A passion for knitting leads to fair trade project LN Beanies
With social-media savvy and a lot of patience, Antwerpenaar Ellen Kegels was able to transform her small knitting operation into a thriving business that offers 300 Peruvian women steady employment
“I was 15 when I started,” she says. “I went snowboarding every year and making your own headbands and beanies [knitted hats] was part of the subculture. I did it mainly for friends and family during my studies, and after six years I was making 300 beanies a year thanks to a little help from social media.”
Kegels, 28, studied communications and subsequently embarked on a career in advertising. It provided her with skills that helped to create the popular LN Beanies knitwear line. Four years ago, the Antwerpenaar gave up her day job to focus all her attention on her booming beanie business.
“When I still worked in advertising, I started looking for manpower to help me with the knitting and the crocheting because I couldn’t meet the demand all by myself,” Kegels explains. “I began training grandmothers who already loved knitting and had the time to spare. They eventually took the production off my hands.”
Contrary to what its name suggests, LN Beanies does not just sell beanies. You can find a variety of unisex scarves, mittens, socks and sweaters, all made from 100% pure baby alpaca wool.
Two years ago, Kegels (pictured) introduced an additional clothing line called LN Andes, a women’s collection made out of bouclé wool. This collection is now available in over 25 stores, including a dedicated a dedicated LN shop, LNKNITS, in Antwerp. The LN Beanies items vary in price, from €60 for a beanie to €295 for a sweater.
“When I started with LN Andes, I chose to place the production in Peru,” Kegels explains. “It is a line that is fair trade and handmade by Peruvian women. And when LN Beanies started to take off, I decided to switch all the production to Peru. Now over 300 women in three workshops are creating them.”
But the grandmothers are still busy, she assures us. “Thanks to LN Lab, you can design your own personalised beanie. These are still made by the Antwerp grannies.”
Kegels’ business is based on four core principles: only natural materials (such as alpaca, silk and linen), manufacturing by hand by local women, excellent customer service and personal branding. The fair trade label is something she is especially proud of.
My dream was to provide work to an entire village
Solid International is an organisation that shares experience and knowhow with locals in regions around the world where there isn’t much conventional trade or a developed economy. With their help, Kegels was able to get production in Peru off the ground, after she learned about a local project in the Peruvian city of Ayacucho that provided shelter to teenage mothers.
“Many of these young girls find themselves out on the street and, although they then had shelter, they didn’t have jobs. So we started to educate and train them.”
But Kegels' ideas went even beyond that, she says. “My dream when I was making my business plan was to give work to an entire village. The men would rear the alpacas and produce the wool, and the women would produce the designs.” The 200 young women now working now in Ayacucho is the first step toward that ultimate goal.
Besides the fine knitwear, you can also buy baby alpaca wool in the new Antwerp store as well as two books Kegels has written that gather fun knitting patterns. And she’s already working on a third book. No woolly escapades this time, but a cookbook filled with Peruvian-inspired menus using superfoods.
Photo courtesy LN Beanies