Fair (trade) Isle

I missed the first press release (not that I would have gone shopping):

A luxury e-tailer of Scottish goods announced that it started selling Fair Isle sweaters from Shetland on a fair trade basis last month. The story only seems to have been picked up by the Herald today (that link will expire quickly).

Interestingly, it’s not a native who brought the fair trade concept to Scottish knitting:

Teresa Fritschi, the American-born managing director of Thistle and Broom, is promoting the work using a Fairtrade model in an effort to retain the integrity of the product.

“Today, what the consumer is generally buying is a Fair Isle style knock-off that’s machine knit.

“To the uneducated Fair Isle is simply a style of knitting, but this is one of Scotland’s most unique pieces of intellectual property.”

… Mrs Bowie, originally from Whalsay but now living in Lochinver, Sutherland, has been knitting since she was four and is about to turn 78. She said: “I’ve only made one jumper for the project so far so I am very much a beginner.

“I was more or less doing it for family and friends, but I did some for the Romanian children, through the charity shop, so there was something new for them to wear that wasn’t just cast-offs.

“However, it wasn’t really worthwhile knitting to sell because you didn’t get enough for it. The wool is so expensive to buy. I never dreamed it would ever be sold in America. It feels good, and both Rosabell and I are on the net.”(from the Herald, May 14 2007, “Knitters turn to Fairtrade in bid to save their tradition”)

The crime of it is that these talented women were still being paid about 50 pence an hour until we launched our Fair Isle Knitting Project. Now 2/3’s of our retail price and all shipping costs go directly into the knitters’ bank account when Thistle & Broom receives an order. (from the T&B website)

I suspect that “fair trade” is generally unstandardized with respect to apparel: it looks like most items that are fair trade certified are mostly food products and cotton. The UK labelling initiative does not list apparel, either. (There may be older efforts, but does “fair trade” as a concept today apply to co-operatives or other systems set up by the producers themselves to sell and distribute their work directly?) But it looks like the rates paid to knitters by T&B qualify as fair: you can see from shopping around on the site that a knitter would therefore make just over 230 GBP for knitting Mountains & Glens, or more than $450 US. It’s unclear who deducts the cost of materials from their share, or whether the knitter identified on the T&B site (in the case of this particular sweater, Agnes Bowie) is the one actually doing the knitting: at such improved compensation, perhaps one knitter could subcontract out the work if there was a lot to be done.

The newspaper reports says that to date, Mrs Bowie has filled one order. I wonder how popular it will be; the pricing results is a rather restricted market. I’d love to buy some of the jewelry, but I can’t afford it, not by a long shot (the knotwork bracelets are nice, but I’d far prefer the Scots pine cuff, a mere 625 GBP). And alas, I’m too short for the riding habit, just under 1000 GBP.

For the rest of us, though, there’s a benchmark. If someone wants you to knit a Fair Isle pullover, the going fair rate is upwards from $600.

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4 Responses to Fair (trade) Isle

  1. Angela says:

    Such a shame that they need people to think there is a link with our isle & the sweaters they offer.

    True fair isle, as in fair isle patterns, knitted in the true fair isle style (no pattern repeats) & knitted upon the isle of fair isle, are only available on isle via fair isle crafts. Not one single person on the isle (fair isle) knits for thistle & broom, nor would any of us even consider it, so why they have to advertise the product they offer with pics of our isle, none of us can understand, we can only insist that people do not assume that our isle is tarred with the thistle & broom brush.

    We do hand knits too ! with all profit being given to the knitter, customer works with the knitter to design the garment, no middle man involved, only costs deducted from the knitters wage being the cost of the yarn. Now isnt that what fair trade outa be ?


  2. Dear “Girl from Auntie” and her friends -

    I was delighted to just discover your blog picking up on our sustainable luxury efforts for Scotland and especially those around the Fair Isle knitters. Allow me to assure you that each lady (and we’re adding three more over the next couple of weeks) does indeed knit each item herself. And yes the ultimate goal is for her knowledge to be passed onto younger generations to preserve this aspect of Scotland cultural heritage. It’s unlikely to be subcontract work but rather a new knitter added who can knit the patterns who would also be promoted on Thistle & Broom. Like the Fair Trade model which has been so wildly successful for foodstuffs and inexpensive dollls and bowls from underdeveloped nations the model is merely to provide artisans and craftspeople (and fashion and textiles) in Scotland to be marketed under the Thistle & Broom brand. More than 90% of our product offerings are set up on a 66% (to the artisan) 33% to T&B (to offset development costs and PR efforts). I would be happy to answer any questions your readership might have – and again thank you for your very kind words.

  3. Jennie says:

    I’ve tagged you with the Thinking Blogger Award.

  4. Penny says:

    Over here, in Britain, the Fair Trade concept has been around for some years (at least ten). The basic idea is that the producers of goods – usually in the undeveloped world – sells their goods to a middleman who pays them a predictable and reasonable price for their goods. Originally it was usually food and household items – like bracelets and little decorative items – but clothes have also been available for a while. I’ve even seen Fair Trade yarn.

    It has recently been extended towards British farmers. There is some concern that the large supermarket chains are exploiting what is essentially monopoly buying power to ‘force’ farmers to sell their produce at knock-down prices. I hadn’t seen it applied to British-made clothing though.