100% ACRYLIC is NOT 100% WOOL
It has come to our attention at WOVEMBER that not everybody is reading our posts.
Whoever wrote the press release for a recent innocent and Oliver Bonas business collaboration – Little Hats Go Big – is definitely not reading our posts. Dozens of references have appeared around the Internet describing a new range of hats made from “100% wool” and “100% British Wool” when the products actually on sale are in fact – you guessed it – 100% acrylic.
In 2003, innocent drinks – a fruit smoothies and juices company – set up The Big Knit in which knitters everywhere make miniature hats to top smoothie bottles. For every smoothie bottle sold bearing a knitted hat, innocent donates 25p to Age UK towards assisting the elderly over winter. The concept of The Big Knit has grown exponentially, and now knitters annually combine forces to create miniature hats. This year High Street retailers Oliver Bonas have teamed up with innocent to produce adult-sized versions of some of the best miniature hat designs submitted over the years as part of The Big Knit. £5 from the sale of each 100% acrylic adult sized hat and £3 from the sale of each 100% acrylic child sized hat will go to Age UK.
With a retail price of £12 – £18, with £5 going straight to Age UK and presumably Oliver Bonas taking a cut, it’s hard to see how the knitters who actually made these hats were fairly recompensed for their work. Similarly, it is difficult to understand how the 25p that innocent smoothies donate to charity is representative of the labour that goes into making a miniature hat for a smoothie bottle. Rachel Atkinson has written a brilliant critique of initiatives such as The Big Knit and raises important questions about what campaigns like The Big Knit do for the image of knitting and, indeed, for charity;
When was the last time you saw a charity campaign asking people with hobbies such as carpentry, embroidery, sculpting or painting, to create a throwaway object in order to ‘raise awareness’? I doubt that you have and I doubt that you will. So why do knitters get targeted? Do the marketing and PR departments of charities think that knitters have nothing better to do with their skills, time and resources than make small hats for drinks bottles? Why do these campaigns always fall to the knitters and why do we keep entertaining them?
– Rachel Atkinson
Today on WOVEMBER we set out to talk about ACRYLIC in the Oliver Bonas hats, but it is difficult to talk about the misuse of the words WOOL and WOOLLY in the press releases for those hats without also addressing the related issue of innocent’s appropriation of KNITTING for its annual campaign, The Big Knit. Nobody looks better in the photos of knitters happily making smoothie hats “for charity” than innocent themselves: the warm, fuzzy associations of knitters organising cosy get-togethers in which to knit miniature hats are incredibly comforting and seductive. But what lies beneath this apparently benign representation of KNITTING? Last year’s £215,000 donation equates to 860,000 hand-knitted miniature hats. Where are those 860,000 hand-knitted hats now (landfill?) and was their production really the best use of collective knitterly effort?
Even if every hat took only an hour to knit, that’s an hourly rate of 25p per hour. Whether you think The Big Knit is ultimately good or bad, the aspects of the campaign that devalue knitting as something cheap and disposable are extremely questionable; at the very least, if every knitter engaged in this effort sold miniature hats directly to their mates for £1 each and gave the proceeds of these sales to Age UK, the net sum received by the charity would be quadruple what it is with innocent’s involvement. £1 is not really representative of the labour involved in making the miniature hats but even so, the maths bear thinking about.
Cashing in on KNITTING
The images of hand-knitted hats conjure associations of warmth and cosiness; of generosity and of fun… associations that are very positive for the image of innocent smoothies and for Age UK, who want to emphasise the need for the elderly to stay warm throughout the winter. But what do these symbolic hats and their innocent-rated worth of 25p each do for public perceptions of the value of KNITTING? If the object of the game is to use KNITTING to DO GOOD, then couldn’t 860,000 hours of knitting time be better used for the benefit of senior citizens? For example, could an auction of hand-knits not be held to secure the highest possible prices for that knitterly labour and would that not raise MORE money for Age UK? But taking such a route and indeed even knitting for charities that directly supply handknits to elderly people (there are some great examples here) removes the PR bonus to innocent of having the knitted hats displayed on innocent products and the seductive association of KNITTING with the innocent brand.
Just look at all the images of innocent smoothies topped with hand-knitted hats. Is this really about getting money to Age UK or is it about using KNITTING to make the innocent brand look awesome? As Nicki Merrall astutely notes on Twitter, “If @innocent made a donation without running the hat campaign, they could donate more (no admin costs)!”
What about WOOL?
But what has all this got to do with the mislabelling of acrylic hats as WOOL? Good question. In the official page for The Big Knit, innocent proclaim that the initiative began when they “asked some older people, and some younger people, to knit little woolly hats”. There it is: WOOLLY. A word like KNIT that is loaded with positive cultural associations which make innocent look great and which again underscore the message about keeping the elderly warm during winter. Yet what has wool really got to do with The Big Knit? By WOOL we mean WOOL that was grown on an actual sheep.
