The Mormor.nu staff discussing a new collection sample. Left to right: Dia Dahl, Loubna Bouayadi, Nina Brandi, Dianna Martine Lindemann and Vivi Søborg.

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From vulnerable woman to professional knitter

Danish social entrepreneur Nina Brandi has successfully involved vulnerable women in her knitting business mormor.no which sells hand and machine knitted products to a global market.

Dec 11, 2013 | Text: Marie Preisler, photo: Tomas Bertelsen

130 grandmothers across Denmark are sat knitting children’s clothing for the Mormor.nu company, which has just shipped a major order to a customer in Korea. The customer list and product range are constantly growing. The latest is knitted products for adult, made and sold by women who have been outside of the Danish labour market for years.

One of them is Diana Martine Lindemann (31). She claimed unemployment benefits for six years before the municipal job centre in Frederiksberg municipality in the spring of 2013 offered her a knitting course at mormor.nu. The course went so well that she got a traineeship with mormor.nu before the company hired her. To begin with this was with municipal salary support, but she is about to get a job with mormor.nu on completely normal terms. 

“I have no education, I have been diagnosed with Aspergers and I am struggling with change, so I have never been able to hold down a proper job — until now. This job is just right for me, I feel very lucky to have something I love to do,” says Diana Martine Lindemann.

She works 30 hours a week for mormor.nu and carries out a range of tasks including developing knitting designs, updating the online shop, packing orders and serving customers in the shop.

Felt a social duty

Her employer, Nina Brandi, has been leading mormor.nu for the past six years. She has long been dreaming of supplementing the company’s children’s knitwear with adult knitwear, while at the same time taking a greater social responsibility by involving some vulnerable women, e.g. immigrants, because you don’t need great Danish language skills to service knitting machines, she explains.

“The company wasn’t growing as fast as I wanted it to. There are limits for how much my 130 knitters around the country can manage to knit for me. So I wanted to start using knitting machines, and I also felt that as a company leader I had a social responsibility.”

So she approached the Social Capital Fund which agreed to provide her with a loan and consultancy services, and she entered into cooperation with Frederiksberg municipality and designed a course in machine knitting with mormor.nu for women who are struggling to enter into the labour market.

Seven women started the course, all of them finished and with such good results that Nina Brandi was ready to let them all continue as apprentices — and the municipality agreed. Now, nine months after the knitting course started, four of the seven women are still with mormor.nu. Two of them are still in apprenticeships, one has been employed to work 23 hours a week in the warehouse. 

Something to get out of bed for

The warehouse worker is called Loubna Bouayadi. She is from Morocco and the only out of the four immigrant women who started the knitting course who remains in the company.

“You need Danish job experience to get a job in Denmark, so it has been difficult for me to find work. I am very glad to be here. We are having a really good time together,” says Loubna Bouayadi.

Dia Dahl agrees. She is 41 and trained as a clothes designer, but has been outside of the labour market for years because of personal issues. She is now an apprentice with mormor.nu and this has really improved her quality of life:

“It has helped me get my everyday life back together, and it is really enriching to experience that someone needs what I know and what I do, and to know that somewhere in the world someone is wearing the outfit which I have helped create,” she says.

Knitting machine

While she talks she is operating one of the knitting machines. It runs the old fashioned way with punch cards.

Nina Brandi appreciates her “knitting girls”, as she calls her workers. And now she is getting ready to welcome more vulnerable women into her business, even though the training is taking more of her time than she had expected.

“This has taught me that the long-term unemployed have far more problems than unemployment. Several of my knitting girls have psychological problems and other difficult private problems which make it impossible to go into a normal job from day one. It has taken time, but now I have some extremely loyal workers,” she says.

She was recently visited by Denmark’s Minister of Employment, Mette Frederiksen, who said she would very much like to see more initiatives like mormor.nu and more of that kind of cooperation with job centres. 

No universal solution

The Frederiksberg Municipality job centre is also happy with the cooperation with mormor.nu, says Johanne Schneider at the municipality’s employment service:

“It has got of to a very promising start. The women have been very motivated and if only two of the original eight women who attended the knitting course and who have been in apprenticeships with mormor.nu end up with a job, it represents good business for the municipality.”

She considers an initiative like mormor.nu to be a good contribution to get long-term unemployed people into the labour market, but warns against believing that social enterprises and social entrepreneurship can solve the task for all long-term unemployed.

“This is a giant challenge for us as a society, having a group of people who are vulnerable and whose lives can easily turn upside-down, making it impossible for them to work. This is hard for a company to relate to when it needs to make money, so there is not space for everyone.”

There is also a need for partnerships between companies and public authorities, and for projects based on socio-economic ideas while being public work projects, Schneider thinks. 

Not everything can run to a formula

Mormor.nu has got support from Trygfonden and the Social Capital Fund — Denmark’s first social venture fund. The Social Capital Fund’s CEO Lars Jannick Johansen has spent years working as an adviser, board member and strategy developer. He is very happy with the social results from the investments in mormor.nu.

“It is an exciting social enterprise which works a field that we find very visionary, i.e. including very vulnerable groups into the labour market. And early results are positive. Several of the women taking part are still with the company, and there was never an expectation that all of the women should end up in permanent employment. For that mormor.nu is too small,” he says.

He considers it important to provide support to social entrepreneurs to make their business ideas competitive. Mentoring and providing highly qualified advice on how to run a business are therefore central elements to the kind of support that the Social Capital Fund so far gives to four Danish companies.

But no matter how well social enterprises are run and how many there will be, they will never be able to replace social work,” says Lars Jannick Johansen.

“Social entrepreneurship has great potential. It can probably help many vulnerable people into the labour market, but not all social work can be run according to a business formula. There are people whose social and personal problems are so serious that we must accept a transition zone of projects that have socio-economic elements but which cannot be run as a business.”

A need for Nordic cooperation

He is convinced that social entrepreneurship can be promoted through closer Nordic cooperation on social investments.

“The Nordic countries will be stronger together when the EU grants resources to this area, and the individual Nordic markets are small but similar, and have come approximately equally far when it comes to social enterprise — so we could gain a lot by sharing our experiences and resources,” he says.

He was previously a member of the Danish government’s special committee for social enterprises, which this autumn presented a range of recommendations for how social enterprises can contribute to help more people with social problems link up with the labour market. So far there are not very many social enterprises in Denmark, and they are generally small. The number is growing fast, yet there is a need for a longterm push to keep the number growing and there needs to be a national strategy, the committee concluded.

 

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About mormor.nu

Established in 2004

Produces and sells hand knitted children’s wear, made by Danish grandmothers, and machine knitted quality wear for adults, produced by long-term unemployed and vulnerable women.

The products are sold online at mormor.nu, at retailers in New York, South Korea, Australia, Sweden, Norway, England and from an outlet in Frederiksberg in Copenhagen, where the company also has its warehouse and production of machine knitted quality wear for adults.

Has received support from the Social Capital Fund and Trygfonden to invest in knitting machines and to train women in how to operate them.

Yarn