August 6, 2012

Profitable patterns | Pam Allen, Quince & Co.

Pam Allen, owner of Quince & Co., stands among yard waiting to be spun in the Spurwink mill in Biddeford

VIEW: Women to Watch 2012: Pam Allen

Spools of yarn waiting to be dyed at Quince & Co.

Woman-owned company

Pam Allen

Owner of Quince & Co., Portland


What was the biggest challenge of your career? Supply chain.

When did you know you'd made it? The first month we doubled our take from the same month in the previous year and I 'knew' we were going to make it when we started to get fan mail. Lots of it.

What advice do you wish you'd been given early in your career? Don't have a partner. (Actually, I had been given this advice, twice, and ignored it.)

"I'll relax when..." Our latest venture, Saco River Dye House, is up and running. It will help greatly with the supply chain and control.

What was your "Haven't we moved beyond this?" moment? Running out of yarn - again.

Quince & Co. 142 High St., Portland

Founded: 2010

Services/products: Hand-knitting yarn, fiber sourced and spun in the United States

Employees: 5

Annual revenue (2011): $422,000

Contact: 774-8600

Pam Allen is as fluent in the language of yarn as she is in the lingo of business. She converses easily about the history of American wool, low-micron-count mohair and the science of wool dyeing. Just as easily, Allen talks about controlling her supply chain, the pros and cons of selling wholesale and how to set up product-placement terms for flagship stores.

There's no reason to be surprised by Allen's ability to merge two areas of expertise, except for the stereotype of knitters so many of us hold. "If you tell someone you're in the yarn business, they're so patronizing," Allen says, looking more amused than put out. "They'll say, 'That's so cute!'" Meanwhile, she adds with a smile, "I have grandiose visions of revolutionizing the industry."

That vision, she says, includes being "the producer and manufacturer of the best basic yarn in the U.S." She sources her wool fiber from the United States, and has it spun at U.S. mills. To compete with overseas yarn manufacturers — primarily Italian-owned mills that use South American fiber — she must hold down the prices of her yarn, a challenge for a small, artisanal company. One way she's done this is to sell her yarn directly to customers online, avoiding the inevitable mark-up of the wholesale-to-retail process.

Before opening Quince & Co. in 2010, Allen knew from her years of working in the yarn industry that a huge knitting community existed online. "The demographic is young: 25- to 45-year-old women are knitting," Allen says, "and older women are online, too." Many knitters are avid bloggers, with big followers. To take advantage of knitters' social media savvy, Quince & Co. sends out a weekly e-newsletter, which has more than 10,000 subscribers, and includes a new pattern in each letter. Sales spike every time, Allen says.

To further her "grandiose vision," Allen is also taking control of her supply chain. This fall, she and three other investors, including two Maine alpaca farmers, will open a dye house in a former textile mill in Biddeford, according to Allen. The dye house will skein, dye, twist into hanks, label and bag Quince & Co.'s yarn, and fill other companies' production orders. It will have an adjacent factory store. Previously, Allen had been using expensive facilities in other states to prepare her yarn. "For me to survive, I need an infrastructure scaled to my business," Allen says. "What's available to me doesn't fit, and that infrastructure is also struggling."

While Allen sounds like a seasoned businesswoman, this is only her second time around as a full-time entrepreneur. A knitter since she was young, Allen opened a dress shop in Chicago when she was 20, making all her own dresses. She left the fashion world to earn a bachelor's degree in French and then a master's degree in linguistics from the University of Illinois at Chicago. While she dreamed of traveling the world teaching English, she instead landed in Maine after visiting some friends here.

Living in midcoast Maine, raising her two children (Ryan, now 27, and Caitlin Fitzgerald, 29, who's an actress and filmmaker) and working as an editor of Small Boat Journal, Allen began creating sweater designs. Allen's designs were noticed by editors at Family Circle magazine and Vogue Knitting, and over time she became well-known and well-published in the knitting industry. She wrote the book "Knitting for Dummies" and has held several knitting-related jobs, including editor of Interweave Knits and creative director of Classic Elite Yarns — all while living in Maine, first in Camden, then in Portland.

Allen had a "what if" dream tugging at her, to start her own yarn company. After she met Bob Rice, who owns a spinning mill in Biddeford, the two partnered to form Quince & Co. with a $100,000 investment. They developed four distinct yarns (the company has since created more) and a color palette. "We had to make a palette that was lively and interesting character-wise, but was also very wearable," Allen says.

Since the launch of Quince & Co. in July 2010, sales have been bumping up almost monthly, according to Allen. At the end of 2011, the company grossed $422,000; it is on track to beat that this year. In 2011, Allen bought Rice out. Quince & Co. has customers all around the world and is partnering with yarn stores — the ones that agree to Allen's sales terms — in Portland and Bath, and in North Carolina, Washington, D.C., London and, soon, Japan.

Allen has five full- and part-time employees, including her son, who just graduated from Yale University with a master's degree in environmental management. Allen hired him for one year to expand her wholesale market domestically and internationally — a strategy designed not to transition Quince & Co. from the online world to the retail world, but rather to enhance its brand. "I want to be in brick and mortar because we'll reach new people," Allen says. "It's like a guerrilla market technique. Every customer will walk out of the store with yarn that has our label."

To register for a Sept. 20 reception honoring Pam Allen and the other Women to Watch, click here.

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