The Pony brand of needles has threaded its way worldwide from its cosy home high in the Nilgiris.

Nina Varghese

When actors such as Russell Crowe and Julia Roberts started knitting to de-stress, a pastime that was largely perceived as Grandma’s suddenly became cool. This set off an unprecedented boom in the knitting needles segment, says Theo Devagnanam. He should know as he runs Needle Industries, the company that owns the Pony brand of needles with a presence in 70 countries.

Devagnanam says in 2000-2005, when knitting clubs and cafes began sprouting, many men and young people started knitting, setting off a new trend.

Located in the tranquil Nilgiri Mountains in South India, Needle Industries responded to the surging interest with a range of new products that included knitting pins made of rosewood and reinforced plastic, among others. Pointing to a set of large knitting pins (25mm) on the display stand, he says that a fashion garment, either a seamless skirt or a top, could be knitted in 25 minutes with these pins.

These garments are, of course, knitted with yarn, which is very different, says Vasanthi Devagnanam, Director, Production. She says a variety of fancy yarns is available in stores across the world and these yarns ensure that the garments are light and fashionable.

Besides young celebrities taking to knitting in a big way, several other factors have also sparked off interest in knitting. In the US, for instance, with knitting increasingly associated with de-stressing, the authorities decided it would be a positive way to deal with juvenile delinquents. Young boys were taught to knit and the craft is believed to bring about a positive effect on their attitudes.

Heart-warming afghans

The demand for knitting needles and crochet hooks received yet another boost in the US, this time from an unexpected quarter, when Evie Rosen, a former yarn dealer and nationally known knitting teacher started Warm Up America! (WUA! is an organisation made up of volunteers who knit to help the homeless). The group creates handmade afghan blankets, clothing and accessories that are sent to people who have lost their homes, fled abusive relations, or are being cared for in hospices, shelters, hospitals and nursing homes.

Evie asked customers, friends and the community to knit and crochet 7"X9" sections that would be joined into afghan blankets. The effort grew into a nationwide programme that has produced nearly 2.5 lakh afghan blankets for the needy.

However, the home market remains the largest for Pony needles and accessories, accounting for 30 per cent of sales. The difference in India, Devagnanam says, is that people knit and sew out of necessity while in the West knitting, sewing or crocheting is a hobby. For instance, in India the largest customers for sewing needles are tailors.

Over the years, Pony has become a global brand. Talking a bit about the company’s history, he says it was initially incorporated in 1949 as a subsidiary of a British manufacturer of sewing needles, knitting pins and other haberdashery products.

All products were manufactured for well-known brands for the British principals. The 1960s saw the shareholding pattern shift to Indian hands and the launch of the Pony brand both in domestic and international markets.

He says the only way to break into international markets was by setting high quality benchmarks. It may be recalled that 20 years ago, the Made in India tag did not have much standing in international markets. Today, the company, which has a turnover of Rs 62 crore, has become the prime global source of sewing needles, knitting pins and allied products.

Industry above sea-level

How the factory and corporate headquarters of Needle Industries came to be located in the Nilgiris is an interesting story. When the British company was looking at setting up an Indian subsidiary in India, back in the late-1940s, one of the directors asked his old school friend, a planter in Kotagiri, if he could suggest a good location. At that time Tamil Nadu, or Madras State as it was called, had Prohibition and the company which owned a brewery near Ooty put it up for sale. With the climate playing an important part in the selection of the location, the British company decided to locate its Indian subsidiary 2,200 metres above sea-level.

Besides a global presence with a ‘Made in India’ brand, Needle Industries has impacted the community around. Long before it became fashionable, the company put together a corporate social responsibility programme that included laying more than 30,000 sq ft of sidewalks in Ooty town.

The company’s main outreach programme is the packaging, which is outsourced to eight to ten women’s groups in and around the Nilgiris.

Keeping in mind the fact that the Pony brand is available in upmarket craft stores in the West, the packaging is elegant and completely hand-done. The products and the packaging material are delivered and collected upon completion from the women’s groups.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated December 28, 2007)
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