Karen Allen: Back in Action

Karen Allen, 56, has a thriving business and a reunion with Indiana Jones in the role that made her famous.

By Jancee Dunn
Karen Allen, 56
Photograph: Photo by: Michael O'Neill

Dual Careers
Allen’s early years helped her to be adaptable. Her father was an FBI agent who was transferred often, and the family — Karen, her schoolteacher mother and her two sisters — moved with him around the Northeast. In 1976, after traveling through South America and the West Indies and doing theater work in Washington, D.C., she went to New York and studied at the Lee Strasberg Institute. Then came her breakout role in 1978’s Animal House. "I couldn’t have had more fun in a first film," she recalls. "It was a group of young actors, all of us in the same boat, and none of us knew what we were doing. But the [male] actors took me into the fold, maybe because I wasn’t one of the girlie girls in the pink outfits, but Katy, the voice of reason."
Three years later, Raiders made her an actress in demand, and she went on to work with stars such as Jeff Bridges, Paul Newman, and Bill Murray. When she and Browne separated after eight years, in 1996, she scaled back on her work to raise Nick. "I never had nannies," she says, shrugging. "It was just me and him, and it was much more of a challenge to do the traveling involved in filming. I thought of myself as semiretired from acting."
Around 2000, when Nick was older, she reentered the entertainment world but found that directors were looking for the latest version of Karen Allen, not the original. "I was at the end of a period in my life, and it was really painful at certain points. I could tell that something had to shift."
When she hit her 50s, she had a revelation: "I was just kind of casting around, wondering, how can I be the parent I want to be and still do something creative? I’m not one of those people who think you have to be a perfect parent — you can be a ‘good enough’ parent, you can love and nurture your kids and also go out in the world and have a life. I felt it was good for my son to see me doing something I loved. I wanted to wake up in the morning and think, yay!" Then it hit her: One of her abiding passions had always been knitting, which she learned at the age of 5 from her grandmother. She enrolled in New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology (which she had briefly attended during her college years) to learn machine knitting, which produces garments much more quickly than handwork does. In 2003, she moved permanently from New York to her second home in the Berkshires with the idea of opening a shop.
Allen’s longtime friend Ken Regan, a photographer, says that this is typical of her resilience. "Karen was working less and less, and the roles weren’t as appealing," he says. "And she’s not one to sit and wait for the agent to call. She’s so beyond that."
She found a small studio and started knitting cashmere scarves, sweaters, and hats in richly colored, stripe-heavy designs. They were such a hit that three years ago she rented a 500-square-foot store in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and called it Karen Allen Fiber Arts. Recently she expanded to a larger store nearby; her designs are also available in shops in 13 other states.
The key to successful entrepreneurship is to "find something you’re passionate about," she says firmly. "I enjoy everything to do with designing — the colors, the yarn, even the mundane things like steaming a sweater." But when she started, she knew she also needed to learn the fundamentals of running a company, including inventory and bookkeeping, all of which she does herself. "If I didn’t develop the business side of it, I’d feel like a victim, like I was waiting for someone to come along and save me," she says. "Sometimes you’re cleaning the toilet while you’re paying good wages to people who are doing what you’d rather be doing! Because you’re looking at the big picture, and nobody else is going to."
All of her profits are plowed right back into buying yarn and more knitting machines, and she has contributed some of her savings as well. "The financial part is an ongoing challenge," she says wryly. "Everything is always being reinvested in the company, so there’s a sense that it’s never really making any money, which I’m sure everyone starting a small business feels."

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