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November 20, 2017
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The grannies. Source: grannysfinest.com/grannies.

Every week in Rotterdam, retired women are getting together to knit as a part of Granny's Finest, a young fashion-focused foundation with a social conscience. The so-called "grannies" knit accessories such as hats, scarves and gloves, the designs of which are conceived by local, up-and-coming fashion designers and the products are then sold under the Granny's Finest label at a brand-specific concept store in Rotterdam and other retail outlets across the country. 

Jip Pulles and Niek van Hengel Granny's Finest
Jip Pulles (left) and Niek van Hengel.
Source: entertainment.yahoo.com.

Friends and entrepreneurs Niek van Hengel and Jip Pulles founded Granny's Finest about a year and a half ago, after van Hengel found inspiration from experiences with his own grandparents. He recalls visiting his grandfather at a retirement home when he noticed a woman knitting alone, just for fun. That same day, he took his grandmother to buy some yarn at a local wool store. "I asked her to make a scarf for me and a couple of weeks later I was proudly wearing the first Granny's Finest scarf, with hindsight," he recalls. "But at the moment I was just very happy with my new handmade product."

According to van Hengel, the company - which was developed as Pulles' graduate business plan - aims to fill a void for both the young and old; young designers get exposure, quality production of their designs and a percentage of each item sold, while the retired women are rewarded with a social network (the non-digital kind) as well as the knowledge that people are using and enjoying their knitted creations.

Van Hengel explains that it's a win-win situation. "The grannies, they know the technique or skills, and the designers know what's fashionable," he says. "To create a great product they need each other's experience and knowledge."

Designer Channa Ernstsen has had first-hand experience of this synergy. Ernstsen, who graduated from the Design Academy Eindhoven in 2007, runs her own label, Studio Steek, in addition to designing for Granny's Finest. She describes the collaboration as "quite easy," explaining that when she first joined the team about a year ago, she came up with a concept, designed her items and wrote descriptions of how to produce them. From there, the grannies took over, making her line of knit accessories.

Channa Ernstsen Granny's Finest
Channa Ernstsen. Source: studiosteek.nl.

"The social aspect of the project really attracts me, the way it brings different generations together," she says. "I was amazed by the grannies' amazing knitting and crocheting. It was a great experience to work together and learn so much from these women, about these particular skills and about communication and collaboration as well." 

In particular, the project confronts the issue of loneliness among senior citizens in the Netherlands and the decrease in organised social activities due to budget cuts. According to the Granny's Finest website, over one million of the Netherlands' 2.6 million people over the age of 65 report feeling lonely or very lonely. Van Hengel says the ultimate goal of the foundation, which has received some funding from the municipal government, is to lower this number.

"The availability of nice activities is lessening over the years," says van Hengel, adding that Granny's Finest has stepped in by offering its free knitting groups. "These grannies can do their hobby with the best yarn available, with fashion designers and having their own store. It's something they're really proud of and it doesn't cost them anything. The only thing they have to do every now and then is come by and show their good skills."

While the women do not get paid for their knitting work, van Hengel insists they are rewarded in ways that are valuable to them - perhaps more so than financial compensation, especially in a country which, according to the Conference Board of Canada, offers universal pensions. The Netherlands also boasts the lowest level of poverty among the elderly at just 1.7 percent.

The goal of our foundation [Granny's Finest] is to lower the amount of loneliness, not only in Holland but amongst our target group, so it is broader than just Holland.

"If you're looking at what people's needs are, money is not the only thing you can reward people with," van Hengel explains. "The age group we're working with, they're in general quite wealthy relative to other age groups, but what they're mostly in need of is social contact and something to be proud of. So we reward them, definitely, but we reward with things they actually are in need of."

In addition to organising the weekly craft meet-ups, Granny's Finest arranges occasional excursions for its knitters. For example, the group is planning a visit to Rotterdam's Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, which is currently displaying some of the women's work in an exhibition entitled Hand Made - Long Live Crafts! The group has also travelled to Amsterdam together to attend a fashion show.

While Granny's Finest is unique in the way in which it applies fashion to tackle a social issue, it isn't the only design-based project to do so. In 2010, an initiative was introduced called Faith and Fashion which took place at the London College of Fashion. According to The Guardian, the project, backed by interfaith organisation the Three Faiths Forum, invited 20 girls who were British and Muslim to explore and express their dual identities through fashion. And across the Atlantic in Manchester, New Hampshire, the Sewing Confidence programme which was launched 2009 teaches refugee women to sew, helping them integrate into a new society while also improving their English language skills and understanding of business management.

Another project that, like Granny's Finest, focuses on knitting and elderly people is innocent smoothie's Big Knit. According to Helen McNamara, digital manager for innocent Ireland, the annual fundraising campaign began in the U.K. in 2004 but has since spread to a number of European countries including Ireland, Germany, France, Switzerland and Denmark.

Granny's Finest innocent Smoothies
Innocent smoothies -The Big Knit.
Photograph courtesy of innocent Ireland.

Big Knit invites members of the public to create little hats that are then displayed on bottles of innocent drinks in supermarkets during the winter season. For each hat-wearing smoothie that's purchased, Innocent donates 25 cents to charity. McNamara says that in Ireland alone, €20,000 was raised last year for Age Action, an Irish organisation that supports elderly people across the country; in the U.K., more than £1 million has been raised to date for Age UK, a similar charity.

Like the Big Knit's expansion throughout Europe, Granny's Finest also hopes to ultimately grow beyond Rotterdam and the Netherlands, despite not making financial gains thus far. "Currently we're a foundation, but we are a foundation with the target of making profit," van Hengel says. "I think that's just a healthy way of doing business, but we try to maintain balance between making profit and making people happy. The goal of our foundation is to lower the amount of loneliness, not only in Holland but amongst our target group, so it is broader than just Holland."

For Granny's Finest, the last year and half is just the beginning. Van Hengel explains the foundation's goals for international expansion, "we want to be accessible for grandmas throughout all the world in the end." With limitless ambition and a wealth of knowledge, Granny's Finest looks set to unite generations the world over, one fashion collaboration at a time. 

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