linen beginnings

linen beginnings

Pam Allen and Carrie Bostick Hoge, founders of Quince & Co, were the masterminds behind our beloved linen yarn, fingering weight Sparrow. Later, Pam developed our worsted weight Kestrel. Both have moved on from the company, but as we begin to celebrate our 10th anniversary year, it seemed appropriate to look back at the beginnings of the inclusion of linen fibers in Quince's yarn line. We got to catch up with Pam and ask her about these gorgeous yarns that we turn to and feature again and again, every spring.

Q: What was the genesis of adding a linen yarn to the Quince line? Why did you want to add linen to the roster of offerings? And what was your journey in finding a suitable manufacturer like, that aligned with the core values of the company?

PA: Knitting is seasonal. Most people associate knitting with wool and wool with cold weather. What’s a yarn company to do?

In this case, we went with a yarn that was appropriate to summer, a dk-ish linen. I first saw our Sparrow when I worked as creative director at another yarn company. I tried and tried to sell this particular yarn to my higher ups, but they thought it was too fine a yarn to sell well. When I started Quince, and could make my own decisions about yarn, I contacted the mill and asked if we could have the yarn for Quince. We went further and asked for an organic version. At Quince, the idea was to source fiber and yarns in the US. But there weren’t any large flax farms to work with. To add some ‘responsibility’ to the yarn, we went with organic to promote good farming practices. The first year, the only color we had was Sans, undyed. Little by little we created a palette of colors. To this day, Sparrow is one of my favorite yarns.

Kestrel was introduced for people looking for a thicker yarn that would knit up more quickly. Adding more plies to Sparrow would have made a rope, so the mill suggested we do a tube construction that makes a ribbon when flattened. It’s manufactured from the exact same fiber, organic flax from Belgium, but is a very different yarn.

Q: The first colors after Sans were Nannyberry, Butternut, Juniper, Little Fern, Blue Spruce, and Birch. I remember making some of the color cards by hand! How did you land on those first six dyed shades? Were there others that didn't make the cut that you'd really wanted to include?

PA: When choosing colors, we look for colors we like and would wear. And, beyond that, we look for colors that look good together, that have harmony when next to each other. The colors you list all have a certain backed-off quality, they aren’t pure and bright. Instead they’re soft. Squint and you could see them in a meadow—they’re the colors of grasses and wild flowers.

There are ALWAYS colors that don’t make the cut, but not because we don’t like them. They get bumped simply because you can only pay for and house so many colors. So-called rejected samples go into a special Maybe Next Year box. They never quite die.

linen beginnings

original Sparrow shades, left to right: Butternut, Juniper, Nannyberry, Birch, Little Fern, and Blue Spruce

Q: I remember seeing a prototype or two of Kestrel coming through the office before the final decision was made. When you first thought of making a worsted weight linen yarn, did you have a vision of what it would be like? How does our current Kestrel (that we love) compare to your original idea of a big sister version of Sparrow?

PA: As above, for Kestrel, if we simply upped the number of plies, the traditional way to make a heavier yarn, we’d have something that more resembles a rope. Plant fibers have no bounce or elasticity. They just get heavy when you ply them on. No one wants a sweater knitted from rope. It was the mill that helped us identify the best way to make a heavier yarn. Mill people have vast experience with yarn structure. I so wish I could clone their knowledge.

Q: Why linen? Are there any applications this fiber would be suited for over wool? Any that would not work as a wool substitution? Is there a particular quality about linen that specifically draws you to working with it?

PA: I love linen because it has a rustic look and feel, even in a yarn like Sparrow that has lovely drape and refinement. I love that over time and washings, it gets more and more drape-y and soft. Wool, over time and washing, leans toward pilling. It’s the nature of the goods. But linen only gets better.

A wool version of Sparrow is readily available from many companies who import multiple-ply cabled merinos from Italy, those ultra-smooth round yarns. These are lovely yarns, but somewhat white bread, as far as I’m concerned. So, I wouldn’t be rushing to make something like that. I prefer the ply structure of our Chickadee, which is close to Sparrow’s weight, where that structure is clearly visible.

Q: You have a new design in Sparrow coming out in the Simple issue of Making magazine (very exciting!). Do you still feel drawn to designing and working with linen? And overall, what's currently inspiring you as far as design?

PA: I had to chuckle over this question. I have a problem. I’m always drawn to working and designing with just about any yarn that comes to hand. When I started on the Making sweater, I hadn’t picked up Sparrow in a while—I’m working on my second book of Owl patterns, so everything was Owl Owl Owl—and had forgotten how much I love it.

I think the Making ladies were a bit taken aback at that fullness of the sleeves in my piece. I know I was. You never know until something is knitted just how the measurements are going to actually play out. But after I’d finished and blocked the sweater, I fell in love with those sleeves! They’re perfect in Sparrow, which is SUCH a floaty yarn. And now that I know how to make that kind of billowy sleeve, I’m going to try it in one of my new favorites, Stone Wool’s Delaine Merino. So we’ll find out how well that drape-y sleeve converts to wool. Stay tuned!

Currently inspiring me? Texture, colorwork, garter stitch, embroidery on knitting, shape and silhouette, drape… There’s no end to the possibilities in knitting. And they all beckon.

Q: Anything you'd like to see in the knitting world now or in the future?

PA: More thoughtful knitting. What do I mean by that? I’d like to see knitters creating on their own more. Exploring more. Finding creative ways to use leftovers, rather than always looking for a new design. Ad-libbing on simple shapes with stripes, cables, patches of texture, swatching from stitch dictionaries, working the same piece in shorter, longer, different neck. Playing a bit.

Or maybe what I miss is people talking more about knitting as a craft. I recently got all my Elizabeth Zimmerman books together and paged through them. I love those books and her voice. I miss that kind of knitter connection and creativity. I’ve just started a (short) stint as creative director at Stone Wool, the breed yarn company. I hope to bring some of that exploring kind of thing to what we do there.

A million thanks for chatting with us! And deepest gratitude for using your time and talents to bring Quince into the world.


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