Happy Seis de Mayo! We are very happy to give you an insightful interview with a woman who needs no introduction. Enjoy this interview with Pam Allen of Quince and Co. She is lovely! And remember to read the instructions for entering a drawing for some special gifts from Pam and Quince.
How does Maine inspire your design process?
I don’t think there’s a direct connection, e.g. I go to the beach and come back with a specific color/motif idea. I sometimes think that I’d have far more sweater ideas if I lived in NYC or a larger city where you’re surrounded by display windows and people in great get ups. Not that we don’t take clothes seriously in Portland, but a fashion hub we definitely are not. Forests, beaches, rocks, marshes, waves and spray–these inspire appreciation and awe—and those in turn make me want to make something pretty. And nature in its various manifestations shows endless examples of proportion, scale, texture, color, etc.
What is your design process? Do you start with a sketch? Do you sit at your computer?
Designs come in different ways—sometimes from a page in a magazine—a sweater, tablecloth, jacket, painting, room. Other times, and more now than before, from yarn itself and the process of swatching. I’m not interested anymore in strained details—I ‘ve done too many. These days, I try—though I sometimes fail—to make things as simple as possible with as much detail as I can manage worked in as I go, e.g. button bands, trims, pockets.
When an idea gels, I come up with a schematic. When the numbers are clear, I go to a computer program I have and make a chart of the sweater—at least, I chart the point at which I start knitting. I’d like to say I think through an entire sweater at once. But I don’t. My brain isn’t set up for managing the whole process in my imagination. I know how to get started, I know where I want to go, but I have to see things as they go along to make sure my idea of pattern and proportion are working out. If I have someone else knit the piece, I ask them to bring the project by so I can see how close it is to my idea of what it should be. Othewise, it feels Much easier to complete the next step when I can see the thing live.
If you didn’t live in Portland, where would you live and why?
Is there anywhere else to live?
I’ll never move. Unless it’s to someplace with gray skies, blustery wind, waves, mountains, and few people. Now that I think about it, I might like Newfoundland.
What do you think the perfect knitted garment is and what do you try to accomplish in a knitted garment design?
The perfect sweater is different for everyone. For me, it’s something cozy. Probably oversized. But it isn’t something I wouldn’t want to wear out and about. And something that I feel has a certain panache.
I had a sweater from Urban Outfitters (yikes) that I wore almost everyday for an entire winter. Loved the color (dark green heather), the stitch, the shape. By spring it was a shaggy mess. I haven’t worn it since, but it’s still in my closet.
When I look at your recent Quince designs, I see a few themes: oversized scarves and cowls, shrugs with interesting sleeve details, oversized cardigans (with large front panels), and lace knit berets. Is there anything that you especially love to design? What is the pattern you are most proud of?
I love the Fiona Pullover for its simplicity. Accessories, like cowls, are a pleasure. You can’t go wrong. They can’t not fit.
So much that I’ve knitted, I never really wanted to wear. Before the on-line designer explosion, designs were submitted to publications who were usually looking for something around a theme. So what I designed in the old days had little to do with what I wanted to wear. Now that I can think about sweaters I’d actually wear—the simpler, plainer, the better.
If you could knit anything for yourself, what would you knit and what yarn would you choose?
I’d knit lots of mittens—all kinds–Scandinavian patterns and Latvian colorwork on small needles, etc. (I see that this answer conflicts with the one above, but mittens and sweaters are worlds apart.). I never have enough mittens and finding two of the same is a treat. It’s mitten weather for a good part of the year here—I’d love to knit a surfeit [of mittens].
You were with Classic Elite Yarns and Interweave Knits. You have published countless patterns (ravelry says 245 but I’m sure there are more) and you now make yarn in an historic mill from American sheep. Can you talk about this career progression and how you wound up where you are now? Were you ever unsure of your next step?
I think it’s natural to keep exploring something you love. As an editor at a knitting magazine, I enjoyed reading and writing about knitting and working with designers. At CEY, I loved creating yarn palettes and trying to forge a design identity for the company. Then I met the owner of a local mill and loved the idea of actually making yarns here—in the U.S. I find it sad that at one time we had a thriving textile industry in this country and so little of it remains. The idea of doing SOMETHING with fiber right here, and actually creating a yarn, not just buying a yarn already invented from an overseas mill was just too compelling. And I’d been working with Carrie Hoge and it was irresistible—imaging what we could do if we had a yarn company.
Unsure about the next step? I usually take the step and later feel unsure. Right now, I’m glad to be where I am. But sometimes, the enormity of the whole thing keeps me awake at night.
What are the biggest lessons you have learned during your career in this industry?
I’ve learned that knitting, however traditional and old a craft it is, is part of an industry that is constantly changing. The internet has played a big part in its recent evolution (the industry). I don’t assume anymore that I know where it’s going or what it will look like in a few years. I couldn’t have predicted where it would be today when I started as editor at Interweave Knits. We barely had a website then. Imagine.
You have spoken about your goal of having a local yarn made from animals raised in Maine in other interviews. Do you see the Maine sheep farms as a growing business? Is the Maine climate and vegetation ideal for certain breeds? How many years out will it be before Quince yarns are made from Maine raised sheep?
