Angie Azur is a YA Sci-fi Writer.
Writer for PALEO Magazine.
Former Intern at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency.
SCBWI & COWG Member.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Interview with Sarah Oliver: Creator and Owner of Sarah Oliver Handbags

I met Sarah through a mutual friend. Her warm smile wasn't the only thing that caught my eye when we shook hands. It was her bag. And, I asked her where she got it. Turns out, she made it! I wanted one, and promptly bought one from her website. She was so gracious, she emailed me personally to thank me, and even sent me a dragon brooch for supporting her brand. I was hooked, on her and her bags!

I asked Sarah for an interview, and I'm so glad I did. She's not only creating a beautiful, long lasting product, she's helping our community by embracing what should be our most cherished resource, the elderly. Read on to see how.

Below are the questions I asked her:

1. What age did you start knitting? Why?

I started knitting at a very young age, maybe 6 yrs. old - give or take a year. I was obsessed with making things. I just could not get enough to create with my hands. I loved creating and giving gifts for family and friends. The feeling of giving a gift to somebody that is handmade is one of life’s best feelings and something I understood at a very young age.

In addition to loving to make things, I also had great role models to follow. My Mother, Aunts, Great Aunts and Grandmother were all knitters. They really were just creative in general. Knitting was only one of the crafts they enjoyed and there were many many more. I watched, listened and learned from them and then I really could not help myself, I just had to be creating something with my hands. 

2. Describe your handbags in 5 words: 

Classically designed with a contemporary edge. Oops, that was 5 +1 word! 

3. Where did the idea come from to encourage women from the retirement home to knit for you?

The idea came out of a very basic need to be able to make more bags. I really did not know what to expect from hiring my knitters except that it felt like the right thing for me to do for so many reasons. Not only did I feel as ease with seniors because of my upbringing, I also wanted a local workforce so that I could be present for my young children. I can’t tell you how many people told me at the time that, if were to go overseas, I would make much more money. A little more money would be nice but not at the expense of my beliefs and values. 

4. How did you approach the staff and the retirement community?

That was the easy part. Once I decided to work with seniors at the Redwoods, I contacted the programs director; we met and came up with a plan to have a sign-up sheet. That was the beginning of our working relationship. It was that easy. 

5. What time do you get up and what do you eat for breakfast?

I get up way too early! Not by design, it is just who I am. 

I try to switch it up for breakfast. Love eggs in any form!

6. Where did the name Purlettes come from? What does it mean?

For so long, we did not know what to call my knitters.  We all wanted a way to refer to them as a group. I use to call them my ladies but that did not really capture their spirit. My sales rep came up with the idea of a contest. We received many suggestions but “Purlettes” just seemed to stick. Purl refers a basic knitting stitch and by adding the “ettes” we felt we able to capture their character with a nod to their spunk. When Hector joined the group, he suggested we add “+1” to the Purlettes and that was that!

7. How are you advertising your bags? Facebook? Twitter? Other? Which one is best?

I have not done much advertising or at least anything too costly. I have run Google and FB ads but they have never created a conversion. I just don’t have the budget or woman power to experiment with those types of ads. 

I am, however, a big believer in the power of Social Media (not the paid ad part) for growing a business. I have had several conversions on FB and Twitter simply by posting about my company. That is amazing to me. I wish I had more time to post and tweet but I do a fair amount and I’m still experimenting at finding my pubic voice. I’m a pretty silly person and I don’t know how that translates in the social media arena but I do my best. I really want to find a better way to quote the Purlettes +1. They say some pretty funny things sometimes.

8. What is your 5-year plan for your business?

I don’t want to bore you with the details of my 5-year plan (as if I knew all the details) but my vision is to build an accessories company that blends fashion and community. Kind of like the Alice Waters of the handbag business. I believe in Ms. Waters’ vision and passion for food and I admire her ability to persevere even when it seemed as though her restaurant would not survive. 

