Interview with designer Abbott Smith

 

Posted on October 21, 2011

For your reading pleasure, I present a long-awaited interview with Abbott Smith, a Washington-based designer. Abbott has a rich academic background and brings his education and analytic skills into the knitting arena to a degree that I haven’t seen in many other designers. When I first met him he was new to knitting and made a point of learning a new skill with every project he worked on. I was impressed by his determination, and am no less so now that he’s designing and teaching. He’s also very in touch with the local LYS and fiber arts scene around the Puget Sound.

Name: Abbott Smith, Blacksmith Knitting
Location: Redmond, WA
URL: Blacksmith on Ravelry

Introduce yourself!
I’m a professional artist and educator who has lived in the Seattle area for the past 19 years. I have a broad education in the commercial arts and have worked in a variety of artistic fields professionally. I’m married and we have 4 cats. Currently I work for multiple companies and freelance.

What do you do?
I’m a colorwork knitter and teacher. I design commercially for Simply Shetland, the exclusive North American distributor for Jamieson’s yarns from the Shetland Islands. I teach stranded knitting, double knitting, color for knitters and motif design. Most of my classes are taught at either Serial Knitters in Kirkland or at Renaissance Yarns in Kent Station. This year I was fortunate in that I also taught at the Madrona Fiber Arts Festival. I also shoot knitwear photography.

Tracery Tam
Abbott’s Tracery Tam

How did you get started with knitting?
I began knitting in April 2009 after seeing an exhibition of Elsbeth Lavold’s work at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Ballard. After the exhibition I checked out Nici McNally’s DVD from the King County Library and made myself a pair of #10 knitting needles from a 1/4 inch dowel rod. It took me a weekend of futzing to get comfortable with the basics. My first project was a scarf using Roman stitch fields and garter stitch accents that I designed to practice knitting and purling. My second project was a heavily modified pair of cotton bikini briefs for my wife. I wanted to learn how to do increases, decreases, selvages and joining. The most challenging aspect of the project was designing a two-yo hole for the waistband that I could thread a ribbon through. By October I decided that I was ready for colorwork and knit my first tam, Sandy Blue’s Midnight Sun, with a custom color scheme that I designed. And I was hooked. By Christmas I had knit eight colorwork hats, including a number of original designs and heavy modifications. People started asking for the patterns to two of my projects and I published my first pattern, the Tracery Tam, on Ravelry in the spring of 2010. During the 2010 LYS tour some of the staff at The Knittery in Renton suggested that I contact the owner of Simply Shetland, and the rest is history. To date I’ve designed three stranded tams and a double-knit scarf for Simply Shetland, as well as my earlier projects on Ravelry. Simply Shetland has run ads featuring the North Star tam and my Andalucia scarf in the summer and fall issues of Interweave Knits.

What advice would you give to someone looking to get started in your line of work?

  1. Knitwear design, teaching and knitwear photography for the hobby market are all forms of marketing. The reason that a company or shop will hire you is so that your work can help them sell yarn. No one makes a living off of pattern sales. The profit margins are so meager that they’re basically an insignificant component of anyone’s income. The shops, yarn companies and distributors make their income from yarn sales. I make my income in the industry from teaching. Forget any thoughts you may have concerning ‘points,’ royalties, etc. These thoughts only point out that you haven’t done your research. My work as a designer leads to teaching and speaking engagements and is personally rewarding. I don’t design for the small amount of money that the patterns generate.
  2. Have a point of view as a designer. What are you trying to bring to the market? What will a knitter experience while creating a garment from your pattern? Is your pattern easy to follow and knit without being mundane? In my case, I want to create thoughtful colorwork for intermediate and advanced knitters.

Where do you get your design ideas?

Tin Lantern Tam
Tin Lantern Tam

I have a broad background in art history. I’ve spent over 30 years as a teacher, over 16 years as a college student, and I’ve been a professional artist for more than 20 years. I draw from all of that experience and knowledge when designing. I also constantly look and study. The Tin Lantern design came from a love for antiquing. The Andalucia scarf was inspired by Islamic tile work and textiles from Moorish Spain. The Tracery Tam was inspired by NeoGothic stone tracery. The North Star Tam was inspired by Norse knitting design. The Greenwood Tam was inspired by laying on my back and looking at the sky through the leaves of a tree. Currently I’m looking at Victorian monograms for motif inspiration. I also draw inspiration from the nature of the techniques that I’m using. Peruvian ZigZag intarsia inspired me to create designs that have a 3rd and 4th color moving vertically through a two-color motif. Using lace knitting increases and decreases to create stitch movement inspires different designs (see the work of Kieran Foley for examples of this idea). Double knitting allows things that would be annoying in stranded knitting.

If you could start your business over, what would you do differently?
I haven’t had time to really engage this craft as much as I would like. Currently my schedule is so demanding that I’ve been struggling to find time to do the research and development that I want to explore.

Is there anything exciting coming up in your knitting future?
I’m currently laying the research groundwork for my next set of designs and classes. Next fall and winter I’ll be releasing the next wave of designs based on things like my exploration of ZigZag intarsia and stitch movement within color work.

Andalucia scarf
Abbott’s lovely Andalucia scarf

What’s one thing most people don’t know, or wouldn’t guess about you?
I loathe the word “talent.” Too often in our culture, its usage belittles all of the hard work and years of dedicated study that underpin a professional artist’s skill set. I’ve worked for decades developing and honing my craft as both an artist and a teacher. I may be relatively new to knitting, but I’m not new to design or art. All of my background forms a foundation for the work I’m currently doing. For years I watched my students bust their butts only to have someone look at what they accomplished as if it were a gift from the mythical Talent Fairy. The rumor at my old school was that I had taken the imp out behind the woodshed and beat it senseless with a 2 x 4, then buried the little cretin in a shallow, unmarked grave.

Is there a fiber artist in the Pacific Northwest that you think others should know about?
My favorite NW knitting designers are Betts Lampers and Mary Scott Huff. Betts designs classical and elegant sweaters. Mary’s work has the same bubbly, infectious joy and charm that she does. I also really like the work of the young fashion designer Thom Becker from the steampunk fashion house Lastwear.

Read interviews with other designers, dyers and fiber artists from the Pacific NW here.

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