Case Study: Olive Pearson Designs and zero-waste textiles

18th March 2020

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Olive Pearson at work

In this case study Green Crafts Initiative member Olive Pearson, discusses her approach to eliminating waste material in her line of knitted accessories, which won the Gold Award for Best Product in the Jewellery and Textiles category at Scotland’s Trade Fair in January. It was great to see the Trade Fair recognising the importance of sustainable crafts.

Introduction to my work

I’m Olive, the designer-maker behind the luxury knitted accessories brand Olive Pearson Designs. Now in my second career, having previously worked as a cartographic designer/editor in the publishing industry, I returned to college to fulfil a life-long ambition, gaining a degree in textile design from the Glasgow School of Art in 2012. It took a while after graduating to decide what to do, so after a period freelancing and creating hand knit designs for high-end fashion houses, I launched my own brand of knitted accessories in 2015.

I started off re-using all the fabric samples I had left over from art school. Odd lengths of fabric were not long enough for a conventional scarf, but by joining the ends together I could create single or double loop scarves. I also love a challenge, so had great fun working out how to use up all my odd bits of yarn to hand knit multi-coloured striped, one-off pairs of matching gloves and mittens.  I started at the smallest craft fairs to engage with potential customers to enable me to set the right prices and ensure there was a market for the quality and style of my work. I’ve steadily progressed, making small changes as I go but it’s also in my nature to be ‘slow and steady’. My product range now includes short and long cowls, long scarves and wraps, wrist warmers, beanies and cushion covers in small-scale geometric patterns, combining contemporary design with traditional techniques.

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An array of Olive Pearson’s gloves

The making process

As I was brought up at a time where you didn’t throw things out, or indeed buy them if you didn’t need them, I’ve always been aware of unnecessary waste – so it was bound to be important within my practice. I’m not a hoarder but I do believe any materials left over, however small, will eventually have a use, even if I don’t see it at the time. There is virtually no waste in quality knitwear, where everything is full-fashioned (shaped) as you knit, compared to the ‘cut and sew’ techniques used for mass manufacture knitwear, so this fits perfectly with my ethos for slow-fashion, unique designs, beautifully made with ethically sourced, traceable materials, produced by suppliers with a record of good animal welfare and environmental consideration. The aim is to provide customers with heirloom pieces they love and that will last a lifetime.

The main material I use is merino lamb’s wool, which I love. It is comfortable and soft, naturally bio-degradable, doesn’t need a lot of washing and regulates your temperature. I no longer hand knit unless for commissions, so each scarf is knitted by me on a vintage manual machine, without any fabric waste, and the only energy used is mine. The small lengths of yarn left over after seaming and sewing in the ends are saved and used to attach the product branding and care labels. This also helps customers to be more aware of the quality, colours and weight of the yarns used. After knitting, everything is washed and pressed, so small amounts of water and electricity are used in the finishing process.

Samples produced to trial new patterns and colour combinations are usually knitted as full scarves – the unsuccessful ones that don’t make the cut are sold as samples, as everyone has different favourites. Smaller samples knitted to show clients bespoke options are eventually recycled and made into felted key rings called ‘chubbies’.


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Leftover yarn

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Cone ends

The new range of scarves

My signature designs until now have all focused on two-colour fair-isle style patterns and long scarves and wrist warmers have a tiny contrasting colour stripe at the ends. Over the years I accumulated a large number of ‘cone-ends’ of yarn – either discontinued colours, where there is not enough yarn left on the cone to knit a whole scarf, or odd ones I have bought from students or fellow knitters who no longer need or want them. They were in that category of keeping them until I found a use for them.

Looking back at some old photos, I came across my old stripy gloves – and I realised I had come full circle and could use these small quantities to make one-off scarves with deep, multi-coloured striped borders in my simple but popular HARRIS design. This technique also gave me the freedom to work with lots of colour in each scarf – though the downside is a lot more time-consuming sewing in of yarn ends. It also meant that each scarf, although similar, would be truly unique and unrepeatable. This new range of scarves recently won me the Gold Award for Best Product in the Jewellery and Textiles category at Scotland’s Trade Fair in January, so am delighted that this simple solution to zero-waste was worth the wait.

While we can all learn from our mistakes, there is a big difference between genuine mistakes and just things not working out because they hadn’t been thought through properly. We shouldn’t be afraid to think laterally, take our time and do what works for us individually. It’s much easier to sell yourself and your work if you know it inside out, are happy with how and why you do what you do. Don’t be afraid to take your time to get things the way they are right for you and don’t rush into something because it’s what others think you should do. That seed of an idea for using up odd yarns was planted eight years ago and has been gradually developing in the back of my mind until now. I now just need to work out what to do with all the empty cones I have left over…

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One of the new scarves

Images: Olive Pearson Designs

#GreenArts Day: Wednesday 14th March 1Olive Pearson is a member of our Green Crafts Initiative: a networked community of practice for Scottish cultural organisations committed to reducing their environmental impact. It is free to become part of the community, and there are lots of resources and case studies (like this one!) to support #GreenArts organisations. Take a look at our Green Crafts Initiative page for more information.

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