When Sarah Oliver pitches her business on Shark Tank Friday night, she’ll have a team of seniors cheering her on. Oliver is the designer behind Sarah Oliver Handbags, which employs 15 women and men in their 70s, 80s and 90s to knit her signature creations.
Dubbed the “Purlettes+1,” going back to when there was only one male knitter in the group — there are now two — the knitters include six residents of The Redwoods, a California retirement community. They are compensated on a per-stitch basis and meet weekly to knit and discuss designs. Many of the knitters also work on pieces while watching television or otherwise on their own time.
As The Marin Independent Journal reported this week, many of the knitters learned the craft as children. Gordon Anderson, 92, first picked up the needles when he was 19 and in the hospital. He now earns about $17 per bag and knits four days a week. He is not bothered by doing what is stereotyped as a female activity, as he told the Journal.
“I don’t have any stigma about things like that. If it breaks the mold, I will.”
Oliver built her company from scratch in her Mill Valley, California, home. After she’d been in business for seven years, she went to Kickstarter in 2012. Her campaign to raise funds to launch a wedding-themed handbag line was successful, raising $29,273 on a goal of $24,500.
In her Kickstarter campaign video, Oliver attributes a quote to the World Health Organization about the growing number of seniors.
“The world’s population of people 60 years of age and older has doubled since 1980 and is forecast to reach 2 billion by 2050. This is a cause for celebration. Older people make important contributions to society as family members, volunteers and as active participants in the workforce. The wisdom they have gained through life experience makes them a vital social resource.”
If Oliver receives Shark Tank funding, she plans to increase her reservoir of senior knitters. They were all gathering for a viewing party Friday evening.
We are gearing up for our viewing party! The Purlettes can hardly wait! pic.twitter.com/kn4PKi5OUu
— Sarah Oliver (@saraholiverbags) December 5, 2015
If Sarah Oliver Handbags don’t look like traditional knit items, that’s for good reason. According to Marinscope, the hand-knit bags are then laundered and shrunk to appear felt-like. Staff on Oliver’s team then finish the bags with various details, including handles and brooches.
Oliver’s Shark Tank experience started with an unexpected email. Producers reached out to her earlier this year, shortly after the passing of her father. Still processing the loss, it took a bit of time before she regrouped to accept the offer to pitch.
“At first I couldn’t even process it. I was like, ‘What?’ I didn’t even want to look at it. But then I got back and with the rest of my family and I thought, ‘Let’s see what this is about.’ That’s kind of how it happened.”
She told the Journal that she suffered from nerves while doing her Shank Tank pitch, not just for her company but for the talented group of people with whom she works.
“I was super nervous. Like, nervous times a million. It’s very nerve-wracking. It goes back to, even if it was just me, but I felt the weight of representing the knitters in the best light and I wanted them to be proud.”
If Sarah Oliver wanted reassurance at the sharks’ potential willingness to invest in a handmade knit product, she need only have looked as far as boot sock company Grace and Lace. The husband-and-wife team of Melissa and Rick Hinnant received an investment from Barbara Corcoran in season 5 and went on to fund two orphanages in India, out of a personal desire to give back.
Corcoran is set to be on-stage tonight when Sarah Oliver Handbags pitches the Shark Tank. The episode airs at 9 p.m. on ABC.