Queen of Yarns

Pam Allen’s Quince and Co. makes Maine yarn of world-class caliber.

By Samantha Hoyt Lindgren
Photograph by Sean Alonzo Harris

Pam Allen is puzzling over two skeins of yarn. Standing in the Quince & Co. warehouse aerie in Portland’s West End on a sunny winter morning, surrounded by thousands of yards of colorful yarn, she holds one of the original skeins of Lark in River, a pure blue hue. In the other hand is a sample of the same yarn spun recently. “Can you see how the older skein is loftier, more airy?” Carrie Bostick Hoge, Allen’s right-hand, nods in agreement. Four employees move purposefully around the two thousand square-foot space, checking computers and filing boxes to be shipped. The mood is calm, but busy.

Quince & Co. is Pam Allen’s modern, colorful, chic — and very successful — yarn company founded in 2010. Currently it offers seven yarns: Finch, Chickadee, Lark, Osprey, Puffin, Tern, and Sparrow. Sparrow is a Belgian linen and Tern is blended with silk, otherwise they are all American-sourced and Maine-spun worsted wools. The yarns vary in weight from a fine sock yarn, Finch, to a lofty Puffin with which one could knit a sweater in an afternoon. “I wanted the yarn to look different, to feel different, to be modern,” says Allen. The color palette is sophisticated with names like lichen and delft and nasturtium. According to the online forum atKnitter’s Review, the yarns are “simple, unadorned manifestations of wool’s potential.” These are yarns that anyone who knits, from absolute beginners to life-long experts, can find pleasure in.

The yarns’ creator, Pam Allen, might not be a household name, but to knitters she is full-on knitting royalty. Raised in Illinois, Allen came to Maine in the seventies for a visit and never left. Taught to knit by her paternal grandmother, she started designing patterns after her daughter was born. She is the author of many knitting books, including the hugely popularKnitting for Dummies. Allen was also editor-in-chief of Interweave Knits, the popular knitting magazine (a job she took to avoid attending nursing school). Editing the magazine provided the stability freelance designing had lacked. Four years at the magazine were stimulating, but, says Allen, “I missed having my hands on yarn.” When a job as creative director at Classic Elite Yarns, one of the few remaining American yarn companies in New England, came around, she jumped at it.

Ultimately, though, Allen wanted to create a company of her own. When she met Bob Rice, the owner and rehabilitator of the one hundred-year-old Spurwink Cordage mill in Biddeford, she became inspired. Through her years in the business, she had watched the decline of the American mill system with great dismay. “Hand knitting can be a force for growing an economy,” asserts Allen. “This was a totally exciting idea to me that we could make a yarn here in the U.S.” So she and Rice set about to create a modern, affordably priced American-sourced yarn, spun in what was formerly a textile mill.

Instead of selling the yarn wholesale, Allen sells it directly to her customers from her Web site. This allows her to make a better product, a truly American yarn, at a price that is affordable to knitters everywhere. The yarn is available exclusively to see and touch at the flagship store, KnitWit in Portland, at Purl Diva in Brunswick, and at Loop Yarn in London. But most people buy “their Quince” from the Web site.

Since it opened its virtual doors in July 2010, Quince & Co. has sold over fifty thousand skeins of yarn, a skein being anywhere from 100 to 220 yards of yarn wound into a hank. At $11.75, the most expensive skein of yarn in the line is still much more affordable than most other yarns of this quality. The yarns have been shipped worldwide, especially to Europe and Australia. Knitters who travel to Maine call ahead to KnitWit to confirm store hours — the store and the yarn are a pilgrimage of sorts. The beginning of the company’s second year saw sales double, triple, and even quadruple every month.

Allen dreams of a day when she can produce seasonal processed and spun yarn from animals raised in Maine. (The wool in Quince & Co. is currently all “territory” wool, which comes from the American West.) She sees local yarn as the next big thing, highlighting the individual qualities of the animal fleeces, much the way our farmers’ markets celebrate our specific regional vegetable varieties.

Maine is at the heart of Allen’s vision for Quince & Co. “Maine has great winters. Sweaters, wool — these things are an integral part of living here for nine months of the year and sometimes more. I love that my company is making yarn from wool in a building that once saw the bustle of thousands of workers. We’re part of a Maine tradition.”

A beautiful and warm tradition it is.

Knitwit (247 Congress St., Portland, 207-774-6444);PURL DIVA (3 Summer St., Brunswick, 207-373-0373). quinceandco.com