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Environment

Web-savvy grannies knit for the planet

Some consider handmade and DIY clothes as more than just a fashion fad. The 'maker movement' has found new expression in a UK start-up that puts knitting grannies to work.

balls of yarn and mittens

Handmade, knitted products are all the rage

Recent years have seen a revival in handmade products, propelled by websites like Etsy and DaWanda.

The market is huge. Last year Etsy processed sales of more than $525 million (412 million euros).

Besides rejecting mass production, people in the "maker movement" often advocate quality, ethically-sourced materials and the re-use or 'upcycling' of things we no longer need.

Many of these businesses only make custom products to order.

In part, the movement is a response to customers' desire to know who made the scarf they're holding, where the cotton was grown, and under what conditions.

Grannies, Inc is a startup that has hit upon a neat idea for ticking all these boxes without blowing out the other factor important to shoppers: price.

The website, founded by the UK's Katie Mowat in 2009, allows customers to design their own beanies, scarves and wrist warmers, then have them made by a grandma of their choice.

Handmade revival

Mowat caught the knitting bug in 2003 while on a student exchange in California. An avid skier, she also wanted to design her own beanies and scarves, but needed people to make them.

Grannies from Grannies, Inc, Logo.

Grannies Inc - a startup with a social conscience

"When you think knitting, you think grannies. So that's where the idea came from," said Mowat.

Finding a workforce wasn't the challenge. Mowat says she's been flooded with interest. Since launching the business, 300 grandmothers have contacted her, eager to put their skills to use.  

Mowat works with 14 grandmothers across the UK. They're paid a commission on each item.

She describes Granny Patsy as a speed demon with the knitting needles and says when Granny Holly isn't knitting, she can be found sailing around the Scottish Isles or gardening.

Lyn Ibbetson, or Granny Lyn, was another grandmother excited to hear about the possibility of knitting for other people. She's 69 years old with three children, four grandchildren and two step-grandchildren.

In the 18 months that Granny Lyn has worked for Mowat, she's knitted more than 20 beanies and hats. She says she enjoys the partnership, despite the fact that she lives so far from her boss they've never met face to face.

Social, environmental aspects

Part of the draw for Granny Lyn is that she can enjoy her hobby without feeling stressed.

First, Mowat proposes an obligation-free commission. If a granny takes the commission, Mowat prefers it to be finished within a week, which is far more time than Granny Lyn needs.

"It's a very relaxed relationship, which is very nice because you feel you just can do what you're able to do," Granny Lyn said.

She also likes working with the high quality material. Grannies, Inc. knitwear is made from organic cotton, bamboo yarn and 100 percent Merino wool from South Africa.

A pair of hands knitting

The popularity of hand-made products is soaring

A German start-up with a similar concept is MyOma. Launched October last year by Verena Röthlingshöfer, MyOma boasts a team of 29 grannies (and one grandpa) who knit items as various as leg warmers, beanies, caps and cases for laptops and iphones.

For her start-up, Röthlingshöfer located all the grandmas in her vicinity and invited them over for tea and cake. Röthlingshöfer says it's the social reward that counts for her.

"We can make a lot of Omas happy. It's beautiful work for me too, because I have fun and the Omas are happy."

DIY start-up trend

"More and more people want to build something that has a positive and meaningful impact on their world," said Charlie O'Donnell, a partner at Brooklyn Bridge Ventures, a seed stage investment company in New York, where Etsy, an online marketplace for handmade and vintage, took off.

As well as benefiting from people who want to make a difference, O'Donnell says the culture of handmade products is growing because people love stories, they're obsessed with individuality and the internet is proving a great tool for putting like-minded customers, vendors and workers in contact.

Mike Butcher, European Editor of TechCrunch, describes the "maker movement" as part of a societal change that will continue to see DIY startups flourish.

"Etsy kind of kicked off this interest in handmade objects and craft, and I see that continuing," he said.

For Granny Lyn and her fellow knitters, it's a win-win situation. Lyn does something she loves, and conscientious consumers get an alternative to mass-produced items made in sweatshops at considerable environmental expense.

"The less we can produce that is going to quietly rot in landfill, the better I like it," Lyn said.

Author: Cinnamon Nippard
Editor: Nathan Witkop