I took a detour. I went to college, majored in French, and got a masters degree in Linguistics. My plan was to travel the world and teach English in other countries. Instead, I ended up in Maine, where everyone at the time already spoke English. So after a bit of waitressing, I got a job as assistant editor at a boating magazine. Then I got married, had two children, and started knitting in earnest. I could carry my projects with me to the playground or get a few rows knitted during nap time. 

From there, I began designing and submitting my ideas to magazines and yarn companies. Eventually, I became editor of Interweave Knits magazine (my dream job), then went to Classic Elite Yarns as creative director. 

I see it has been a winding road - but it seems everything you did in the past points towards your current success.  So, Quince & Co.  What made you decide to start a yarn company?

Quince & Co. happened in a very serendipitous way. While I was working at Classic Elite, I got a phone call from a man in Texas who raised mohair goats. He asked me if I’d be interested in buying his fiber and  having it spun in a mill in Biddeford, Maine. That was the first time I’d heard that there was a mill spinning YARN right down the street. I called the owner and we became friends and then, after a few crazy conversations, we decided to start a yarn business. I can’t tell you how exciting it was for me to imagine making a yarn in an old mill right down the road. That mill still spins most of our yarns. But we now spin in three other mills, as well. 

For me it’s nothing less than tragic that we’ve almost entirely lost our textile industry. At one time, we spun yarn and wove fabrics in buildings that stretched, literally, for miles along New England rivers. All that is gone now. What excites me most about Quince is not just that we sell yarn, but that we MAKE yarn using US manufacturers. It isn’t easy. It’s not cheap. But that’s what keeps me inspired. 


In the world we live in, sourcing and manufacturing in your own country is becoming harder and harder... I can relate to that.  What was it like at the beginning stage? Also, any other challenges?

I was very lucky to have a yarn spinner willing to work with me. I knew I wanted to make wool yarn and wanted to source the wool from US sheep. We started with four yarns. I didn’t want to make a single-ply and combine strands to make different weights. I wanted each yarn to have a distinct personality. So we began with these: Chickadee, a bouncy three-ply yarn (sport weight) spun from a soft fiber, Lark, a four-ply (plies are finer than those in Chickadee, so it’s more "refined"), Osprey, spun from very fine fiber, a three-ply Aran-weight in which the plies have a relaxed twist so the yarn is soft and squishy, and Puffin, a single-ply chunky.

The other thing I wanted was to have a zillion colors. We began with 37. Soon we’ll have more than 50. 

So we began with 148 separate yarns. Our initial challenge was keeping inventory stocked in those yarns. We quickly ran out after launching and it wasn’t easy to get the yarn replaced. I don’t think we’ve ever had all our yarns on the shelf at one time. There’s a long lead time to have yarn spun. I quickly learned an important business lesson: Never wait until you’re out of something to re-order. 

Not long after we launched, the small dye house we used in Massachusetts closed. The alternative was further away, more expensive, and involved much bigger minimums. Not a good situation for us. But I partnered with three other people to buy the equipment from the closed dye house, move it up here, and start a new dye business. A huge undertaking, but an important one for Quince & Co.  

Supply isn’t our only challenge. Cost is another one. Right after we began, wool prices soared and we had to raise our prices. Fortunately, in a global market, everyone is affected. So we weren’t the only ones who had to raise prices. Also, it’s  expensive to make a product here. Labor is more expensive and there are environmental standards to meet that cost money. These are good things—but they make domestic products less competitive with imports from other countries. We initially met that challenge by selling directly to the knitter through the internet. Now, we also wholesale to select stores. We found that if we worked with stores who were "flagships" for us, who carried a good selection of yarn and displayed it all together in a Quince corner, we could afford to keep our prices reasonable (very important to me) and sell wholesale as well. 

I need to mention our linen yarns, which are spun in Europe. It’s important for us to have a seasonal yarn and we don’t grow organic linen in the US. So we sourced an organic linen yarn from Belgium (fiber) and Italy (spinning). This year we introduced a new version of organic linen yarn, Kestrel, spun in a ribbon structure. Love. We hope to keep working with the mill in Italy to develop yarns from this same organic fiber. We feel that if we can help sustain a market for a good product (organically grown flax), then we are encouraging good farming practices and all that that means.  Maybe someday we’ll grow the flax for our linen here—I can hope.

You mentioned the wool industry situation in the United States.  Could you please tell us a little more about the current situation and trends?  Compared to Japan, it seems to us that there are far greater demands for home grown wool in the US.

