Welcome to Knotzland, Pittsburgh’s eco-friendly bow tie capital
October 1, 2016
“I did not plan on being an entrepreneur,” Nisha Blackwell tells me, surrounded by yards of eccentric fabrics and a century-old sewing machine inside her lofty Homewood workspace. I believe her, but considering the incredible, nearly immediate success of Knotzland — the environmentally friendly bow tie company Blackwell single-handedly founded in 2014 — it’s hard to imagine her being anything else.
Still, just two years ago, the Pittsburgh native was fresh out of a job — and fresh out of ideas when it came to finding a birthday gift for a friend’s one-year-old daughter. “I wanted to make her something really, really nice,” she says. “So, I dug into a bag of thrifted items that I didn’t really use, I pulled up YouTube, taught myself how to sew, and I spent all night making her these hair bows.”
One birthday party and a handful of hair bows later, the Knotzland seed had been planted. “I left the party with six customers off the bat,” says Blackwell.
But as her customer base expanded, the national void in the men’s accessories market remained unfilled. “Some of my customers were parents of girls and boys,” she says. “They’d say, ‘What if you made something for the boys? Boys are harder to shop for, and I’m tired of trucks and dinosaurs. I want to dress my son up.’”
Enter the bow tie: the more structured, more sophisticated, very distant cousin of the hair bow. From a business standpoint, Blackwell says that shifting to men’s fashion was an obvious choice. “The girls’ market is so easy and saturated, and timing is everything,” she explains. “It just made sense to be in the menswear market.”
From a personal standpoint, though, becoming a bow tie expert meant starting from square one — again. “Essentially, I had to learn from the ground up how to make a bow tie,” says Blackwell. “I studied the dimensions of a bow tie, I went and purchased a couple different styles and sizes and stuff … and I started making them.”
In 2015, after landing both a finalist spot at local startup accelerator Thrill Mill and an extra nudge from Urban Innovation21, Blackwell put her justly earned seed money to good use. She rented out an office in Homewood’s newly renovated 7800 building, hired a seamstress and two interns, and hasn’t stopped working since.
Knotzland, accordingly, hasn’t stopped growing.
In 2016 alone, Blackwell won Designer of the Year at Pittsburgh’s fourth annual Style Week, showcased her bow ties on the runway at Philadelphia Small Business Fashion Week, and hosted countless pop-up events around the ‘Burgh. Since launching Knotzland.com’s “Design Your Knotz Bow Tie” feature, custom orders have been flooding in — along with special bow tie requests from wedding parties.
To boot, Blackwell has continued to partner with local artists on Knotzland’s monthly Artist Collaboration bow ties — one-of-a-kind, special-edition pieces of wearable art that notoriously sell out in as little as one week.
Still, beyond its triumphs, Knotzland is an enterprise rooted in environmental consciousness. And that’s exactly what Blackwell always imagined it would be. By sourcing and rescuing high-quality textile waste from “different design companies,” as well as Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse, she’s able to produce an entirely original product while retaining a low ecological footprint.
“I really knew that when I had a business, I did not want to do something that was harmful for the environment,” she says. “Because I love — I am 100 percent about environmental conservation, as well as handmade and local things.”
Apparently, so is the rest of Pittsburgh. Knotzland’s bow ties are such a hot commodity, in fact, that they’ve even caught the eye of the city’s most committed bow tie champion: Lifespace’s own Jesse Wig.
At our headquarters, we’ve seen our co-founder wear more bow ties than we’d assume most men do their entire lives. We’ve observed his meticulous bow tie selections across seasons, with both long- and short-sleeved button-downs, sometimes with T-shirts, during meetings, and — most often — just for the hell of it.
So what happened when Pittsburgh’s bow tie guy met the creator of Knotzland through a mutual friend?
“We’re gonna design a [bow tie] collection, essentially from scratch,” Blackwell reveals. She’s referring to the official Jesse Wig Collection, coming very soon to Knotzland’s inventory. Think: rich fabrics, earthy tones, and straight-up class, hand-sewn and assembled with that signature Knotzland spark.
Don’t worry — you’ll be the first to know when the line drops. Until then, we’re certain you’re going to be seeing a lot more of Blackwell — and her extraordinarily artistic accessories.
“The thing that makes me stick out [in the fashion industry] is that I’m not only a woman in a traditionally male-dominated space,” she says, “but I’m making a product that instantly adds an expressive zest to a classic staple.
“I’ve just been going with this crazy idea of making bow ties, and people are responding amazing. I’m just gonna keep doing it.”
Spoken like a born entrepreneur.