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Make Give Live and the social innovation of knitting

Claire Conza’s social enterprise gives warmth to those in need. But, as Ben Mack discovers, aside from knitting hats, it’s also knitting lives together.

The excitement in the room is palpable – even though hardly anyone is speaking above a whisper. The sun shines in through large windows. Two fuzzy dogs wag their tails and pace about the large tables positioned together in a large square, directly underneath two skylights and exposed wooden beams painted white like the walls.

There is so much yarn spread across the tables, it looks like it could stretch from Auckland to Invercargill. Towards the far end of the room, a pair of women discuss something called a ‘magic loop’ as their hands move almost in a blur. Next to them, steam rises from a pair of mugs filled with green tea.

There’s eight people in total on this cool early-spring Tuesday morning in Ponsonby, all women, ranging in age from young adults to grandmothers. They’re all laughing. They’re all having fun. They’re all knitting. This is the world of Claire Conza.

Conza is the founder of Make Give Live, a social enterprise which makes hand-crafted knitwear to give warmth and support to those in need. For every handmade beanie sold, another is given to an elderly or homeless person or someone else struggling with isolation.

“It’s a perfect platform for inter-generational interaction,” she explains as she attaches a label to a hat. “I was just amazed how people took to it. It’s just this ball that’s started rolling, and it’s hard to keep up with.”

Originally from Zimbabwe (“I come from a family and culture where we really look after our elderly,” she says), Conza explains the idea for Make Give Live came about after her own struggles with depression. “I knew that finding that why and that purpose was what could make me happy. And that why for me is helping others.”

That drive to help others is clearly on display inside the cosy workshop. It’s one of five spaces around Auckland where Conza and a group of knitters, known as ‘makers’ get together. At this site, the Norfolk St Workshop, just a few metres from Ponsonby Road, there was a ukulele class the night before. “We’re a bit quieter,” Conza jokes.

Cheerful as this morning gathering is, Conza explains it has a serious purpose in bringing people together who might otherwise be isolated themselves. “It gives makers a purpose as well.”

Near the sliding-glass doors that serve as the main entry to the workshop is Louise. Smiling as her hands deftly go over and under to make a café hat, she swears it’s not as complicated as it looks. She learned to knit from her mother then restarted as an adult. “A lot of women learn from their mothers,” she says.

But there’s another reason she enjoys being involved with Make Give Live. “Knitting’s my first passion,” she says. “And it’s about connecting with people. In this day and age, we spend a lot of time connecting with people, but we don’t actually see them. So this feels like a revival of the past.”

Not slowing her knitting as she speaks, she elaborates further. “We’re doing something for other people that you get something out of too.”

In August, Make Give Live won the first Idealog/Cointreau Creative Kickstart Competition. Beating out two other women-run social enterprises, Conza walked away from the competition with a $3,000 prize pack including a $1,000 cash prize, publicity and mentorship. Most of that money has been used to purchase materials and expand her business. “We want to look deeper where we can have more impact towards our purpose,” she explains. “You don’t take material things to your grave.”

The sounds of birds chirping can be heard clearly outside. The scene is weirdly reminiscent of an animated Disney movie. But Conza says her inspirations and influences are very real. One of them, she says, is her sister, Michelle Euinton. Euinton’s own social enterprise, Colour Our Story, creates colouring books that supports a charity that helps orphans living in Uganda. And Conza says her own past helps provide inspiration as well. Such a notion may seem like the antithesis to innovation, but Conza swears it’s incredibly important to keep in mind. “Steve Jobs said, ‘you can’t connect the dots going forward, you connect the dots looking backward.’”

Aside from tea and coffee, a dizzying array of sweets are also laid out on the table to snack on. Conza readily admits that sales of Make Give Live’s hats are usually brisker around winter, but the rest of the year is a perfect time to build up inventory. And simply having regular sessions for makers to get together is just as important, she says. “It’s powerful in a lot of ways. It’s making sure the good can reach more people.”

In November, Conza says she’ll be travelling around New Zealand in a campervan in an effort to start new maker groups throughout the whole country. To be able to do that financially, she’s crowdfunding – and selling her house. Extreme as the idea sounds, it fits into the ethos of social enterprise, she explains. “It’s about having the head of a business, the heart of a charity, and the hands of a community.”

The two dogs begin to roughhouse a bit with each other, momentarily distracting Conza. The words ‘magic loop’ are heard again. Barely even looking at her hands, Conza bursts into laughter. “I love the sessions. They’re such a happy place.”