It would be lovely to source wool from specific breeds and farms, but I don’t see us doing that. From the start, I wanted a business that operated on a scale that was big enough to compete with yarns from other countries. It is VERY expensive to make a yarn in this country and it gets harder to contain costs all the time. The only way to keep things reasonable is to work on as grand a scale as possible—which is still tiny relative to most in the global yarn industry.
That said, how I would love someday to work with specific large ranches—to buy right from the farm and find a way to economically process the fiber, etc. I’d love to be closer to the origin of our fiber. Right now, we buy US wool from a broker. It’s easy and economical.
In March, the wool alpaca blend Owl was released. You have clearly had a very busy Spring! Can you tell us about the process of making a new yarn? Do you think about the final product and then search for the materials or the reverse?
I’ve always wanted to do a wool/alpaca blend WOOLEN spun. Most, if not all, alpaca yarns that are imported are worsted spun. They’re soft and pretty, but they are disappointingly limp and drapey—even a little dead, at times. I think that’s because they’re spun on a system that takes the air (loft) out of the yarn.
Alpaca spun on a woolen system has lots more air in it. And given that alpaca fiber is hollow, the woolen system enhances the fiber’s lightness instead of compacting it. I love our new yarn. Like linen, it gets better with handling and washing. It positively blossoms.
The biggest challenge with the new yarn was finding consistent, good quality domestic alpaca at a reasonable price. The alpaca industry in the US has, until recently, been oriented around animals, not their fiber. But things are changing and the US alpaca farmers are thinking in terms of ‘industry’ and starting to breed for lovely fiber. Can’t wait until there are brokers who can supply us with the quality and quantity of fleece that we’re looking for. Right now, it’s a patchy process. And a lot of phone calls.
One more thing about the new yarn: Our wool yarns come in saturated colors. We dye white yarns and the colors are clean and crisp. What I love about Owl is that we can overdye the heathery blends for heathered colors. The first group of colors are overdyed on our medium-gray blend. The next batch coming soon will be pale and pretty, dyed over a very pale gray blend. For fall, we’ll overdye the really dark gray blend for deep, dark, rich, almost black hues. Can’t wait.
Note: Quince yarn is spun at the historic Saco River Dyehouse in Biddeford, Maine. I spoke to them on the phone and they gave us permission to use this amazing photos from their website. So neat! Must visit!
Who comes up with the color palette?
Choosing colors is a group effort. We all get involved and spend way too much time playing with combo’s. The idea is to find a group of colors that look good together as a cohesive palette, but also stand alone as appealing colors all by themselves. Not quite as easy as you might think.
What is the timeline of putting together a photo shoot? Can you talk about Carrie’s photography and how it works so well for Quince? We asked her about Chloe, your wonderful model, in her interview. Can you describe a Quince photo shoot for our readers? What do you like about photo shoots in Maine compared to other parts of the country?
First, we wouldn’t be Quince without Carrie. She came up with the name of the company and her photography and graphic design has created our identity. And it’s a pleasure to work with her.
We do a lot of photography and some of our shoots are on-the-wing affairs and others involve a lot of planning and care. In general, if we’re doing a collection, we have more of an overall concept in mind that involves thinking more about model, location, props. But we also do quick shoots and more than once we’ve used whatever the model had on for styling, e.g. the cover of our sock book, due out on April 30, carries a photo of Nyanen’s endless legs with her little flowered skirt on top. The skirt was serendipitous, but the flower motif in it suggested a theme that Carrie used throughout the layout of the book.
Shoots in general are the most exhausting experience. So many unknowns and moment by moment decisions. We use only natural light, so a room may make a great location when we get started, but in another hour we’ll have lost the magic light and the pictures start to lose their life. We like to shoot outdoors, but in Maine, it’s too cold for comfortfor most of the year. And last summer, we had sunny day after sunny day—and contrary to expectations, sunny weather makes awful pictures—model squinting into the camera, harsh shadows on her face, etc. Best is to shoot very early in the morning, at dawn. But you only have a window of an hour or so. Very stressful if you have more than one thing to shoot.
A word on our models: We use real people. We are forever looking at people on the street, in grocery stores, riding a bike, in restaurants. It can be embarrassing. But we’ve found that we get wonderful photos with people who don’t think of themselves as models. Often, their expressions, gaze, stance are more honest and personal—doesn’t look posed.
How many hours per week do you work? Do you still find time to knit for yourself?
Too many and no, sadly.
What is your advice to budding designers? What are your favorite resources for designing (computer programs? Stitch dictionaries?)
My only advice, really, is to knit. Every time I swatch something, every time I make something, even after all these years, I learn something. It’s important to understand what stitches do, what shaping does. Designing a sweater is a combination of creating a fabric and a shape at the same time. It’s a challenge, at times, to get their relationship just right. One has to complement and support the other. When a silhouette and a stitch and a detail all come together in a beautiful way, it’s satisfying. I see designs, at times, that I don’t particularly love, but often I can’t help but appreciate the thought and imagination that went into the piece—the use of stitch, color, etc.
Do you think there is a book that every knitter should have on his or her bookshelf?
Barbara Walker, for sure. Susanna Lewis’s Knitting Lace—just for pleasure of her understanding of stitch structure. The Knitter’s Guide to Sweater Design—my copy is in tatters, but it has the best discussion of how to think about and shape sleeve caps I’ve ever seen.
Thank you, Pam! It was an honor to chat with you!
Pam has kindly donated one skein of Owl and the Sherwood Mitts pattern to two winners.
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