by Victoria Ritter
Playtime can offer endless possibilities, especially when open-ended toys are involved. Sarah’s Silks, headquartered in California, provides children with sustainable and versatile toys that spark creativity. The company is family-owned and operated, with founder Sarah Lee as its CEO and director of new product development, and her sons Josh Lee and Morgan Lee as its marketing director and CFO, respectively.
Getting creative with products
When designing a new product, the creative team focuses on the toy’s flexibility and considers the multiple ways a child could use it at various learning stages. The key is to craft a toy that “creates an invitation to play,” said Aila Fassett, wholesale sales and customer relations manager.
The company’s products are grouped in either its permanent or seasonal collections. There are 120 SKUs in the permanent collection and new SKUs added in seasonal collections throughout the year. Playsilks is the most popular product category. These squares of 100-percent mulberry silk come in more than a dozen colors. Their versatility and durability make them ideal for open-ended play, as they can be used as costume pieces, props or backgrounds.
Other popular categories in the permanent collection include dress-up pieces for all genders and a wide range of ages; wooden toys including weaving boards and streamers; baby items such as blankets and teething toys; and Waldorf dolls.
“Our dolls are made of organic cotton and wool,” said Sarah. “They feel good to the touch, so they’re nourishing to the senses.”
New seasonal collections are introduced about every other month in collaboration with artists; this year, Sarah’s Silks had eight seasonal collections, with more planned for 2024, according to Fassett. The newest partnership is with Phoebe Wahl, the author and illustrator of Little Witch Hazel.
The seasonal collections allow Sarah’s Silks to tap into relevant trends and create ways to invite new customers to purchase its products. “We’re always listening to customer feedback,” Fassett said. “If something resonates really well with them, we’ll keep it in our permanent collection. That’s what happened with our bestselling mushroom collection.”
Fostering inclusive play
Sarah established Sarah’s Silks in 1994 as a way to meet the creative and sensory needs of her eldest son, Josh. Josh enjoyed being creative and dressing up, but Sarah felt his costume choices were limited. She wanted to create something that was adaptable and comfortable, so she began dying pieces of silk and created dress-up pieces for him, his siblings and his friends. This became the Playsilks line.
“I really value my children developing their imaginations and creativity,” Sarah stated. “That’s why I wanted to give them these open-ended pieces.”
Sarah wanted to share Playsilks with a broader audience, so she took some to a local toy store called Hearthsong and asked if the staff was interested in them. “The owner, Barbara Kane, said ‘Oh my gosh, yes! We will buy them. Please make us more!’ Then I thought maybe I could sell them to other stores and Waldorf schools. That’s how we got started.”
Sarah’s Silks exhibited at ASTRA Marketplace & Academy in 2022. The company has plans to attend Spielwarenmesse in 2024 or 2025.
In the meantime, it will focus on supporting local toy and book stores that have collaborated with them in the past. Efforts include hosting story times and play events to introduce customers to Playsilks. “We get a lot of fulfilment from seeing the stores succeed and grow and share open-ended toys with families,” Fassett observed.
Sarah’s Silks has “wonderful international representation,” said Fassett. It distributes to toy stores, children’s boutiques, museums and school classrooms in 37 countries. “The international market that we do the best in, both with sales to retailers and where we have the most stock in, is Australia,” Fassettt said. “We have 35 shops there.”
Retailers interested in stocking Sarah’s Silks products can sign up at sarahssilks.com/pages/stockists.
Environment and community go hand-in-hand
While Sarah’s Silks’ products are geared for ages 3 to 8, parents of pre-teens say their children still play with Playsilks they had back in their kindergarten days. Sarah chose silk because it is durable, soft and supple – which makes it ideal for individuals with sensory needs.
“Silk is a totally biodegradable fabric,” Fassett said. “It also requires a gentle manufacturing process. You can’t use harsh chemicals with it. For families with kiddos who are sensitive to dyes or who simply want more environmentally-mindful products in their home, this is the perfect material.”
Sarah’s Silks manufactures its products in factories that encompass sustainability, transparency and family values. Its wooden toys come from the CNC Shop in California while its Waldorf dolls, cotton products and some seasonal collections are made in India.
Meanwhile, two family-owned factories in China produce silk. Sarah has worked with them for more than 25 years and has direct communication with them to make sure workers are receiving fair wages. The factories are located in smaller communities – one in Suzhou and the other in Nanchong – which allows employees easier access to their homes and families.
“The fact that both of our factories in China are nestled in smaller communities means that people are experiencing a really positive work/life balance,” Fassett stated. “I think if you’re making children’s toys, you should make sure your manufacturing practices are supporting families; that’s something that Sarah and her partner, Mike Lee, have prioritized with their relationships with the factories.”
More fun in stores
The biggest gift for Sarah’s Silks is having independent retailers who have spread the word about the products and shared their personal experiences about playing with the toys. “We mainly sell to toy stores that are small and independent,” Sarah said. “The owners really know their clientele and can explain the toys or talk about them.”
Retailers interested in stocking Sarah’s Silks products can best promote them by educating staff on the benefits of open-ended play, carving out space in their stores to display open-play toys from various brands and demo the toys; Sarah’s Silks provides new retailers with a $50 demo budget. “That makes a huge difference, especially around the holidays,” Fassett said.
Business is going well for Sarah’s Silks, as it has reached new families and stores. During the 2022 holiday season, its products were featured in pop-up events in Nordstrom. The “biggest benchmarks of success,” this year, according to Fassett, were employing new people for the design team and creating more products than past years. The company will celebrate its 30th anniversary next year with new designs and promotions.
Sarah’s Silks’ successes have a ripple effect. “We see that success translates over to our retailer partners, as they get to seize that momentum of us sharing new products with the community,” Fassett stated. “There’s a mutual excitement around knowing there’s a new toy that will resonate with customers. Getting to participate in that excitement with everyone is really wonderful and is, for us, the biggest indicator that we’re growing in the right direction.”