A Knitting Life
Using nineteenth-century mills and twenty-first-century technology, Pam Allen created a world-renowned yarn company in Maine.
No one seems to know who coined the phrase “knitting is the new yoga,” but there’s no question that in the past decade or so, crafting with two pointy sticks and a ball of yarn has exploded in popularity. Knitting is promoted as meditative and beneficial to mental health—helping to reduce anxiety, elevate mood, and distract from chronic pain. Boosted by the current fervor for everything DIY, the cool factor of knitting has also been bolstered in the last several years by the internet. Like yoga, knitting is easy to learn but can be challenging to perfect; unlike yoga, knitting allows you to actually make something—and share photos of it online, of course. Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, a Canadian knitter and author of eight books on knitting, who blogs under the name Yarn Harlot, has more than 55,000 followers on Instagram. Her essays on knitting are often humorous and sometimes philosophical. “I believe knitting is a transformative act that can change the life and brain of the person doing it, and that knitting is a perfect metaphor for life and insight into some better ways through it,” McPhee wrote in an essay for Publishers Weekly.
I agree, having started knitting a few years ago and since becoming mildly obsessed. I have never been a “crafty” person, so the fact that I have made hats and scarves for my family and friends that they actually wear (even a sweater vest in tweedy Scottish wool for my dad that fits him perfectly) is nothing short of a marvel. But while finishing a project is hugely satisfying, the process is every bit as meaningful. Because for knitters, it is all about the yarn—the way bulky weight wool knits up into a warm, soft hat, or a delicate silk and linen blend comes off the needle as a lacy, summer wrap. And some of the most revered yarn in the knitting world today is from Quince and Company, founded in Portland in 2010 by Pam Allen.
Quince and Company’s 16 yarns come in a gorgeous array of colors, each line named for a bird. The “core wools” (Chickadee, Osprey, Lark, Finch, and Puffin) are spun from 100-percent American wool in American mills—as are almost all of the other yarns. Purposeful simplicity is Quince and Company’s ethos, which Allen embodies at her home, an old farmhouse down a long country road in Fryeburg. On the snowy day I visit, a fire warms the living room where balls of yarn and knitting projects in process are arrayed in round antique baskets on the floor. Allen’s willowy frame is draped in an oversized, chunky sweater she knitted from Puffin yarn in the color Marsh. Called Great Falls, the pattern, like all of Quince and Company’s designs, is quietly stylish.
Allen learned to knit from her father’s mother when she was very young, but she didn’t start to knit in earnest until she was in high school and her family had moved from inner-city Chicago to a suburb. “Everyone dressed very differently, and they had little Peter Pan collars,” she recalls. “The brand was Villager, which I couldn’t afford, so I thought ‘I will knit myself a crew-neck sweater like I see everyone wearing.’” By the time Allen moved to Maine as an adult, she was knitting regularly. After she married and had her first child, daughter Caitlin FitzGerald, she began making baby sweaters on a knitting machine and selling them at a local gallery. On a yarn-buying trip to New York City, she shared a cab with a “very Miss Marple–looking” woman who turned out to be Nora O’Leary, the fashion crafts editor at Family Circle magazine. O’Leary asked Allen to “send a couple of your little things down and let me take a look at them,” Allen says. “I sent her three sweaters and a couple weeks went by; I got a phone call—I’ll never forget it because I was stunned—she said, ‘I love these, I’d really like to hold onto them and get them photographed and would it be okay if we paid you $350 for each design?’” The chance encounter launched Allen’s career as a knitting pattern designer, which eventually landed her work with the exalted Vogue Knitting magazine. “It’s hard to imagine that there was no internet; no one was self-publishing,” she says. “If you wanted to be a designer, you had to sell to a magazine or a yarn company that needed to market their yarns with patterns.”
After Allen and her husband separated, she decided to become a nurse. But she hated nursing school, and when she had an opportunity to interview for a job as editor of Interweave Knits, based in Loveland, Colorado, she hopped on a plane. The woman-owned company hired her on the spot. “It was possibly the happiest day of my life because I knew I didn’t have to be a nurse,” Allen says. She stayed in Maine, flying out to Colorado every three months, and raising her family, which by then included son Ryan FitzGerald.
