In Conversation with Donna Smith

Apr 17, 2020

I was looking through the many photos on my mobile phone, all of them carrying special memories, and I came across a few shots from January 2016. We were in New York at the Vogue Knitting Live show with Shetland Wool Week, and it still feels quite surreal that we were able to take a piece of Shetland to New York and promote our beautiful isles there.

What felt even more surreal was seeing a few Baa-ble hats on Times Square, where the event took place. Baa-ble was the official hat for Shetland Wool Week 2015, and creating the concept of an annual hat was one of the milestones of the event’s growing success. And Baa-ble truly created a storm. The pattern for the hat reached over 40,000 people within the days of the release and we soon started seeing photos of the hat being worn around the globe. The power of social media meant the pattern went viral.

Since the hat pattern success many exciting things happened and Donna’s textile business has been going from strength to strength. She launched many new beautiful patterns, as well as her own yarn. I’m so excited for her and it’s a real privilege and joy to be working together.

So my first question for you, Donna, is: how much of an impact would you say the hat had on your business?

The hat had a huge impact on my business, in fact I would say it was the springboard to what my business is now. Before becoming patron of Shetland Wool Week my business went through several transformations. I always made and sold products and they were always textile based, for example I worked in felt and embroidery, I made embroidered cards, felted scarves, bags and other accessories. I learnt to knit as a child but had laid it aside while I concentrated on other things. When I set up my business I knew I wanted to work with textiles and wool but I deliberately steered away from knitting as I thought it was too obvious I didn’t want to do what lots of other people seemed to be doing at the time! However, once my son was born almost nine years ago now I started knitting again but I always thought I would go down the product route rather than design patterns. When I was asked to be patron of Shetland Wool Week I was also asked to design and write a hat pattern. Since it was something I hadn’t done before it was a steep learning curve in a relatively short space of time. People seemed to like it and I thought it was something I would like to do more of so my business seemed to naturally progress from that point.

About your inspiration – Shetland is a beautiful place, but where in particular do you draw your inspiration from?

I tend to draw inspiration from lots of places. I am always drawn to geometric patterns and naturally am drawn to anything that shows a repeat, such as a pile of wood outside, the lines and shapes of mussels farms floating in the voe, the lines and curves of a grassy field. I am also inspired by the traditional patterns, colours and techniques used in the past in Shetland knitting and I like to draw on the traditions but use the components in a more contemporary way.

And can you describe your design process?

My design process differs depending on the situation. Sometimes I think I would like a garment to wear with a piece of clothing I already own and I take it from there. Sometimes I am inspired by a pattern or a combination of colours together and think about how I could incorporate it into a piece of knitwear. I think the hardest thing to design is for a publication or for someone else, I might research a story or work with the publishers moodboards on pinterest and get an idea from there through swatching and sketching. Often the designs almost come out of nowhere, I regularly do a lot of my design work while lying in bed when I should be sleeping!

What does living in Shetland mean to you? Would you ever move somewhere else?

I have a very strong sense of Shetland being “home” and it seems to be getting stronger the older I get. I live in a house next to the one I grew up in and where my Dad still lives and my Grandparents lived on the same croft. It seems really corny to say “it’s in my blood” but that’s how I feel. I can’t see myself ever moving anywhere else, but I think if I had to go somewhere else it would be to another island. I lived in Aberdeen for 4 years when I was at University over 20 years ago and I couldn’t wait to get back home!

As a born and bred Shetlander knitting will have a long tradition in your family. Can you tell me a little about the knitters in your family? Are there any interesting stories?

I think more or less all the women in my family knitted; my Grandmothers and great Aunts all knitted garments to sell, so knitting was a big part of family life. I remember my Mum finishing garments for money but she was very artistic and inventive and liked to experiment with colour, pattern and shape in garments for herself. However because it was something that just happened and it wasn’t particularly fashionable I didn’t really pay much attention at the time, something that I regret now. My Dad’s Mum had a knitting machine and every Christmas all her grandchildren would get a plain Shetland yarn jumper. My Mam’s Dad had a knitting machine in a little box room and he would knit ribbing for cuffs for my Granny’s gloves and hats (when selling hand knitted garments at that time the buyers would usually specify that they wanted machine made ribs). He also used to knit vests (a sleeveless garment worn as underwear) for myself and my brothers that were very itchy! Mine always had a pink crocheted edging so it could be distinguished from the boys ones.