(BTW, if you know of any entrepreneurs (hint hint) who could help me create my five year business plan in exchange for a handbag, I wouldn’t turn them away – unless they tell me to manufacture overseas – that is a deal breaker.) (Hint taken...we should talk:)

9. Where can we find a Sarah Oliver bag? What stores carry you?

We sell our bags online at and in many stores across the country. Locally, we are carried in Gump’s in San Francisco, Pennyweight, in St. Helena and most recently, Christopher Salon in Tiburon. We have a boutiques page on our website that lists all the stores that carry our bags. 

We are also, in a way, selling our bags through our campaign. We are trying to raise money for a new collection of bags and have decided to try kickstarter as a platform to spread the word about our bags and the meaning behind them. 

10. What was the most difficult thing you had to overcome to start this business?

I never reflect on the most difficult things that I had to overcome to start my business. I probably should. My brain just does not work that way. I tend to just keep marching forward. 

But, if I were to reflect on that question, I would say that letting go of the guilt I felt while trying to balance my family and business life was the most difficult thing for me. I love being with my children and family and also loved building my business. I can’t give all of myself to either and that makes me feel stressed at times. All I can do is try to be the best person I can be and pray that I am doing the right things for everybody around me.

11. Ever want to give up? If yes, what keeps you going? If no, why?

I can’t say I ever want to give up. I do get frustrated and overwhelmed at times. I worry about not making payroll or that I might be letting one of my team down when sales are not as good as I had hoped they would be. I really depend on the love and support of friends, family and sometimes strangers to keep me strong when I begin to feel that the challenges outweigh the successes.

12. Who is your biggest cheerleader?

 I feel like I have so many that I don’t know where to begin. The Purlettes +1 and the team at the studio are certainly at the top of my list of cheerleaders. 

I have some incredible customers that continue to support us in so many ways. 

Of course my husband and kids are huge cheerleaders. My daughter most recently sent an email to all our contacts asking for support of my kickstarter campaign. I thought that was so cool that she was willing to put herself out there for me. 

13. Where do you think you need to improve in your business? 

Without a doubt, I need help with strategic planning for the business. I need to improve how I plan for production.

14. What gave you the courage to do this?

My strong beliefs that when I’m doing something I love and it is good and feels right - I know that all will be OK. At the end of the day, that is what gave me the courage I needed to start the business.

15.         Who has taught you the most on this journey into business ownership?

I have had a few mentors along the way but there is one gentleman who has really been a guiding light for me/us. He had a successful private label handbag business and is retired now but still is so knowledgeable and supportive.

16. How can my blog readers help you to become an even bigger success? 

I believe it is all about spreading the word. We don’t have an advertising budget so the more people spread the word about our handbags and how we hire and empower seniors in the workforce the more bags I will sell (I hope). 

I would be so grateful if your readers took a moment to check out our website and watch the short video about our business. If it resonates with them, then my hope would be that they would be willing to share it with others.

17. What advice would you give a newbie wanting to start a business like yours?

Start small and test the market. If all goes well, just keep moving forward.

18. What does it mean to you to be invested in the senior community? 

For me it is everything! I meet with my seniors once a week and communicate with some of them via email too. Having that connection is so important for all of us. It is an investment in time and being together. 

I believe that the seniors still have so much to contribute to society and they are often overlooked. I don’t want that to continue to happen. 

19. How have you changed them? And, how have they changed you?

I’m not sure I have changed them. I do know that they are happy to be contributing in many ways to my company. Some tell me that they would be lost without the knitting. When I hear that, I feel a sense of achievement, that I was able to find a creative way to make them feel useful. I also feel a sense of renewed energy to keep the business going. 

I’m more aware of what it is like to grow old in the United States. It is not for sissies! 

20. What one word best describes you? 

Intuitive (at least I’d like to think I am ☺)!

21. Any big news?

Yes! We have a new line of handbags that we are thrilled about. I mentioned our kickstarter campaign and am doing everything to reach our goals in order to launch our new line in the spring. Check our our kickstarter link here if you really want to get to know me and get a flavor of my company:

Click below to help Sarah and her Purlettes:


  1. This beautiful interview really reflects who Sarah is - she's the real deal! Through the almost impossible task of raising a family and simultaneously building a business, she navigates with grace, humor, and always makes people feel included and appreciated. This love is reflected in her products. Thanks for sharing her story.

  2. I agree with you! She is amazing!! And her bags rock!!!