“I learned about photography and about presentation, and I got to know everybody in the industry, and I think had that not been the case, Quince and Company probably never would have gone very far.” Four years later, Allen became creative director for the (now-defunct) yarn company Classic Elite, which she hoped would give her the chance to learn more about yarn. “One day I got a call out of the blue from a guy from Texas who had mohair goats of exceptional fineness, and he would just be thrilled if I would be interested in this fiber and could make a yarn out of it,” Allen says. Until that point, the only way she knew to source yarn was at a twice-yearly trade show in Italy, where companies like Classic Elite bought yarn that had already been spun. “The idea of starting with fiber was intriguing, but I didn’t know what to do with it.” The goat rancher in Texas told her to call Bob Rice, an entrepreneur who, as luck would have it, was spinning cord for horse bridles on nineteenth-century equipment at a mill in Biddeford. “I went down and he gave me a tour and I just fell in love with the whole idea,” says Allen. “I went back to Classic Elite and said, ‘I think we should make a yarn, a U.S. yarn,’ but by the time they did the numbers it was too expensive.”
Unable to let the idea go, Allen did some research, thinking she might start her own wholesale yarn company. But the retail price point was still too high. “Then, the internet just kept growing and I said, ‘You know, if I could get this yarn from Bob and turn around and sell it to the knitter, not to the store, maybe I could make it competitive,’” she says. “I didn’t really love that idea because to me yarn shops are really important—they teach people and they keep the craft going—but on the other hand, the idea of making something in America, using American wool in a mill in Maine was just way too enticing.” At the age of 60, she partnered with Rice and launched Quince and Company as a web-based yarn company, starting with four core wool yarns—the aforementioned Chickadee, Osprey, Lark, and Puffin—available in a total of 37 colors. Allen credits Maine knitwear designer and photographer Carrie Bostick Hoge, who also did the photography and graphics and contributed sweater designs, with naming the new company. “She threw out ‘Quince,’ and the instant it was out of her mouth, I knew that would be the name,” says Allen. “I’ll never forget the day we launched; we developed the website, but we had no idea how we were going to take the orders. We were down at the mill, which had no internet, so had to go over to Starbucks with our computers to see if we had any orders. We did.”
Two years later, online sales were strong, but Allen had requests from 350 stores who wanted to sell Quince and Company yarn. Her son had recently graduated from the Yale School of Forestry with a master’s degree in environmental management and wanted to move back to Maine. “I said, ‘Why don’t you come for a year and figure this out for me?’” Allen says. “She didn’t know how to get there, but she knew it was a business opportunity she couldn’t pass up,” says Ryan FitzGerald, who has expanded Quince and Company’s reach to 100 retail stores around the world, including three in Maine—KnitWit in Portland, Alewives Fabrics in Nobleboro, and Heavenly Yarns in Belfast—and one in Beijing. “I like to say we’re exporting textiles to China,” Allen quips. “It’s just skeins of yarn, but still it’s going that way.”
In 2014, FitzGerald bought the company, and Allen “officially” retired; she still writes blog posts for the Quince and Company website and is working on her second book of knitwear designs for the company, titled This and That. Her first, Plain and Simple, is now in its third printing. “It was a really popular book for us,” says FitzGerald in the sunny headquarters of Quince and Company on Portland’s Monument Square, where the staff now totals 15. “Before I joined the company, I didn’t realize that Maine, and Portland in particular, is such a hot bed for fiber arts and knitting.” He has since launched two related divisions: Twig and Horn, a needlework accessories brand, and Stone Wool, a brand specializing in breed specific yarns sourced and spun in the United States. Spurwink Cordage in Biddeford remains a primary vendor, and FitzGerald also works with fiber sources, mills, and dye houses around the country, keeping a close eye on the complex operation to keep quality high and the business sound. Since early on, Quince and Company’s two Belgian linen yarns have been made in Italy, and FitzGerald recently had to take the production of two mohair blend yarns offshore to South Africa. “The last time we made it in the United States we lost 40 percent of the fiber in the process,” he says. “One thing you learn when you are trying to make products in America and you’re doing things on a relatively small scale: consistency becomes a challenge.”
With the business baton passed to her son, Allen is happily ensconced in Fryeburg, going on daily hikes with her dog Murphy and knitting. “I got out my stitch dictionaries and started swatching stitch patterns, which is how I began, working with yarns and needles and patterns and then beginning to design from there, as opposed to, ‘I have to have a sweater tomorrow and I’ll do this,’” she says. “I’m thrilled to be falling in love with knitting again.” Having embraced digital technology to build her business, Allen is deliberately living more of an analog life, surrounded by the things that bring her joy: her quiet home, the materials of her craft, and the mountains she loves to explore. And she is still inspiring knitters everywhere, who pick up two pointy sticks and a ball of Quince and Company yarn to quiet their minds and create something beautiful.