Do you feel you continue in the family tradition?

I am very influenced by the family tradition and look on it fondly but it was very hard for them. They got very little money for the work they did as it takes many hours to knit a garment like they did. I like to think I am carrying on the tradition but in a different more up to date way.

How do you see the future of knitting and indeed the whole textile industry in Shetland?

Knitting as a hobby has been extremely popular for several years and it is showing no signs of dying down. Websites such as Ravelry and social media together with many talented contemporary designers creating new and exciting patterns have made it more accessible and desirable. The more patterns people buy the more yarn people need. Also I think there has been an increase in interest over the past several years in where people’s clothes come from, and there is an increased need to create. Knitting can also be a very social activity, linking you up with people from all over the world. I like to think that the textile industry in Shetland has a strong future.

Going back to our New York trip, I remember we were totally buzzing and super inspired by the city, its relentless energy and endless opportunities. As we were walking through the streets one bitterly cold afternoon (desperate for a cup of coffee) we were chatting about possible business ideas and dreams. We were speaking about producing your own yarn since your family has a small croft (a small farm for those of you not familiar with this word) in Burra. And now, four years on, can you believe it has actually happened? I’m incredibly proud of you and this achievement of yours. So my question is, how difficult was to set up this part of your business?Was it a big risk?

I remember that conversation well and exactly where we were at the time (we were crossing the street on Broadway)! It seemed like a massive step for me to make at that time. When I got back to Shetland I did a lot of research and spoke to lots of spinning mills before making a decision. It was quite a big step to make financially but I am so glad I took the risk. I remember that feeling of opening the first sack of yarn when I picked it up from the shipping depot and couldn’t believe that lovely grey yarn was mine! Often we can think about something so long and we never get around to it, then when we do it we realise it was actually a lot more straightforward than we thought it was going to be. I also took a bit of time thinking about branding and got a designer friend to develop a logo and label for me. I decided to call the yarn Langsoond, named after the strip of water that runs along the east side of Burra Isle where I and the majority of the fleece comes from.

Do you have any advice or tips for anyone thinking of starting their own business?

I would say start by looking at your potential customers. What do they want? Can you offer something they want but can’t get? Try out things, if you are selling a product take some samples to a craft fair for example and get feedback. Use social media, and ask people what they want as it’s a free marketing tool.

You also have to be adaptable, and you might have to change strategy, for example currently during this current ongoing Covid-19 global pandemic many businesses have had to adapt suddenly to get through this time.

Also don’t think it will give you more time during the day (it might eventually) but be prepared for lots of hard work! Be prepared that things might not be successful straight away but might take time and you might have to change what you do as you go along! I am still constantly learning.

Going back to your design work – can you let us know what you’re currently working on?

I have just finished something for the next Shetland Wool Week annual but that’s a secret! I have just cast on a cardigan in Langsoond yarn. I made one for myself a couple of years ago and have been asked several times for the pattern. It’s a plain design with a slightly high neck and it’s very cosy yet light to wear. I must say I find pattern writing my least favourite part. I’m not good at taking notes as I go along, I just want to knit! So this time I am going to force myself to write the pattern as I go along and it should be out soon! I usually have several designs happening at the same time and I am also working on a range based on a piece of textured glass in the front door of the old house on where my Dad spent his younger years and is now a wood workshop and tractor garage.

Can you describe your usual working day?

