Maker Feature: Elle Saunders
Thank you so much, Elle, for taking time to chat with me this morning. We know you primarily as a knitter. When I think of your creation, you’re always knitting these beautiful things, those cozy hats. How did you get into knitting?
I started knitting when I was 19. The very first thing I made was a baby blanket that unfortunately, I no longer have. I have here my oldest daughter’s baby book, and if you could read this, it says “April 30th, 1991: Mama started to learn how to knit.” What happened was that back then, we were really poor. I used to go to church pretty regularly and there was this lady at the church. I was talking to her and I was telling her that I wish I could make a baby blanket for my baby, but I didn't know how. And she said that she would teach me how to knit. So she would come to my apartment for a couple weeks straight and she would just show up in the afternoon. She gave me my very first knitting needles, which I actually still have, and some cheap yarn. That’s how I got started. It wasn’t love at first stitch, I actually really hated it. It was very difficult for me to manage, but it was just something to do at the time when I didn't have anything and that lady was so generous and patient. So that’s how I got started. I can't believe that was almost 30 years ago. There were no aspirations of anything back then, it was just something I wanted to learn. And I did manage to make that baby blanket for my little baby. That’s the journey, that’s how I got going.
Wow. It’s amazing that it started from such a loving, mothering place.
Yes, it was a gift that somebody gave me at a time in my life that I really didn’t even know that I needed it. That was a very tumultuous, really difficult period for me in my life. So it was something that made me feel good about myself because I didn't have anything. I had nothing. So learning that and being able to give my little baby that gift that I made with my hands was really special for me.
That is so special, I love that. So how did that eventually evolve into this business that you have?
Over the years, knitting was just something for me to relax. Several years ago, I joined the military--I’m a retired Army Sergeant First Class, I’m a disabled vet-- so I would knit just to relax. As the years went on, I retired but I was still a military spouse and we went to Korea. This happened about 3-4 years ago, when we went to South Korea. Over there they have these huge markets, I'm talking a thousand vendors, and they would have markets that were specifically just for textiles, and yarn, buttons. There would be entire stores that were nothing but buttons, all kinds of buttons. I would go to these markets and I would see these yarns and I bought several types. Over there, the little Korean ladies and men would sit around on the floors of these yarn stores and markets and they would all bring their knitting and they would knit. Korean people are very welcoming, even if they can’t speak english, and I started bringing my work around and it was just a way to connect. So we would sit there and try to talk to each other, I was learning how to speak Korean so I would practice. Those people there, they would sell their knitted things in those shops and gosh, they were so beautiful and I didn't think that I could get to that level or anything, but I started on Instagram just looking at stuff. Looking at people’s accounts and following people and I created [my first] account. I started to follow this account called @knitbrooks and she really inspired me and all the beautiful things she made and I was attracted to that chunky look. Between the yarn that I could get there and ordering yarn from the States, a seed was planted. I didn’t start my business back then, but a seed was planted and I was like, One day, I too am going to sell my beautiful things.
So when we came here to Kansas, I got a job at a local university and I just kept knitting. You know how people would make stuff and post things on instagram or facebook with, oh I made this cool thing. And people started asking me, I would buy that, could you make something for me? I always declined, I always said no. Knitting was something that was for me, but I just didn't think in my head that I was ready.
Right around this time last year, I got tired of getting asked so much. So what I decided to do was, I'm going to open up ten slots. I’m going to make ten hats and I will sell them. I posted that on my Facebook and I went to bed. I woke up the next morning and my inbox was slammed with messages. All ten were gone overnight and people wanted more. So I just went in order of merit and over like three or four weeks' time, I made the hats and I sold them...for way too little!
People were loving it and it felt really good and I thought, huh, maybe this is a thing. I decided to do it again except that it was twenty. I was like okay guys I'm going to do this again for the holidays. I will make twenty hats, if you can wait about two weeks to get your hats because I'm working full-time. And the same thing happened: all twenty gone, plus two scarves that people wanted because I was wearing it and people wanted that item. I remember telling Daniel, “I think this is something and I should pursue it.”
I was crazy. I would go to work, and the university was so busy, working 8 to 5 and then I would come home and eat and spend some time with Daniel and then I would knit from 8:30 at night until 1 in the morning. I did that five days a week and then I'd knit all day on Saturday. As that was going on, I was in my head. I have a background in marketing so I was thinking about what my story was, who my girl is, who I am and what I want to offer the world. So I decided I was going to start a business, a legitimate knitting business and I was going to do it full-time. That was the goal that I set in January of this year, that I was going to work full-time for myself.
How I did that, how I made that transition, was that I decided that I was going to quit work and so I made a business plan. You have to do that. I had a plan. For this season, starting September 1st, I would be established as a business owner for myself. So I opened up this little vintage boutique at a local market place and that’s how I was going to raise the capital for Lela Blue. I created my brand and my story and then May 15th was my last day at the university. In the summer, I solidified everything and established my designs. Some of the things I sell are my designs and some are other peoples’ patterns that I buy. That was the start!
I love hearing the journey. Of course it’s not overnight, something like that takes a lot of thought and planning.
It does. If you want to do it for actual profit you really have to sit and think about it.
It sounds like a combination of purposeful, beautiful creation and also the universe saying, “Yes, Elle, do this! People want it!”
