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Why knitted bobble hats are fast becoming Glasgow's most famous fashion export

It has perhaps not been the best of weeks for Scottish fashion, with the launch of the Commonwealth Games outfits to what can only be (sympathetically) described as a mixed reception.

Alison Burn of Wonkie Woolies
Alison Burn of Wonkie Woolies

But for one Glasgow-based company, being perennially stylish comes easy. Wonky Woolies - a knitwear house headed up by 'chief Wonky' Alison Burn - marries traditional techniques with contemporary output in the form of a range of standard and custom-made bobble hats created with old knitting machines. The result is an unusual combination of expert functionality and bold, modern aesthetic.

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It's easy to see why Wonky Woolies has recently won an RBS Most Enterprising Business award. Burn has been unafraid to evolve the brand and refine its products to ensure that what is made is the very best on the market. Sensing a trend for individuality, Woolies began to manufacturer custom hats which were soon snapped up by a range of prominent artists and customers keen to stand out from the crowd.

During Woolies' busiest year yet, we caught up with Burn to find out the back story of the business and why Scotland is such an important base for her...   

How did you get your business off the ground?

Wonky Woolies started as a hobby that I had with my mum.  We would knit lots of different things like dresses, jumpers and scarves.  We were asked by a friend who has a T-shirt business if we could make customised bobble hats, which is when we realised there may be a market for the product.

Why wool?

My mum had a knitwear shop in Melrose when I was wee, so I've always been immersed in making clothes and knitting things.  My mum taught me how to knit around four years ago.

Who would be your dream collaboration?

We have already had some great collaborations with many recognised companies and I really enjoy working with people on new concepts which are then brought to life.  Really, I would like to keep meeting new people with different ideas and making more collaborative projects work out for them.

How do you deal with disappointment in business?

I try to focus on the next idea. The business is growing and evolving fairly quickly which I like.  I find that I have so many options that if one thing doesn't work, there are plenty of others ideas to consider. 

What brought on the move into custom hats?

We were asked to make custom design hats which is when I saw potential in the market.  We've created custom-design hats for independent clothing companies, bands, corporate team building groups, international brands, sports teams and of course individual people.

What's your most used tool or technique?

Our knitting machines.  We use them every day. They are very good to us and we treat them with respect as they are all so old.  I'm not going to tell you our techniques, though!

What do you wish you'd designed?

Anything tartan by Vivienne Westwood - I love her ruffled dress.

Who have been your mentors over the course of your career?

First and foremost my mum, who taught me everything and is a constant source of support through all the ups and downs of running a business. I now also have a mentor through Jobs & Business Glasgow, Mark Bradford.  He is a great source of support as he has a wealth of knowledge in business.  He wouldn't know where to begin knitting a hat but he gives me advice on running the business and how to make things more efficient.

What would you like to diversify into, if given the chance?

Wonky Woolies started out making dresses, jumpers, cushions and scarves. I feel that when the time is right we may revisit these products but in the meantime we are focusing on being the best bobble hat makers possible and trying to increase brand recognition.

What do you draw from working and living in Scotland?

I love Scotland so much, it's such a beautiful country.  Our product really works well here as you can't go wrong having a hat to hand!  I've recently designed a new range which we are going to launch on our website in September which has been inspired by iconic Scottish favourites such as thistles, tartan, Nessie and Highland cows.  

What's next for Wonky Woolies?

We are currently looking for UK stockists as we would like to build up our portfolio at home.  Our products can be found more readily in stores across Japan than the UK, which is incredible.  

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