Every Tuesday, a group of ladies gather for lunch at Kleinlife senior center in Northeast Philly around noon. After getting properly fueled up, they form a knitting circle. And they knit their little hearts out – for pay and to help the less fortunate and disabled.
“I learned I loved to crochet, and it gets me through the long nights,” said Katalin Willner, 83, a Holocaust survivor who now helps knit panels for Mim & Ray purses, a new luxury handbag line that donates proceeds to Kleinlife senior centers.
"The profit they are paying us, and the rest goes to the senior center," Willner said. "I’m happy I can make a few extra dollars, and I’m helping other people who really need it.”
Ranging from $300 to $3,000, the purses were on display and available for pre-order for fall at a recent Rittenhouse Hotel launch with some VIP senior knitters as the stars.
“We did not get paid for the panels in the beginning,” said one of the VIPs, Mickie Levin, 85, of Philadelphia. “They told us it was for the handbags, and there were four or five of us willing to do it. After about six or seven months, they began paying us.”
In January 2016, Mim & Ray started out with six knitters. “Now we have 35,” said Toby Strogatz, the significant other of Stephen Klein, whose family began KleinLife.
“When they first started, we were trying to figure out how to pay them and spoke to lawyers and had an accounting firm come and decide what was fair. We pay them by the inch – 25 cents an inch. Six or seven months ago, we began paying them, and before that, we were compensating them by gift cards, etc. We had to go through a process to make sure it’s fair for everyone, including a 10 percent licensing fee, and all proceeds go to Kleinlife,” she said.
The knitters get paid by the panel with a sliding scale.
“Once a month, we get paid. If they’re little, I can make two to three an hour every week. I think you can make from $200 to $400 a month,” said Levin.
Willner, who was also at the launch, said productivity varies widely.
“People do two to three pieces at a time, and I can do one and a half," she said. "They said it doesn’t make a difference how many you make – not everyone is fast."
“We don’t even own a bag,” she said at the event. “I never asked for it, but they never offered me a bag.”
Levin echoes her response.
“I don’t think they are going to give us a $700 handbag, but I would love one. I think they are beautiful. They came out very nice, and I’m very pleased with the panels made,” she said Levin.
No one has a bag yet, according to Strogatz, because everything at the launch party was pre-ordered.
“Nobody will receive orders until the beginning of August,” she said.
Will the knitters receive a handbag after all their hard work?
“We have a luncheon and custom knitting totes coming up. I didn’t think about that yet – that’s a good question. There’s so much going on and so many moving parts, there’s so much to do," she said. We don’t have a lot of people working, including our project manager. But I’m sure all of the knitters will get a leather bag.”