Unlike Australia and New Zealand that raise sheep specifically for fiber, our sheep industry is a hybrid of meat and fleece animals. In Australia, they raise merino sheep and breed for fine fleeces. Here, from my understanding, most of the large ranches raise a cross between Rambouillet, Columbia, and Targhee sheep and the wool is called "territory" wool. It’s sold to brokers who grade it by fineness, whiteness, crimp, and length of fiber. And farmers who’d like to raise animals for fiber are often forced to sell them for meat. In dry seasons, when sheep are at risk, ranchers send them to a slaughterhouse. Otherwise, they lose on all counts. I’d love to see our country start to take seriously a fiber industry and breed specifically for that. 

That said, we do have smaller farms and ranches that raise sheep specifically for fiber. But they don’t produce in the quantities we need and the prices are too high. You can make lovely yarns with their fleece, but then you have an "artisanal" product. And you have to charge a lot for it. My goal has always been to create a lovely American yarn that can compete with imports. There’s plenty of room for both kinds of industries.

Another question --- I am dying to ask this. Quince's aesthetic.  What inspires it?  How do you manage such consistency?

We develop, make, and sell US yarns. But our strongest marketing tool is our patterns, and the best way to present those is through pictures that inspire. When I worked at bigger companies, we hired makeup, hair people, and a stylist for photo shoots, but I was never very happy with the end result. I wanted something that felt more real, with a slight edge of theater or story, but that didn’t feel contrived. Carrie Hoge, who I worked with at Classic Elite, joined me in starting Quince & Co., and became our photographer and graphics person. We have similar ideas about what’s pretty and it was a joy (and hard work) to be able to create the kinds of images we both liked. Carrie recently left us to work on her own brand and to have another baby (!).  But she’ll continue to freelance for us occasionally. And we’ll continue to work with new people who can bring life and loveliness to our images. 


You seem to be trying a lot of new things, including podcasts, new yarns, etc.  What is your perspective of the industry --- where is it going in a macro view --- and where is Quince heading?

The knitting world is strong and continues to grow and evolve. Ravelry and other websites have made it possible to be inspired by people within the community of knitters, and has created a community of knitters. Knitters are no longer dependent on magazines or books for patterns and ideas. And, interestingly, magazines and books continue to thrive. The interest in knitting information and inspiration seems to still be strong. It’s a wonderful thing to see so many people making lovely things and learning from each other. 

As for Quince & Co., my goals remain the same as when I began. I want to make beautiful yarns in the US and sell them at a reasonable price so we can continue to tap into what remains of the wool and the spinning sector here. Along with that, I want to inspire people to knit—and to learn to knit. I see our audience not just as hardcore knitters, but also those women (and men) who enjoy knitting when they get started, but give up when patterns become too much of a challenge.  I try to keep our designs on the simple side (aesthetically, I don’t think a sweater needs to have a lot going on to be attractive) and our patterns thorough and approachable. 

As for the yarn-making industry here, I may be overly optimistic, but I see a small trend in the US-made direction. All the mills we work with mention that they’ve had more inquiries lately from people wanting to spin hand-knitting yarns. This can only be a good, good thing. If I were to predict, I’d say that the US will never be the textile capital of the world again. But, we might have a strong mid-size sector that spins yarn for companies like ours and also for—hope they’re listening—large high-profile ready-to-wear companies like Ralph Lauren and Eileen Fisher. If several of these large manufacturers would make one sweater per collection in this country, just ONE sweater, they’d do a lot to help stabilize the industry that’s left. It would be great if we could develop expertise in certain spinning/weaving areas, the same way that Japan has perfected silk and linen spinning and weaving. 

The same thing can be said about Japan... But we believe that the trend is turning towards locally grown and developed materials! 

As for Quince’s direction?

We’ll keep developing new yarns. We recently introduced a mohair/wool lace-weight yarn sourced specifically from Texas. 

It’s my new favorite yarn because it’s simply beautiful. But also because it’s our first animal and regional-specific yarn. Hard as it may be to believe, Texas was once the mohair capitol of the world. Today export has gone from 35 million pounds to barely one million. But the fiber they raise there is some of the best in the world. We hope to expand on this idea. We hope to develop a dk weight in the same blend of fibers. 

Can't wait to knit with the new yarns very soon!

Speaking of knitting, if you were to give advice to new designers out there, what would you say?  As an experienced designer, and as a yarn company owner? 

First, never be afraid to try new things—shapes, color and pattern combinations, utter simplicity. As surrounded as we all are by lovely designs, it’s easy to write off what we want to do when it might not look like what’s popular at the moment. Swatching is the best way I know to let go of sweater images and to focus on knitting and what it can do. Yarn and needles are a great way to spur the imagination. 

Never be afraid to try new things.  Hope to live by this advice myself.  Thank you so much for such an inspiring story, Pam!

Lastly, we have four patterns in this issue designed with Quince & Co. yarn -  a great way to try new yarns.