Yes and it should be easy. It’s going to be hard, but if you’re going to work for yourself, it should be something that you love and enjoy and are passionate about. I know this from experience because I had another business years ago--I had an organic body care line. I was even in the process of getting into Whole Foods, but it wasn’t my passion, it was a chore for me.
Yeah, it's supposed to be easy, right? It is work, but it shouldn’t be that hard. So speaking of that, what’s your favorite thing to knit? You started with hats and scarves, what’s your favorite thing to knit now?
I mean honestly, my very favorite thing to knit is hats. In fact, when we were in Korea, I avoided knitting hats. When you knit a hat, most people knit using cable needles that are attached and I was afraid of them. I didn't own any. The very first hat I made, I actually made a flat piece with two regular needles and then I sewed it at the seam. It was a sad little thing. So I had to learn to get over my fear and learned how to utilize those [needles] and now I love to make them. Not only do I love to make them, but I love to think of new designs and colors and patterns and things. That’s what I’m known for is my hats. I recently started making garments and making little designs that I will eventually start. I’m going into big, chunky, oversized, very flowy knitted coats and things. That’s what’s going to be coming next year. I’m going to have a spring line of chunky knitted cardigans and cozy shawls. But my very favorite thing to knit is hats.
You started knitting and you said you didn’t love it at first. As someone who’s tried knitting a few times, the yarn gets so tight I can’t keep the proper tension there. What's something that you would suggest is a good first project? How would you encourage someone to start knitting?
That’s a really good question, thank you for asking that. I have taught people how to knit, that is also another natural way that my business seems to be going is developing a maker base business. When somebody is brand new, first of all a lot of individuals who start knitting start with needles and yarn that is way too small. The best thing to do is knit with a big old chunky yarn and big old needles. The bigger and chunkier the yarn, the easier it is for you to see your stitches and understand. I always start individuals with just a basic scarf, and I'm super patient. There are two stitches: a knit and a purl, that’s the beauty of knitting. There are only two stitches. I always start folks with just the basic knit stitch, that’s it. And then you learn how to purl. Tension is something that is easy to adjust. It just takes a little bit of patience, but it’s easier if you’re a tight knitter like you, it’s better to start with big things. Then all you need is just a little bit of time. That’s what I would suggest for someone learning to knit. It’s always cool to go to YouTube and look up how to make this, how to make that. But you know what, all you need is one big chunky ball of yarn and a couple pairs of knitting needles. The bigger the better.
I’ve been doing a lot of Facebook Live on my page and have these events. I did a Learn to Knit series last winter and taught people how to make a hat via Facebook Live. I’m going to do that again.
What’s something that you’ve created that you’re really proud of? It sounds like that baby blanket you made for your daughter was so special. What’s something you made recently that you’re proud of?
My proudest moment was publishing my very first hat pattern, which happened last month. It’s really interesting because when you go from maker to actually designing, taking the time to do the math and write out the notes and the schematics and everything of designing something. That’s really scary putting yourself out there like that. They call it Imposter Syndrome, thinking I’m not really that good. It’s funny because I’ve designed many things but I have published one. I wrote out this pattern for this beanie, it's actually a really simple pattern, this is probably an advanced beginner pattern The reason why I'm so proud of it is that I went from somebody that was afraid of making hats and didn’t even really care for them, I never thought I would make them, to sitting down and actually making up a pattern for somebody. I wanted this to be super beginner friendly but something that a maker that was wanting to sell their products in market could make fairly quickly. Somebody could make this hat in about two hours. It looks really intricate, the yarn has a lot to do with that, but it just has two basic stitches: a knit and a purl. That’s all you have to know how to do is knit and purl and then combine them together to make this squishy little beanie. I’m really proud of that. And people are buying it! It makes me feel really good. Like wow, they want to buy something that I created and I have published. So there’s more of that coming.
When you’re not knitting, what do you like to do? Do you have time when you’re not knitting?
Believe it or not, I knit for money but first and foremost, I knit for the joy of it and for freedom. I take time off from it all the time. WHen I'm not knitting, I'm gardening. I’m an avid gardener, a master gardener. I love to be outside, I like hiking and I like to be active in that way. I love to read. I’m currently working my way through the Little House on the Prairie series.
What’s a wish that you have for fellow makers?
The world is so crazy right now. I honestly wish people to feel true joy, grounded, peace, security, connection. Because right now, because of what's going on, a lot of us are just in our own little bubble, our own little world to do our part to be safe first of all. And so I feel like there is a loss of connection out there and a lot of loneliness, I can really feel that. I feel like you have to create your own happiness, but a lot of people need that sense of belonging and having a social circle or family circle that’s right there. I wish that for fellow knitters, they’re finding some kind of connection, some kind of joy and knowing that even though things are weird and scary right now that you are okay and that you will be okay. That’s what I wish for everybody.
Yes, that’s so important. Something I really love is getting to connect with people, getting to call and chat with you and feel the connection between all of us. On that note of finding joy, what’s something beautiful you’ve seen recently?
To me it doesn't take much. I’ll find beauty in leaves, acorns, the sunset, flowers. I’m the type of person that will be like, “Oh my gosh, look at this leaf!” and I can prove that to you if you could see my home. I’m a sunrise and sunset person so I'm lucky to live in a place where we have some really beautiful sunsets. Every night I get to see those. I find a lot of beauty in nature and my work is inspired by that.
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