As we expand our networks and commercial activity we regularly encounter other social enterprises. These interactions provide an opportunity for sharing information and for making links that ultimately help to strengthen the sector.
Of great interest in such encounters is discovering the strategy by which each organisation effectively achieves its social mission, while at the same time producing a high quality product or service that can compete in a commercial environment.
Recently, we met with the team from Shuttleknit, a Wicklow-based social enterprise that produces a range of beautiful and innovative knitwear and woollen handcrafts.
Knitting Communities Together
Shuttleknit was established in 2001 with the support of the Department of Social Protection and Pobal, under the Community Service Programme, to address training and employment needs among Traveller women in the Wicklow area.
Shuttleknit’s manager Evelyn Murray points out that, as with all organisations, different strategies are prioritised during different stages of development. “A significant focus for us at the moment is product development & training ” says Evelyn.
They are, quite rightly, extremely proud of their commercial success to date. Online sales, private commissions, collaboration with designers and high profile clients including Vodafone, Kilbeggan Whiskey and the Ryder Cup highlight the value and quality of their work. This success and recognition serves to bolster Shuttleknit’s social inclusion mission of developing partnerships between Travellers and the settled community.
Making the Most of Opportunities
“For continued success” says Evelyn “especially in the fashion business, it is extremely important to keep an eye on the future, to build on that success and to develop new products.
“To do this effectively”, she adds, “requires time, patience, experience and being able to make the most of opportunities when they come along. This means knowing what the market wants, knowing what skills and resources the business needs and having the support of our stakeholders.”
In January 2017 an invitation to re-contract by Pobal enabled Shuttleknit to employ two new people. This not only provided a significant boost for the business, but also represented a very positive event for the Traveller Community.
Meanwhile, the acquisition of new knitting equipment, funded through the Dormant Accounts Fund, means all staff now have their own machines – and all of the same make and model. This has made life much easier while increasing efficiency and helping to streamline work processes. New features including lace carriages increase product development potential. Lacework can now be designed and incorporated into knitted garments to increase variation and provide an additional point of difference.
With production reaching capacity, Shuttleknit also acquired two new six-thread embroidery machines for customising sportswear and uniforms with embroidered names and logos. This enables them to run a semi-automated, less labour-intensive complementary service, that provides an additional source of income.
Implementing these changes so they are reflected in the company’s brand takes time and care. Expanding staff numbers, new equipment and new processes necessitate significant investment in training. Though time-consuming, training offers the opportunity for developing the creative and technical skills required for producing high quality designs.
Designing for Success
Design, therefore, is the key factor in effective product development and especially in a market environment that changes so frequently.
The Shuttleknit team is committed to constantly updating its design skills and awareness. Their ‘design approach’ enhances their ability to be flexible and adaptable in responding to market and industry trends.
New team member Kathleen Lulu OBrien – a graduate of design – is providing a wealth of new inspiration and technical know-how to the business and will head up the Embroidery side of the business.
Shuttleknit is building up an indigenous Irish industry, with worldwide sales, in which differentiated products featuring high quality design are the cornerstone. Being able to compete in this world market demonstrates the fact that the value of their work is appreciated for its quality and desirability.
In Evelyn’s words: “When our skills are rewarded by commercial demand at home and abroad, it fosters a strong sense of achievement among the team. It also ‘knits’ our organisation, commercially and socially, to a wider range of individuals and communities.”
To find out more about Shuttleknit and to view a selection of their work, visit the Shuttleknit website at http://shuttleknit.com/