Years ago in college, Willie Smith spotted a fellow student in his gender studies class and became instantly smitten...with her knitting! "She was a beast with those needles, and I'd never seen anything like it," Willie recalls. As his classmate worked on a scarf with a skull and crossbones design—fingers flying, needles clacking, yarn loop-de-looping—Willie gathered up the courage to lean over and shoot his shot.
"I told her, 'You gotta teach me how to do that,'" recalls the California native, who now lives in a small town just north of Detroit with his family. "It took me a few weeks to convince her that I wasn't using a bad pickup line! I was this kid who wore shirts that were two sizes too big, Nike Air Force Ones and Ecko jeans; she must have thought that there was no way I was really into knitting. But she eventually taught me, and I'm so thankful to that classmate. My love for knitting opened a new world, and the rest is history."
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These days, Willie is the knitting teacher. Though the term doesn't quite capture exactly what he does on his Willie Nillie Knits website, or his Instagram reels and YouTube videos. Willie's contagious, high-energy enthusiasm for making hats, sweaters, scarves and socks—and teaching others to do so—rivals the unbridled joy of someone who just scored front-row Beyoncé or Taylor Swift tickets. In bite-size, 90-second tutorials and longer live sessions, Willie—who is a Stanley Steemer store manager by day and dad of two with another on the way—shares more than his talent. He also shares humor, positivity and motivation. It's a vibe that has clearly resonated with audiences. Just a few months ago, his followers on Instagram catapulted from 3K to 118K and counting.
Nope, he has no idea how the word got out about his knitting to that extent. All he knows is this: "I get to teach, empower and interact with more people, and get them to where they want to go with their knitting," he says. "I live for the moment when people realize, 'Yes, I can do this thing that I thought I could not do.' That's my purpose."
We talked to Willie about his love of pulling all-nighters with his needles and yarn, his great knitting ambitions and his very first (hilariously terrible) knitting project.
It was love at first sight for you with knitting. What was the appeal?
WILLIE: I'd never seen anything like that up close. Where I'm from—poverty, low income—we don't knit. I saw the skill, creativity and value right away: I knew that if I learned to knit a sweater or socks that were exactly what I wanted, I'd never have to settle for whatever I could find in a store again. I'd also been taught by my mom and a mentor-teacher that the more skills that I gathered, the more valuable I would be to others, both monetarily and otherwise.
How did that manifest?
WILLIE: After college, I became an AmeriCorps tutor in some of the toughest schools in L.A. I created a knitting class after school, which kept kids off the streets and gave them something to look forward to. When I started my Instagram account in 2019, I wanted to help people reach their knitting goals and at least make enough money for myself so that I could knit for free. And just like that, Willie Nillie Knits was born.
How do you find the time to knit and teach as a working dad of two with another on the way?
WILLIE: I give a lot of credit to my wife, Alicia. She puts up with a lot! I leave home at 6 a.m., come back at 5 p.m. and spend time with my family. And from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m., that's the time I go upstairs and do damage...knitting damage. On weekends, I go hard, pulling all-nighters: I make samples, hone my skills, figure out how to teach things in 90 seconds. It's hours and hours a week at the most inconvenient times, but nobody said it was going to be easy.
Your knitting tutorials are pretty short. Can people really learn a stitch style in 90 seconds?
WILLIE: People aren't trying to listen to a podcast. Mostly, they're like, "I'm trying to learn how to knit 'cable 2 over 2' and I'm out." People who make tutorials on YouTube are trying to get watch hours for monetization. But it doesn't line up to the amount of time people can actually spend on something like knitting. My videos are short, so you can get back to doing what you're doing. When someone wants more in-depth lessons or problem-solving, I do that one-on-one, through private classes.
What’s your favorite type of knitting project?
WILLIE: Hats, all day. I could die and still not even scratch the number of possibilities. So many skills can be incorporated into this one accessory to make a statement. Hats are a gateway to other garments, but I could do hats exclusively and be happy.
What’s your favorite type of material to work with?
WILLIE: I love wool. It's such a historically important fiber. I pay homage to those who came before me using this fiber as a means of survival. I love cashmere for all the obvious reasons, but wool is a fiber that's luxurious in its own right.
Willie Smith's Knitting Tips for Beginners
Willie Smith has some advice for those who are interested in taking up knitting. Spoiler alert: Start with something you actually want to make!
1. Pick the right project...for you. "Your starting point shouldn’t be, 'I don’t know how to knit. Where do I start?' Instead, look for a piece that you want to make. Be specific: 'I want to knit a braided cable hat with spirally bits, and I want tassels on them.’ Think about your motivation too: It’s not knitting that gets people into knitting. It's what knitting can do for them. Do you want to give your mom something handmade? Do you want to express yourself creatively through fiber? Do you want to make that thing for yourself because you can’t get exactly what you want at the store? That’s going to be the driver, the fire underneath you that’s going to keep you going as you learn."
2. Determine what skills you need. “Break a project down by type of yarn, needle and stitch. It's that simple. Now you’re equipped to start."
3. Find a "knitting mentor" to teach you the ropes. “And let's hope they don’t charge you, because that would just be mean!" (Of course, you can also check out Willie’s videos or book a private session!)
4. Embrace failure. “It’s inevitable that you will fail—you’ll miss something, you’ll knot something wrong, you’ll skip something, you’ll miscount something. It’s gonna happen. If you get it out of the way early, then it’s not so scary anymore. I fail, then I think about what my third try is going to look like, and how my first and second tries are going to help me get there."
5. Be open to change. "Go back and review what you did, and review your goals. You may change your mind about what you wanted to make. You may change your mind about wanting a hat and now you want a full-blown sweater. Whatever it is, go with it. Embrace the change."
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever knit?
WILLIE: It's a black hat, made out of Red Heart Super Saver acrylic yarn, back at the beginning of my knitting journey. I was missing stitches; it had holes in it; I didn't join it properly, so it had a little slit at the bottom. I tried to sew it up and I went the wrong way. It was a disaster. Even though it was the worst thing I ever made, I wore it like it was the best thing I ever made. That piece was not the manifestation of my end, it was the manifestation of "OK, it's not perfect, but you can do it. Now do it better." It was the physical manifestation of faith.
That’s actually pretty inspiring! What’s been the most rewarding moment so far as a knitting teacher?
WILLIE: A designer reached out to me about her 11-year-old son, who loves to knit and was being bullied in school. She saw me as a potential role model for him. We've been doing private sessions, and in a few weeks, he has come so far. He knows five different stitch patterns, how to read charts. Since we've been working together, he has an entirely different mood about him. He's happy, he looks forward to the sessions, he loves to learn. That's what it's about. I couldn't be more grateful to be part of that.
Your Instagram tagline is: “Anyone can make what they want." It's such a powerful statement of your knitting philosophy, not just as a practical hobby but as a tool for self-expression.
WILLIE: Yes, I don't want to try to convince people to take up knitting for the needles. Knitting teaches so much about life: being able to start and finish something, to take something that is in your head and put it out there in the world. It's about having the skills and confidence to express yourself. It just so happens that it's going to come from two sticks and some sheep hair!
Where do you want to go from here?
WILLIE: I want to keep growing my audience to reach as many people as possible—I'd love to get the attention of a big yarn company and be a brand ambassador who travels around the world teaching and collaborating. 'Cause they need to stop playing—I'm out here making things happen!