Made by Babushka: The Russian knitwear brand that hires grandmas to handmake exclusive garments

Babushkas love knitting – and this startup taps right into their passion. At Granny’s, elderly ladies from all over Russia knit trendy sweaters and beanies, making money off their hobby - and add some babushka love to the fashion world!

Maria Loginova is 103. She’s seen it all - the revolution, the Civil War, World War II and the perestroika. But she’s not much for taking walks down memory lane - she’s still got too much energy and too much to do in the present with cooking, gardening and a gang of grandkids. “She’d rather spend all day digging and planting potatoes in the garden, than sit idly and reminisce about the past,” says her granddaughter.

And her most recent venture? Well, Maria’s taken up a gig at Granny’s, an Instagram-based millennial startup where she knits classy sweaters from the finest Peruvian wool - so if you want top quality with some real grandmotherly love, this is the store to visit. 

Uber for knitwear

Behind the project is Yulia Alieva, who admits she wanted to do good for people since the beginning of her career. So, two years ago, she finally quit her managing position in the state sector to launch her own social business. In her Instagram account, Yulia says she’s always been “in awe of senior people” - perhaps because she is so attached to her own grandparents. That’s why she decided to do something to support pensioners all over Russia.

“I often heard my Grandma say: our handywomen can outdo anyone, it’s just no one knows about them,”Yulia told ‘Ogonyok’ magazine. Those words etched into her mind, so she dreamt up Granny’s - a knitwear venture that would let retired craftswomen sell their knits online and earn extra rubles off their talents. 

To find her knitters, Yulia took to social media. At first, it went slowly - many people suspected a scam and refused to believe someone was willing to promote and sell handmades for just a small commission.

Still, one grandma took a leap of faith and joined the startup. After the first orders got sold, word of mouth did its job and the media spread the message – and soon applications started pouring in from all over the country. 

“I loved to knit since I was a kid - I knitted for myself, sisters and then friends,” says Elena Leonidovna, that pioneer granny who blazed the trail for others. “Now, I take care of my grandson, and he has special needs, so I was really lucky to join this project. I can do what I love while staying at home.”

The business works as follows: first, you make an order on the project’s Instagram page. The managers then send your order – along with the yarn - to a certain grandma, who will hand-knit your item from home, which can be anywhere in Russia - Moscow, some small town in the backcountry, or a Caucasus mountain village. Then the piece is then delivered to you by mail – and you get your own babushka-made clothes to keep you warm in cold winters. 

But be warned: if you thought granny-made equals old and frumpy, you’re in for a big awakening. These ladies know their style and set their own trends. Irina Kryuchkova, for one, keeps up with all things vogue by checking out Zara and H&M seasonal collections. She’s not too impressed, however - the yarn is mostly synthetic and human touch is certainly lacking. “When I’m knitting, I put my heart and soul into every piece,” she says. “Mass-market brands might be better at some things, but there is no warmth, no kindness like the one I give.”

Cute, cosy, bold or glam - you name it and chances are, Granny’s has just what you need. They make chunky cable sweaters and hip neon-colored jumpers, chic straw bags and canotier hats, patchwork homeware and hand-woven rugs. The latter, by the way, are created on a real loom – one of the more exotic handicrafts on Granny’s menu, along with bobbin lace-making and frivolite jewellery. And of course, all sorts of adorable baby wear – shoes, bloomers, princess dresses and blankets soft as a cloud.

“I learnt to knit and sew at school. Those were the years of deficit and I wanted to look stylish so much,” shares her story Lubov Valeryevna from Saint-Petersburg, mom of three and grandmother of 5. “And in the deficit of the 90s my daughters were the most fancy-dressed girls and were very proud that their mom was knitting and sewing for them…”

Every piece has the name of the knitter on it so you know which babushka put her work and talent into your clothing. That’s part of the idea, according to Yulia Alieva, - to add human connection to the whole experience, as if it was your own long distance nana sending you a gift. “It’s about real grandmothers who put their love, warmth, care and wisdom into every stitch,” says one of the first Instagram posts about the project.

Today, she and her friend Ksenia manage a full-on babushka corporation – 137 grandmasand 4 granddads from some 40 towns and villages. The criteria to qualify as Granny’s knitter is simple - one just has to have grandkids or be older than 55. 

A dream team of babushkas and dedushkas

The artists come from all walks of life - young and old, retired engineers and housewives, professors and mechanics. And the stories they tell are perhaps the one thing more incredible than their craftsmanship.

Take Asya Adolfovna, 78, a descendant from a long line of German settlers that came to Russia under Catherine the Great. Her parents were deported to the Urals along other Volga Germans in 1941, so she grew up in a special settlement. But you’d hardly guess that looking at the smiley buoyant lady on photos - and now, she’s a tech-savvy granny from Moscow, who likes being in the thick of the action and makes warm socks for Granny’s.

Three other knitters survived the Leningrad siege and Kalleria Pavlovna, 82, still remembers how she was evacuated from Moscow on a train, with bombs dropping from the sky and not much to eat. “I remember they made us soup from potato peels and garlic…It was good,” she shares her memories on Granny’s page.

For many, knitting isn’t just a pastime, but something that supported the family through the worst of times. “When I was in primary school, I used to watch that old beggar woman that wandered around the town. In winter, she was so cold and didn’t have any mittens,” says Tatyana Igorevna from Saint-Petersburg, “I felt sorry for her and wanted to knit her something. So I took a book and learned it all by myself! But when the mittens were ready, I never saw that woman again… Then, there were the harsh 1990s and several years in Germany, where I did a lot of knitting for sale and taught it, too.”

The business side of the noble cause

“Buying from us, you help someone’s grandma”, the slogan reads right on top of the project’s page - and the brand makes good on this promise. All in all, about 90% of all profits go directly to the artisans. Some grannies work with the company’s designs and are paid a fixed amount per item, others create their own pieces and showcase them on Granny’s page – in that case, the business receives 10% commission and handles both the orders and delivery. All profits minus grannies’ fees are invested to further expand the business.

Earnings vary - from knitter to knitter, season to season. “A lot depends on the masters themselves,” says Yulia. “We provide equal opportunities for everyone. Those who constantly hone their skills, come up with new ideas, can easily double their monthly pension.” She gives an example - one of the masters is paid 12,000 rubles (approx. $170) in retirement benefits and earns as much with Granny’s. 

Yulia, however, believes, that for the artisans, the project means much more than money - it’s an incentive for them to keep busy, move forward and fill their life with meaning. “It motivates them and makes their eyes light up,” she explains.

“The mood we are in - you have no idea! It’s just like you wrote - makes you wanna live and give joy to people! And create beautiful things! One thousands thanks to you!” - reads one message she received from her artisans after they got their first orders.

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