Multi-talented U.K. designer Penny (Pen) Oliver stopped by for a chat with me today about her wildly popular knitting patterns. She is a prolific designer who conjures up whimsical, knitted toy patterns of all shapes and sizes, and I’m overjoyed to feature her design, Arthur the Alien, in the September issue of Creative Knitting magazine.
Read on to learn more about Pen, the inspiration behind her design process and about her wildly popular Etsy shop: Oliver Boliver.
Kara: When it comes to knitted toy patterns, you’ve got it really down pat. It amazes me how you come up with these little expressions that make your designs almost come to life. Why did you decide that small knitted toys, and not garments, were your passion?
Penny: I have always loved soft, plushie toys and, as a teenager, refused to get rid of my toy collection! As a child at the top of my wish list for Santa was always a cuddly toy. In fact, I hated dolls so much that one year I even asked Santa for a ferret (much to the dismay of my mother!)
I’m a terrible clothes shopper and incredibly fussy because I’m fairly short and more than a little bit curvy so the thought of spending weeks and weeks knitting a sweater only to find that it looks absolutely dreadful on me is just too much of a disappointment for me to bear. I also have a fairly short knitting attention span, so toys seem to keep me interested and allow me to experiment with different techniques. If I have to frog, it’s usually only a few hours rather than a few days worth of knitting!
Kara: When did you first start selling your patterns on Etsy? And with so much competition, can you share the secret behind your success? How has this opened the door for your career?
Penny: I celebrated my first anniversary of the sale of my first pattern in April this year! I initially started with (dare I say it) crocheted amigurumi style creatures as I just loved the ease of construction and cute little faces and added a couple to my shop, but didn’t sell a single thing! I’d had an idea for a crocheted frog, made him, got it down on paper, loaded it up and sold it within minutes of adding it to my shop. I realized then that Etsy shoppers are pretty savvy and are looking for something a little different. I converted my crocheted frog into a knitted version, and I’ve not looked back since! I think the great thing about my patterns is that you can use any weight of yarn in order to size up or size down the patterns. Just use a needle size which is a couple of sizes smaller than the recommended size and you’re good to go!
Kara: I appreciate how you offer a tutorial for this pattern (and many others) with 30 step-by-step pictures to help the knitter along the way. Now that’s impressive!
Kara: Do you plan on offering kits or other products. Any plans for a book down the road?
Penny: I’ve added a line of kits, including each of my creatures. I’ve recently been selected to sell Artesano yarns and so it will really help to keep the kit prices more commercial. Artesano is an English company specializing in ethically sourced alpaca and wool yarns. I love their yarns and their trading policies and so it makes sense to stock their yarns too. They are also the importer for the gorgeous Manos Del Uruguay yarns and I stock the full range of Artesano and Manos on my website (oliverboliver.com).
I’ve recently added a range of safety eyes and noses to my shops, which are selling across the globe. I use all of the range in my patterns; it’s fun to experiment with different sized eyes and noses to get different looks. I’ve recently introduced a range of hand-painted safety eyes too which I hand-paint myself using non-toxic, hand-blended colors. I offer sizes from 6mm to 24mm in round pupils and will be introducing some cat’s eyes oval pupils very soon! I have metallic and solid color palettes in over 30 different colors. They really make a difference to a special project and you can make your project quite unique.
Kara: Would you be willing to share where do you draw your inspiration from when you start a new design? What inspired Arthur the Alien?
Penny: Arthur was an idea for a boy’s toy alien and I’d doodled several drawings until I was finally settled with something a little extra terrestrial but with tons of cute appeal.
The design process starts off with a doodle and it grows from there. I then like to knit the head first as it gives the rest of the toy scale, and the expressions are a big part of that process. I never ever sew a toy together until every last piece is knitted, stuffed and pinned into place.
I then look at the toy for a day or so with a critical eye. (As do my kids, who never hold back on what they have to say about a new design!) If it passes that test, then I sew it together and write up the pattern. My pattern for Jasmine the Giraffe became notorious in our house as she was one of the patterns that I couldn’t get my finger on. I knitted about 6 different heads but they all mostly looked like cows or dogs, and then I cracked it! Imagine this: all six little heads sat on the shelf sitting, watching you while you watch TV! Too funny and more than a little macabre!
Kara: Can you share some of your favorite yarns and supplies you like to work with?
Penny: I absolutely love Artesano, which is one of the reasons I wanted to offer the range in my shop. Their yarns are so soft and squishy and I love how they as a company put people before profit. I’d say there’s something in their range for all projects. It’s been very interesting working with Creative Knitting magazine, as I’ve been introduced to yarns which I can’t get hold of here in the United Kingdom. Cascade 220 is great for toys. Needles and notion-wise, I’m totally in love with my Addi Turbo needles, and I can’t buy enough bamboo double-points! Where do those stray DPNs go? I think they must be hiding under the floorboards with a bundle of odd socks and teaspoons!
Kara: When did you first learn to knit, and do you remember the first project you ever made?
Penny: My paternal grandmother taught me to knit when I was around 4 or 5 years old. She was Welsh and I can remember her sitting there teaching me with the most amazing patience and wonderful accent! I managed to get a hold of Jean Greenhowe’s Knitted Toys book when I was about 10 or 12 years old and launched straight into the clown, quickly followed by the scarecrow. I had to make them look exactly like the picture including the facial features (maybe this is where my obsession comes from) and my mum—who was a total non-crafter—was amazed with what I’d made. After I left home, she asked to keep both dolls as a reminder and keepsake. After she died, I asked my dad if I could have them and they both now sit above my desk where I design my toys! I’ll never forget how amazed she was to see me make things, especially as she was not in any way crafty, and I know that she’d been delighted that I’m making my own designs and filling every nook and cranny of my house with soft toys!
Kara: What’s a typical day at the “office” for you, and how do you keep up with your Etsy orders?
Penny: I always start the day off with coffee as I’m really not a morning person. Things are much more manageable with coffee! The first thing I do is check my Etsy shop and see what orders have arrived overnight. The majority of orders are either U.S. or Australia based and so they tend to shop whilst I’m asleep! I like to process orders first so that it leaves me free for the rest of the day for designs. I recently had my second child, Zac, and so I then try to juggle knitting with baby feeding and weaning routines. Any real design work tends to happen when he’s asleep although he’s now at an age where he’s awake more than he’s asleep which has hit my productivity hard! He’s starting nursery school in September and so that should make a real difference to my pattern designing! I’ll miss him terribly on those days when he’s there, but I’m brimming with ideas and desperate for some time to get them off paper onto the needles. My husband works from home and we are usually buzzing around with our lists of things to do for the day. We always make time to sit and have lunch together before school finishes and the teatime/bedtime routines take place again. After the boys are in bed, I like to sit and paint any hand-painted safety eye orders that I have. They then sit overnight to dry before I wrap them and pack them the next morning.
Penny, I want to thank you for such an enlightening and entertaining interview. I admire your creative spirit, and I look forward to seeing your designs grace the pages of Creative Knitting magazine once again!