In the world of fashion, artisan bow ties have stood the test of time. When you decide to wear one, you are making a personal statement about who you are, the richness of your character, and your unique personal style. Pittsburgh business owner and native, Nisha Blackwell, celebrates the endless potential of these small, yet profound fashion statements with her local business, Knotzland.
Knotzland came into being in 2014, right after Nisha had been laid off from a coffee shop. She was devastated that she could not afford to buy a birthday gift for her good friend’s daughter’s first birthday. But for Nisha, the devastation quickly turned into action. She grabbed her sewing machine; something she had been meaning to try out for some time, and then gathered up a pile of newly thrifted clothing and materials. She was determined to make something special for that little girl. She stayed up all night, watching YouTube videos that featured people sewing on their machines. She specifically recalls watching the sewers’ hands over and over, until she came up with three perfectly crafted hair bows.
Armed with hair bows and no sleep, Nisha excitedly arrived at the birthday party. Nisha was elated that she could give such a meaningful gift to her good friend’s daughter. But what she didn’t anticipate was the reaction from the rest of the party go’ers. Nisha’s hair bows were such a sensation that she left the birthday party with a half a dozen orders from moms who wanted their little misses to don these same exquisite bows. After popularity grew with the bows, it was suggested to Nisha that she’d take on a different tie; the bow tie, which opened up the possibility for a new and bigger market, menswear. Nisha enjoys a challenge, and ultimately settled on taking a chance with the bow tie market.
This wasn’t Nisha’s first time entering the entrepreneurial world. Before the hair bows, she dabbled in reselling unique clothing finds on Instagram. But for Nisha, she felt that this was the time to go big or go home. She was eager to take on the daunting task of building her own menswear company from scratch. She first turned to Thrill Mill (now Ascender), an incubator in East Liberty. Nisha was immediately drawn to this start-up incubator because it provides resources, space, and seed funding to new businesses.
Nisha and her team excitedly delivered their application to Thrill Mill. After their application was reviewed, Nisha and her team were selected and invited to a “Bootcamp” with 100 other local entrepreneurs looking to gain entry into the incubator for their hopeful business ventures. Then, they were accepted into the second round, which meant they could attend a highly acclaimed entrepreneurship class with Babs Carryer, a famous Pittsburgh start-up guru. After the 8-week session, Nisha and her team integrated all of the useful information they learned, and perfected their business plan for the final pitch. Knotzland was selected as 1 of the 12 companies to become a part of the Thrill Mill family.
Nisha describes her experience with the incubator as priceless. Nisha stated,
“I had never even imagined being a “real” business owner but something about being in an environment with a bunch of other hungry and committed entrepreneurs was just what I needed to light a fire under me”.
She also found it immensely beneficial to work alongside other business owners who were in the same starting phase. She recalls everyone visiting each other’s desks, swapping ideas and knowledge. She describes the unique incubator process as “constantly learning…together”.
The name Knotzland comes from a personal place for Nisha. She originally wanted her company to be named “Have Knots”, to reflect the struggling town she grew up in, Homewood. As a young girl, she witnessed firsthand people in her own community fighting to secure basic life essentials like food, money, and opportunities for employment. Growing up in Homewood made a lasting impact on Nisha, and she wanted to reflect this in her business.
Fortuitously, this name had already been taken by another clothing company. Pressed for time and in need of a name, Nisha went to her favorite spot to meditate, the top of her Grandmother’s street that overlooked the entire town of Homewood. After some serious contemplation, she decided on the brilliant name, Knotzland. It seemed rather fitting that it started out as “Have Knots”, as the company started from such humble beginnings. But it kept growing and gaining vital components like having access to top business mentors, funding, and an actual physical business space to create. The company truly became Knotzland, the land of the knots. A far more fitting name, if you ask me.
Knotzland reflects who Nisha is and what she stands for. Nisha has spent her entire life thrifting clothes and wares from secondhand stores. That same ethos carried over to Knotzland, in which the bow ties are strictly made from reclaimed and reused high-end fabric. Nisha explained that, “it helps keeps stuff out of our land space that doesn’t biodegrade, or has a negative impact on our environment. It helps shape a more a holistic, conscious view of consumerism “.
The price point is a little higher than some national companies, but it accounts for the careful work that goes into reclaiming these materials, like tracking down the right fabric, to ripping out the seams, to ironing it down. And this is just the beginning of how Knotzland embraces the slow fashion movement. She finds fabric from local businesses like Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse, T’s Upholstery, Thread International, and the Pittsburgh Opera. The entire process is incredibly time-consuming, but Nisha feels that these additional steps ultimately makes Knotzland a responsible Pittsburgh business. Not only are the materials sustainable, but the bow ties themselves are. “Bow ties are timeless, they are never thrown away. They are passed down from generation to generation. Bow ties in themselves are a sustainable fashion”.
Nisha gives back to the Pittsburgh community by partnering with local emerging and established artists, designers, and organizations to develop and design the bow ties, or “wearable art” as Nisha likes to call them. For the emerging artists, this collaboration helps build their portfolio. And for the established artists, these bow ties provide customers the ability to own a piece of art from one of their favorite local artists without diving into the heftier price tag associated with their larger and more intricate pieces.
Nisha also stresses the importance of educational opportunities. At Knotzland, they train and work with local women and teach them how to be proficient sewers. These women earn more than a supplemental income, they also get a first hand look at what a successful start-up looks like. Speaking of success, Nisha recently won the 2017 Creator of the Year award from Pittsburgh Technology Council, a prestigious award that honors the top people who are changing the face of the creative industries in Pittsburgh. Well, I’ll be….
In the wise words of Dhani Jones,
“There are four main pillars to the bow tie – self-representation, service, collaboration and critical thought. You have to understand how to represent yourself and critically understand how to collaborate and serve others”.
Knotzland represents a far greater story than just ridiculously good-looking bow ties. They’ve started a movement that critically looks at our environment, celebrates the unbridled artistic talent we have in Pittsburgh, and lifts up members of our own community. When you buy one of Knotzland’s bow ties, you are supporting the entire city that we love to call home. After our experience at Knotzland, we’ll never look at the necktie’s quirkier cousin, the bow tie, the same ever again.
Thank you, Nisha, Alex, and Nicole for your time and hospitality. We loved getting to know your truly unique Pittsburgh business!
Cheers N’at- Devon and Tim