No yarn, designers and grannies pair up for darn good idea

Fashion designers tapping into the craft skills of Denmark’s elderly generation, adding a personal touch to high-end fashion

With fewer young people to pay the taxes for the pension of a burgeoning elderly population, our futures are not as secure as they used to be. Increasing the retirement age has been offered as one solution, but fashion designers have another idea: put them to work.

In Denmark, the knitting skills of the elderly have become highly sought after, their dextrous hands being put to use to produce high quality socks and jumpers for the fashion conscious consumer.

One of group of knitters called themselves Kaffeslabberas, meaning something like 'chatting over coffee'. They formed in 2008 after an initiative by designer Susanne Hoffman and have since grown from four to ten women meeting on Tuesdays to knit all sorts of different clothes at a retirement home in Copenhagen's Amager district.

The group has since worked with several prominent Danish fashion designers including Henrik Vibskov, who designed tea cosies for the Kaffeslabberas to knit. Vibskov was educated at Central Saint Martins in London and is known for unconventional, peculiar and playful designs.

Speaking in one of a series of videos that have been produced about Kaffeslabberas, he explained how he enjoyed giving them the opportunity to use their skills.

“It’s a really great project with these ladies who have so much experience over so many years sitting and knitting, and not least the social side of it,” Vibskov said. “There are so many people all over the place that have craft skills and can make things and are motivated to. It’s just beautiful helping them to have their skills used. This isn’t mass production, it’s just a good project I think.”

A Mads Nørgaard sock, produly knitted by Erna (age 86). Price 100 kr (sold in pairs)

Less flamboyant, but equally esteemed designer Mads Nørgaard commissions socks from the Kaffeslaberas. Selling for 200 kroner a pair, they only receive a few every month and they quickly fly off the shelf.

“They are so popular,” Anders Mortensen, shop assistant at Mads Nørgaard’s Copenhagen store said. “People really like the idea of some nice old ladies knitting the socks that then make their way into a fashion shop on the high street in Copenhagen.”

And Mortensen could testify for the quality of the work. “I’ve got two pairs of socks and they’re amazing. They’re incredibly warm and the thought that a nice old lady made them is a nice feeling.”

Other prominent designers and artists to collaborate with the group include HuskMitNavn and Vilsbøl de Arce.

According to Michael Thompson, founder of TøjProduktionsLab, a clothing consulting and specialist manufacturer, there are probably far more women out there with valuable skills.

“That generation of women, many of whom lived in the country, were not allowed to be idle. They had to have a trade or skill, whether it being sewing, knitting or embroidery,” Thompson said. “My own mother-in-law, Bente Thomsen, is a ‘champion knitter’ and works from home for a knitwear designer called Christal Seyfert, who has a shop on Funen. There is a world of experience and talent in the older generation which is untapped.”

book about the collaborations between the Kaffeslabberas and Danish designers, including Henrik Vibskov, Mads Nørgaard, HuskMitNavn and Vilsbøl de Arce, is to be released by publisher GAD who call it “Denmark’s fist combined photo, knitting and conversation book”.

Videos of the meetings between the women and the designers can be found at the Kaffeslabbernas Vimeo page.

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