Friday, September 5, 2014

An Interview with...Hilary Smith Callis

Once a week I post interviews with interesting people about their insights on their experience of working in the Knitting industry.  I’ve noticed that every one of these individuals makes their living in a slightly different manner bringing their own unique presence to the knitting world.

You can find Hilary here and here on Ravelry.

Where do you find inspiration?
I find inspiration a number of places, from astronomical objects to the latest Anthropologie catalog, but the most common place for me to go searching for inspiration is in yarn. Yarn has a funny way of knowing what it wants to be, and I feel like it's my job to listen to it. Unfortunately, this sometimes means letting go of my own vision for a certain yarn, but it's also a great adventure to cast on a single stitch and see where the yarn wants to take me.

What is your favourite knitting technique?
I LOVE a provisional cast on.

How did you determine your size range?
When I first started designing, I knew I wanted my size range for sweaters to be as inclusive as possible. I did some research on what other designers were doing, what sizes knitters were knitting, and what was happening in terms of sizes in the top knitting magazines. I ultimately decided to go up to a 56" or 60" bust (depending on the design), with sizes spaced in increments of 4". When I was a teen and young adult, I was quite skinny for my age and ALWAYS frustrated that the clothes I liked were too big for me, so I start the range for adult sweaters at 28" for those gals who might be in the same boat.

Do you look at other designers' work or are you afraid that you will be influenced by their designs?
I love to look at what other designers are doing, partially to make sure I don't have any designs in the pipeline that are too similar to theirs. And I don't necessarily think it's a bad thing to be inspired by others' designs -- I consider it "research" to knit others' patterns every once in awhile. Once, I was struggling with the type of increase to use in a design -- I'd redone a particular part of the pattern a million times before angrily setting it aside. I started knitting a baby sweater (designed by another) as a palate cleanser and - what do you know - there was an increase used in that baby sweater I hadn't thought of that ended up working PERFECTLY with my design. I'd love it if one of my designs inspired another designer similarly.

How do you feel about the so called controversy of "dumbing down" patterns for knitters?
A lot of people these days are learning to knit by jumping into patterns they've found on the internet, and I'm happy to make my patterns as simple and clearly-written as possible, even if it feels like I'm "dumbing them down". Not everyone has a yarn shop or expert knitter nearby...or, in my case, when I really learned to knit, I felt that my local yarn shop staff were a little snobby and was scared to ask them questions! I appreciated having access to some very clear and simple patterns on the internet -- they taught me how to knit sweaters!

How many sample/test knitters do you have working for you or do you do it all yourself?
I do it all myself -- the knitting is my favorite part of the process.

Did you do a formal business plan?
I probably should have, but nope...

Do you have a mentor?
No, but I do have a number of friends in the business that I feel I can go to for advice.

Do you have a business model that you have emulated?
No. So far, I've just done what works for me.

Do you use a tech editor?
YES! I would never send a pattern out into the wild without having a professional review it first.

How do you maintain your life/work balance?
This is hard, because I love what I do so much that it doesn't feel like work and I want to be doing it all the time. But to avoid being distracted on the computer when my son wants to play with me, I set a pretty rigid schedule for myself: all computer work (pattern grading, pattern writing, email-answering, etc.) is done while he is at preschool (or napping) and knitting is mostly done while he sleeps (nap-time or after bed). Because I can knit and interact at the same time, I'm less strict about when I knit. Even if it's technically doing work, I love knitting while my husband and son are playing with Legos on the floor and we're all listening to music or a baseball game together.
How do you deal with criticism?
The nice thing about having an internet-based business is that I can overreact to criticism without anyone seeing it. :)  Then, after I've calmed down, I can assess the criticism and its foundation and respond in an appropriate way. When it comes down to it, whether I think the criticism has a fair basis or not, I truly don't want to frustrate or upset anyone with my patterns and designs. So I like to apologize, get to the root of the problem, and try to form an explanation that helps turn the criticism around.

How long did it take for you to be able to support yourself?
Considering December 2009 as the beginning of my design career, I'd say it took about 4.5 years to get to my target sales numbers. But during that time I was either designing alongside a full-time job, or alongside a part-time job and a baby. Even with a toddler at home, when I quit my day job last year and was able to focus my non-parenting energy on my design business, things took off.

What advice would you give someone who wants to pursue a career in knitting?
Be patient and keep working at it! A designer I admire, Amy Christoffers, once shared this Thomas Jefferson quote in reference to having a career in knitwear design, and I think of it often: "I am a great believer in luck. I find the harder I work, the more I have of it."


  1. what a great interview with Hilary! Definitely a designer I admire.

  2. So grateful for a designer who includes the small end of the size spectrum. I've been following Hilary for a couple of years now, and enjoy seeing your interview.

  3. Hilary seems such a genuine, authentic, lovely woman, and her designs are beautiful. I second you Oona, I'm grateful that Hilary hasn't forgotten us smaller women! I can't wait to start buying and knitting her patterns.