Retail

New School Commerce Meets (Extremely) Old School Production

Maybe it was a sweater, maybe it was socks — but, for most people with knitting-inclined relatives, Christmas wasn’t quite Christmas until they had opened the latest of the hand-knitted wool hats from a grandmother. Sometimes those items were perfect, and other times they were awesomely, unintendedly asymmetrical, depending how good at knitting one’s nana actually was. There was something about a handmade wool beanie, though, that connected everyone to all the best parts of being seven years old.

But, we all grow up, and those hand-knitted hats pass into the past. Or, at least, such was the way of the world until the digital age of commerce made it possible to connect with grandmother-knitted hats at the click of a button.

Not your own grandmother’s hat, maybe, but someone’s grandmother’s hat.

That is the founding premise behind WOOLN, a New York-based startup created by Margaux Rousseau and Faustine Badrichani, two French millennials and knitting enthusiasts who expatriated to the U.S. and decided to import a bit of their culture with them.

“As Europeans, honoring elders is a big part of our way of living,” Rousseau noted. “We really want retired women to feel valued and needed.”

And so, they hired them: older women to knit hats, snoods and blankets for $20 to $140 per item. The accessories, available at www.wooln-ny.com, cost between $50 and $400. For those who are wondering, a snood is a wide ring of knitted materials worn as a hat or scarf.

In the age of Etsy, the terms “handmade,” “artisanal” and “small-batch” are fairly commonplace, and the interestingly rarefied pool of crafters from which they recruit certainly help Wooln stand out from the pack.

More than introduce their knitters as a concept, consumers also get a chance to learn about the crafters through profiles on the WOOLN site. One knitter, Hollis Hillhouse, is a retired beauty exec who is pleased to have found someone to pay her for the knitting she was probably going to do anyway. After all, it is her chosen form of relaxation.

Gloria Herman is 70 years old and found she needed something stimulating to do after retiring from a career as a flight attendant. It turns out knitting hats for people who want them is actually pretty fulfilling.

“I’ve become a yarn snob,” Herman, a grandmother of six, noted. “The yarn we use is so wonderful. It’s so nice to knit with. And everyone that touches it, when they ask me what I’m working on, they say ‘Ohhh, it’s so soft.’”

Soft and ethical. That is the brand’s other standout commitment: ethical materials sourcing. That means WOOLN only uses materials that can be sustainably produced, including alpaca from communities in Bolivia and Peru, merino wool and cashmere in partnership with Lion Brand yarn company.

The commitments the firm has embraced, noted its founders, do more than create an ethical base for the company and a clever way to keep production local. It also helps WOOLN build a strong brand identity for its small, but growing, consumer base.

“We’re really trying to build a community of knitters on one side and a community of buyers on the other who care about what they buy and why they buy it — who want something local and handmade,” says Badrichani.

Finding a grandmother to do one’s knitting is an esoteric enough goal to be a challenge, but one that Rousseau and Badrichani have solved with Craigslist ads, posters and even approaching the occasional knitting stranger in the park.

The company’s goods are not quite what one finds everyday, and certainly aren’t cheap, but being handmade and part of a community is selling more than a hat alone.

And winter is coming. Who doesn’t what a grandma-certified hat to call his or her own?

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