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.

Oliver Bonas hats - 100% ACRYLIC

Oliver Bonas hats – 100% ACRYLIC

Some background

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

The Big Knit Bullshit

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.

hundreds of thousands of hand-knitted hats; where are they now?

hundreds of thousands of hand-knitted hats; where are they now?

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.

using freely donated knitting to make your product look good is really not so innocent

using freely donated knitting to make your product look good is really not so innocent

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.

100% WOOL

100% WOOL

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.



Spin doctors

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.

This is not the source of WOOL

This is not the source of WOOL

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.

This entry was posted by Felicity Ford.

19 thoughts on “100% ACRYLIC is NOT 100% WOOL

  1. You have summed up here everything I dislike about this campaign.I knit for a charity (Knitted Knockers) who certainly do not undervalue the efforts of their knitters and who celebrate our skills. I have felt from the outset that the Innocent campaign is a cynical marketing ploy and the waste (I am sure pretty much all those hats are chucked away) appals me.
    Thank you for this piece I really hope that it is shared far and wide.

    • Brilliant post!
      Don’t get me started on EWM! What is that all about??! We went to buy actual woollies there last winter and were galled to see so much acrylic and nylon.

  2. I’d never really thought about the innocent hat campaign that much before…but now I have, I agree with everything you’ve said.

    On the 100% acrylic hats being described as wool- isn’t that some sort of trade description faux pas?! (Or not because it’s just in the press release…?)

  3. Good gawd! I DO hope you sent this to Oliver Bonas’ corporate headquarters and every Paper you could get to print it!!! Good job to you and Jane.

    • Amen!!! HRH The Prince of Wales should say something, if the limits on his freedom of speech will permit. I dislike acrylic so so many reasons (silly use, waste of petroleum, disgusting feel, dangerous for clothing among some) but the photo of all of those hats – which will all be dumped into a landfill and last for umpteen thousand years, and the thought that the knitters who innocently made them could have produced warm WOOL caps for the impoverished- oh! I can barely type coherently. Thank you for your efforts to raise public awareness about this.

  4. With you 100% of the way, and thank you for expressing misgivings I have had for some time about the whole innocent hats thing. (Love the drinks, not sure about the knitted hats.)

    The other point that I’d like to make even more strongly is that 100% acrylic hats *will not keep people warm* and that misguided knitters and purchasers of knitting who provide acrylic garments to elderly people may be *contributing to* hypothermia, not stopping it. I had an elderly neighbour who complained that she couldn’t stay warm, that she was wearing lots of ‘woollies’ and thought it must be the chemotherapy she was on that was making her unable to keep warm. I checked, and of course there wasn’t a single woollen fibre in her wardrobe. She wouldn’t let me use 100% wool, saying she was forgetful and would wash it on the wrong cycle, but I made her a shawl, a pair of socks and some slippers using wool/nylon mixed yarn – and suddenly, she was toastie warm and comfortable. How many other elderly and infirm folks out there think they’re as warm as they can get, wrapped up in layer upon layer of non-insulating man-made fibre?

  5. thanks for this. i wish somebody would parse the ethics of attic24’s solicitation of handknits (mandalas, flowers) for what turned out to be a for-profit venture, yarndale, of which the proprietor of attic24 is a founder. it was very snarkily dealt with on the internets, which seemed not to jibe with attic24’s online personna. still there remains an odor of sharp practice as carefully defined here, which i greatly appreciate, you guys rock.

    • when i say snarkly dealt with, i mean the ethics of attic24’s solicitations were snarkily dealt with by other crafters, which effectively mooted an excellent point by seeming to persecute someone who goes to enormous lengths to cultivate a cozy knitterly baker of sweets personna online.

  6. Wonderful post!!! I have for many years tried to teach my knitting students why spending hard earned dollars on good quality ‘wool’ is the only way to go. Once you’ve spent so much time creating a beautiful piece of knitwear, you want to have it withstand years of wear.

    I profess to hating and being allergic to acrylic. I also continue to teach that ‘yarn’ is usually acrylic whilst ‘wool’ is 100% wool from a sheep, although sadly as stated in your article blends do get misnamed as well.

    I used to show & tell all the different sweater/shawls/coats I’d knit; some of which had 15-19yrs on them. Students were amazed that they were that old. So it proved time and again, how it is so worth paying good money for good ‘wool’. Several students professed to not liking the feel of 100% acrylic once knit and washed a few times but were amazed that 100% wool got softer and softer.

    Thank you for your continuing work to spread the word…

    WOOL all the way!!!

    • I went to a talk a couple years ago on Elizabeth Zimmerman and there were several pieces she had made. They were in amazing condition for their age and many had been in use as well.

  7. I have always thought it should be illegal for yarn shops to advertise knitting wool on sale when it is actually acrylic yarn. When I have complained to said shops about the deliberate misuse of the term “wool”, I have been told that this is the accepted terminology in the UK.

  8. You tell ’em! The undervaluing of knitters enrages me, especially when this is done by a company using charity for it’s own economical and PR purposes. Of course in the UK, the word “wool” can also mean “yarn” more generally – and they are embracing this familiar terminology in the campaign, but it is just incorrect labelling when referring to a retail product, and totally misguided when asking knitters to knit for the purposes of keeping someone warm! Sadly it doesn’t at all surprise me- but I am just wondering is there anything practical I can do to spread awareness further (outside of my knitty networks) about this? I’m also wondering if either Innocent or Oliver Bonas has responded to your questions?

  9. Reblogged this on Ribbing Yarns and commented:
    November is Wovember! Here’s a brilliant post from Felicity Ford about the importance of wool, valuing knitters’ labour and THAT Innocent Smoothie Campaign…enjoy and share with other knitters in your network! X

  10. Don’t get me started about labelling and man-made and synthetic fibres!!!!! My pet hate, especially regenerated Cellulose ie Rayon or Bamboo or Rose Bush etc…..I feel a post coming on especially the way the EU has changed current labelling legislation for “Wool” products, it’s shameful! Actually do you want a post on it Felicity??

  11. Thank you so much for publishing this article. When I first read about the Innocent big knit I found it really disingenuous, it is obviously more about making themselves look good than actually being good – how can you advertise yourself as charitable while exploiting all those knitters? Really awful. There is no reason they couldn’t just have paid 25p per sale to charity without getting people to work for them for free. Also I wonder if any of the knitters whose designs have been chosen for adult-sized hats are getting paid for their work? As to the “100% wool”… I despair.

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