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The Art of Needlepoint

After 12 years in business, two college friends look back at the accessories empire they’ve created

In 2004, while Peter Smathers Carter and Austin Branson were roommates at Bowdoin College, they decided to launch a line of needlepoint belts. “We had each been gifted a needlepoint belt from our then girlfriends and became intrigued,” says Branson. “We discovered that no one was mass marketing finished hand-stitched needlepoint belts.” And Smathers & Branson was born. “Without realizing it, we had laid the groundwork for a cottage industry,” explains Smathers Carter. And people loved their East Coast preppy vibe so much they wanted more. “The positive response allowed us to expand to a full line of needlepoint accessories.” The brand now offers everything from belts to key fobs to flasks in patriotic, animal and other whimsical patterns and prints—and they also make custom designs for Brooks Brothers, J. Crew and Orvis.

Smathers & Branson’s Set Sail Belt

Smathers Carter, who now lives in San Francisco with his family, and Branson, who still lives in the D.C. area, are still as involved as ever in the retail and e-commerce business as it looks to the future. Here’s what’s up next.

What’s special about needlepointing?

Smathers Carter: There is something special about the time, patience, and love that goes into each stitch. It’s no surprise that needlepoint is often referred to as a labor of love. Each needlepoint product produced by a needlepoint enthusiast or one of our artisans is truly one of a kind. Simple variations in an artisan’s technique, such as stitch tension, can yield a slight difference in the final product’s appearance. It is truly an art form. 

How do you divide the responsibilities of running the company day to day? 

Branson: The biggest strength that we both bring to the table is our passion for our business and the entrepreneurial spirit that we share. We are both very hands on with all aspects of the business—sometimes to a fault. As the company continues to evolve and grow, our roles have too.  As our team has increased in numbers, there is more managing required of the two of us. 

How did you decide to evolve the brand the way you did? 

Branson: Rather than evolving into a clothing company, we thought that the accessories route was closer to our core. Our most successful product extensions are typically used in everyday life and can be sold through all of our various channels of distribution. Also, we listened to our customers very carefully. Most of our best ideas come from them! 

What has been your biggest challenge so far? 

Smathers Carter: Although we’ve faced many hurdles since launching, our company never would have gotten off the ground if we hadn’t found our partner in Vietnam. We like to think that our artisans in Vietnam produce the best needlepoint in the world. Finding and training these artisans has not been an easy task as our company has scaled.

What’s been the most surprising aspect of this venture?

Branson: The biggest surprise since starting our business has been a pleasant one—our customer base is much larger and more diverse than we initially anticipated. Not only have we watched our products resonate well nationwide, but we also have an international business that has taken off in recent years.