One California handbag designer has a unique business model that not only helps her small business but also her community. She employs seniors from The Redwoods, a retirement community outside of San Francisco, to knit her bags.
“The bags are all hand knit, and because I couldn’t keep up with the demand, I hired seniors in a retirement home,” explains Sarah Oliver, owner of sarah oliver handbags.
Oliver started her handbag business out of her home eight years ago. She began making small bags for Christmas gifts, and it sprung from there. People advised Oliver to take her patterns overseas to grow the business, but that wasn’t the approach she wanted to take.
She now employs about 20 to 25 knitters, in their 80s and 90s. They are known as the Purlettes + One. The "One" refers to Hector Richards, currently the only male in the group. Oliver meets up with her team once a week on Thursday mornings to collect what they’ve knit and pass out new wool.
“Then, we just sit together and talk about what's going on. They are super-interested in the business. They love what they do,” Oliver says. “They are very active and involved, and the knitting is one more piece about what keeps them excited to get up everyday to help and continue to do something bigger than just their lives.”
Oliver collects anywhere from 40 to 70 bags a week. The knitters create the shells of her bags, and she designs the final products out of a studio in Sausalito.
“It’s not like a factory, where I can flip a switch,” Oliver says. “I have to really think through what my knitters can produce, and it's kind of the key to the business.”
It plays into what she refers to as a “thoughtful process of production.” All the seniors have the patterns to make each type of handbag, but Oliver knows exactly who knits what, which colors they prefer to knit, and their specific styles of knitting.
“Some knit loose, and some knit tight,” Oliver explains. “In order to make product consistent, I have to slightly change the pattern for some of the knitters.”
The Purlettes + One get paid by each piece and by the size of the bag.
“They count on receiving the check. They may not necessarily always need it, but they do count on it,” Oliver says. “They use it for various things. One of them said that they had to have dental work which is super-expensive, and then some of them just use it to be able to treat a grandchild to a lunch out. Some of them donate all the money that they get to our local scholarship fund for the high school. It kind of runs the gamut.”
But for Oliver, the knitters are more than just employees. Her admiration and friendship with these seniors is undeniable.
“I'm really proud of the Purlettes + One, and they're proud of what they do,” she gushes. “It has become a huge part of the company.”
Oliver’s business model stands out now, but she thinks others will have to follow suit in the near future.
“The fact is that seniors are the biggest growing age group in our population right now, and it’s going to be doubling with the baby boomers aging,” Oliver says. “There's going to need to be more businesses like mine that are willing to take the time to figure out how to make it work. It is different, but it can be done, and it can be successful.”