It turns out that WOOL has NOTHING to do with The Big Knit. In the information provided on “joining in” – There is no reference whatsoever to the fibre composition of contributed miniature hats. They can be made from anything at all. Just as innocent themselves benefit from their cultural association with KNITTING, this use of the word WOOLLY ensures that all the hats contributed to the cause benefit from pleasing associations with WOOL. Because WOVEMBER was set up precisely to challenge this kind of thing, please forgive us for quoting ourselves (ahem):
The unique properties of WOOL (warmth, wicking, durability) mean that it is a fibre particularly suitable for winter garments. Precisely because of these properties, the terms WOOL, WOOLLY, and WOOLLEN carry a cachet that the fashion industry — particularly in recent cost-cutting years — has been all too-ready to exploit. By describing fabrics and garments as WOOL that contain little or no WOOL AT ALL, the fashion industry has increased consumer ignorance, profiting from the prestige of WOOL, while damaging ACTUAL WOOL and the livelihoods of those who raise, produce and process it. By reconnecting the words WOOLLY, WOOLLEN and WOOL with the noble animals from which that peerless fibre comes, it is hoped that we will be able to end the widespread abuse of these terms in the fashion industry, and their misapplication to garments which bear no connection to actual sheep.
The uses of the words WOOLLY and WOOL in the spiel about the miniature hats and their human-sized counterparts at Oliver Bonas may seem harmless enough – an “innocent” mistake – but for a company that strives to source ingredients with a traceable provenance for its products, such ignorance about the roots of WOOL in working landscapes is spectacularly short-sighted. The credible face of innocent as a company with an interest in sustainability and traceable ingredients will have played a role in the wording of the press release that has clearly gone out stating that the Oliver Bonas adult and child hand-knitted hats are “100% British Wool”. But that statement is untrue, and the effect of publicising the hats in this way devalues actual WOOL in much the same way that The Big Knit devalues KNITTING.
It is quite clear to see on the Oliver Bonas website that the hats they are selling are made of 100% Acrylic, but many of the articles bringing traffic to that online site refer to a “hand-knitted 100% wool collection”. This is not only misguiding consumers about the composition of these products, it is also creating the false impression that a hand-knitted 100% British Wool hat for an adult can be purchased on the High Street for a paltry £18 – (£13 really, if you count the £5 charity donation that immediately comes off the price tag and goes towards Age UK).
This is hugely galling to us at WOVEMBER whose friends in the KNITTING industry and in the WOOL industry are struggling to secure proper prices for labour and fleeces alike. It devalues the actual work involved in producing garments and the work involved both in hand-knitting and in growing wool.
Because we feel that ignorance plays a large part in these sort of things, we work hard each WOVEMBER to demonstrate exactly how much work goes into the production of WOOL. We divide the month of postings up into stages that reflect the labour and processing behind this magnificent textile. And we celebrate the KNITTERS and KNITWEAR DESIGNERS whose work turns this stuff into 100% WOOL garments, patterns and yarns with which we may clothe ourselves for years to come.
The work of KNIT and the work of WOOL is awesome and we hope to show here that it is worth more than 25p an hour; that it doesn’t belong in a landfill after a brief stint on top of a soft drink; and that it is hard won from the land with great passion and effort. While farmers are still burning their fleeces in the UK it is not right for innocent smoothies to aggrandize their silly hat knitting enterprise with the word “WOOLLY”, nor for Oliver Bonas to cash in on the pleasant associations of hand-knitting and wool churned out since 2003 by The Big Knit spin doctors.
Age UK are not to blame for the elements of The Big Knit with which we at WOVEMBER take issue. We also don’t want to have a go at the knitters who have generously produced miniature hats for smoothie bottles. However we do wonder why the victims of this whole endeavour must be KNITTING and WOOL and why innocent – as middleman to the whole knitting-for-charity equation here – get to look so good on the back of their associations with both. We also think that the spectacular misdescriptions of the Oliver Bonas hats in that press release have grown out of the positive spin surrounding The Big Knit.
But here at WOVEMBER we are not interested in spin: we are interested in provenance. Much as innocent take pains to show where their ingredients come from, we want to show wool’s connections to working landscapes and particular sheep breeds. And as a related aside, we would like to see the shepherds growing wondrous wool and the knitters making wondrous things enjoy the same sorts of profits as the boys who turn raw fruit into smoothies.
Turning KNITTING into £$
On that note of enterprise and money, if you really want to do something awesome for Age UK, here are our top WOVEMBER suggestions. Please feel free to add your own:
- Donate good quality clothing to an Age UK Shop
- Knit egg-cosies from spare stash and sell them through an outlet like notonthehighstreet giving a proportion of the proceeds to Age UK (note that nobody is currently selling egg cosies for as little as 25p)
- Read these excellent tips and guidelines and make any one of the suggested patterns for a local nursing home
- Set up a JustGiving page in which charitable donations are exchanged for egg-cosies with all monies raised going to Age UK
As long as 100% ACRYLIC yarn cheaply made and spun from non-renewable oil is mislabelled as WOOL and as long as KNITTING is valued at 25p an hour TEAM WOVEMBER have our work cut out. We hope for a new era in which KNITTING is more deeply valued and in which the term WOOL is no longer abused. In this glorious paradigm you can be sure that no purveyors of traceable, awesome wool products would be asking innocent to donate bottles of smoothies towards PR charity stunts for 25p a pop. And that even if they were, nobody would be misdescribing the contents without checking them properly first.
Many thanks to Jane Cooper AKA Mrs Woolsack for bringing Oliver Bonas’s misuses of the word WOOL and 100% BRITISH WOOL to our attention! For REAL 100% WOOL products we do recommend that you visit her wonderful woolsack website which contains links to many supplies of REAL WOOL ITEMS.