Designer Interview: Donna Smith Designs

Many of you will recognize Donna Smith's name from Shetland Wool Week Annuals, well-loved patterns and kits, or from our Hap Exploration video series! We're thrilled to have Donna on the blog today answering some of our questions about her business of designing knitting patterns and producing yarns! Let's dive in.

When and how did you start knitting? Do you remember your first project or the first project that made an impact? 

The first project I remember knitting was a garter stitch teddy bear. When I was at primary school we got taught knitting as part of the curriculum and everyones’ first project was a teddy. We knitted garter stitch squares and the knitting teacher stitched them up and stuffed them to create a bear.

What materials did you use when you first started out? Did you use materials traditional to the islands such as Shetland wool and long double pointed needles with a belt? 

The teddy bear was made out of blue acrylic yarn, I remember we were told to take in a ball of wool and some needles. My Mum went into the town to buy me yarn and I was really worried she would come back with brown or yellow yarn. Thankfully it was blue! I remember using long needles with knobs on the end. At that time (early 80s), traditional knitting wasn’t very fashionable and it was popular to use different types of yarn and patterns (from South as we would say!). It wasn’t until later that I tried using a knitting belt and long DPNs.

You mention on your website that you came back to knitting after having your son, what brought you back to the craft? 

Knitting fell out of fashion in Shetland in the 80s and 90s for various reasons; up until then hand knitting was an industry where almost every woman knitted and many sold what they made. It was difficult to make a living from handknitting so any money obtained from selling the products would have only supplemented the household income. The low wages combined with the increase in jobs resulting from the new oil terminal together with changes in fashion meant that less and less people knitted anything to sell. This situation meant that while I was growing up knitting wasn’t a popular hobby as it was seen by many as a chore. I got back to knitting largely due to my friend asking me to come to an evening class in 2012 (the year after my son was born) which took place every Tuesday evening in the local school over the winter. Over the ten week period we learnt to knit a Fair Isle sweater the traditional way (without a pattern). As soon I started the class I was hooked, (so many colour combinations, so many patterns!) and have carried on knitting since.

 Can you tell us about how you became a designer? What pushed you from knitting for fun to designing knits? 

The first pattern I ever wrote was the Baa-ble hat pattern. In 2015 I was asked to create a pattern for Shetland Wool Week to help promote the event. Up until then, I had just designed things for myself and hadn’t really considered writing knitting patterns or that it could become a business. Producing the pattern for Shetland Wool Week gave me experience into the process and that was a springboard for me to produce more knitting patterns.

Which pattern was the most fun to design? 

That’s a really difficult question! To be absolutely honest I love designing but I
don’t really enjoy writing patterns. I don’t think there’s anything in particular that I
would say has been most fun, but it’s always really enjoyable working on something where the design is on my head and it actually works out without too much effort!

Shetland has such a vibrant fiber arts & knitting community, how has that played into your designing? 

I grew up surrounded by knitters, so there has always been a strong knitting
community which I have been immersed in. I do feel a bit sad though that I didn’t
pay more attention when I was younger as most of those family members have now passed away. Shetland has a very strong tradition of both Fair Isle and lace knitting with many unique patterns and techniques and that has greatly influenced my work. I feel very strongly that we should retain the knowledge and skills of our forbearers as it Is very much part of our history and heritage.

We were lucky enough to get ahold of your gorgeous Langsoond yarn - can you tell us a bit more about your yarn brand as well as life on the croft? Have you always been on a croft and around sheep? Or was this an extension of your knitting journey? What’s one of your favorite moments on the croft? 

I grew up on the same croft I live on now. My Grandad bought the croft just after the second world war; my Parent’s built a house on the land and that’s where I grew up, then I built a house next door where I live now. There has always been sheep on the croft so I have never known not being surrounded by them! In 2000 I took an Art and Design course in the local college, when I finished the course I knew I wanted to set up a business in textiles but I deliberately steered away from knitting as I thought it was too obvious a choice! At that time it was really difficult to sell wool, particularly the coloured fleece so I started looking into making felt and felted products out of out fleeces.
I love living on a croft but I think my favourite time on the croft is taking in the hay, we cut grass we have left grow for a few months in late summer and once it is dry we pack it in the barn. The extended family and often friends come together to help, so although its’ hard work it’s often a fun day.

What convinced you to make your own yarn as opposed to selling to a wool broker? 

The idea was first sparked when I was in New York at Vogue Knitting Live in 2016 with the Shetland Wool Week team. There we met Amanda and Alberto from Prado de Lana farm in Southern Berkshire County, Massechusetts. They had beautiful yarn from their own sheep on display. That was the first time I considered that making my own yarn might be an option. Previous to this event I had been producing and selling various products from wool felt which I was importing from Germany, I’m not sure what the trigger was but I started to see the irony of buying wool from abroad when I am surrounded but it. Producing my own yarn just seemed to be the ideal way to use what I have on my doorstep that would tie in with my pattern designing.

What was most important to you when coming up with Langsoond yarn? 

One of the most important things was to use the fleece of Shetland breed sheep only. Making sure the yarn was in a range of undyed coloured and really well spun to a high quality was also critical.

What are some of the difficulties that come with producing yarn on Shetland? 

Probably the biggest challenge to making yarn in Shetland is geography, the fleece has to be sent away on the ferry to be spun which adds extra cost onto the final product. Weather can affect shipping times but we are used to these sort of challenges!

We’d love to shine a light on your current, or upcoming, projects. Please let us know what you’re working on, where we can find it, and how we can get involved! 

At the moment I am concentrating in dyeing yarn with natural dyes. I always have lots of plans but finding time to carry them out is often the biggest issue. This year I have had many tour groups and visitors coming along the studio so have been mostly selling yarn in person and haven’t been able to sell much dyed yarn online. However, I am hoping to have a shop update with my naturally dyed yarns in a few week’s time so you can look out for that! You can sign up to the newsletter on my website to keep up to date with shop updates and other things here:

Find some of Donna Smith's designs at The Woolly Thistle!

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