It really depends what day it is and what needs to be done. I work on Wednesdays and Thursdays as a science technician for the Shetland High schools. I am based in a school in Lerwick but often travel to another school depending on what it needed. The other days I try to get up around 6.30 and usually tidy up a bit as I am often too tired at night to do it before I go to bed. I try to answer emails or do some computer work in the mornings as usually I find I am my most alert at these times. My 8 year old son catches the school bus at 8.50 so there’s usually a lot of running up and down the stairs in the half hour before that time trying to get him up and ready to go! I pack any yarn orders in the morning too. I usually take Kate, my Dad’s border collie for a walk around lunchtime and maybe have a wander around the croft. In the afternoon I will try to do some knitting or yarn dying whatever else needs done. My son comes home at 3.10 and we might have to go to athletics or get a haircut or go to football. If I get a chance I will try to do some knitting in the evening.

All those who run a small business know that you have to be a master of many trades in order to keep the business going – so often the plans for day-to-day working have to change. I’d love to hear what your ideal work day would look like?

My ideal work day would be not having to leave the house at all other than going for a mid day walk and being able to design and knit all day while listening to audiobooks and not do anything else! However, that is in a very ideal world, there is so much admin involved with running a business and trying to juggle that with looking after my son, very often weeks can go by where I don’t do any knitting or designing! I often try to plan out my days better so I always do a certain thing at a certain time but it never really works like that, I think I have my fingers in too many pies and anything can happen at any time! I do try to plan out my week, I write lots of lists, I have a long term list with general things I want to / need to do and a daily list. I have recently learnt to only put three things on the daily list, it makes it much more manageable and is less overwhelming and if I achieve anything extra it’s a bonus and makes me feel I achieved so much more! ​

About time off – how do you switch off and unwind? Do you find knitting relaxing or are you always thinking about the next project?

I find knitting very relaxing but you’re right, I am always thinking about the next project. I enjoy listening to audiobooks while I am knitting and am very partial to watching crime dramas (still knitting). I also enjoy walking, especially around Shetland’s coastline and find it is one of the best ways to switch off. It’s often a thought to get out there especially when the weather is bad but it’s always worth it as I find it really helps to clear my head. I also like working outside in the garden, the weather is a constant challenge when trying to grow anything here but I really enjoy being out there, I find it really relaxing and helps me sort out my thoughts and puts things into perspective.

What is your favourite place in Shetland to simply relax in? Or are there more?

I love the beaches in Shetland and the Meal beach is just on my doorstep. I really enjoy meeting up with friends in one of the nice cafes in Lerwick, and for several years now myself and three knitting friends have spent the weekend in the self-catering accommodation at Sumburgh lighthouse. We spend the time walking, eating good food and of course knitting. I think it’s one of my favourite and most relaxing weekends of the entire year. And another place I love is Fair Isle, the week we spent there in February was one of my highlights. It’s such an inspirational place with amazing scenery and very friendly people.

And lastly, do you have any exciting developments for the future that you’d like to share with us?

Well, I am actually working on two books at the moment. These will both be books containing collections of patterns, I must admit it’s a bit daunting and a big project but something I really would like to do and have thought about for some time. I am also looking into developing some online knitting classes, it’s something I have thought about for a while, but to do it properly will be a lot of work and will take a lot of time but now that so many travel plans are being cancelled this year, and Shetland Wool Week has been cancelled, I thought it would be the ideal way for people to experience Shetland traditions without having to come here.

I was planning to open my conservatory as a yarn shop this summer and also run knitting workshops around my kitchen table, but due to the Covid-19 outbreak those plans have been put on hold. These are things I still plan to do once the restrictions are lifted.

It seems quite a lot when I see it written down, maybe I should stop now!

Thank you so much!

Thank you Misa!​

There is a special treat from Donna for you – 10% off in her online shop. To qualify use code SWA2020 at the checkout. The offer is valid until 30th April 2020

  1. Katy Wornom says:

    Thank you for the wonderful view into your knitting and the heritage of knitting in your family. I live in a home that has been in my family since 1909 and seen 5 generations call it home so I understand what you feel about ‘home’. On my last trip to Scotland, I got to the Orkney Islands. I hope one day to make it up to the Shetlands.

    • Misa Hay says:

      Thank you for reading the blog and it would be lovely if you could come to our lovely isles one day!

  2. Cayenne says:

    Online classes with Donna would be lovely and I am excited to see her pattern books too!


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