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Shoppers passing the chilled drinks cabinet of any J Sainsbury store can be forgiven if they do a double take, because perched atop bottles of Innocent Drinks they'll find a range of small woollen hats.

A cranberry and raspberry smoothie, for example, may be modelling a striped bobble hat, while the mango and passion fruit might be wearing a ladybird-style bonnet. The likelihood is that no two bottles will look the same, because every single knitted creation has been produced by an army of volunteers keen to help Age Concern.

'It all started when a guy in marketing called New Adam was daydreaming about how nice it would be to produce little hats to keep our bottles warm in the chilled cabinets,' explains Innocent Drinks market manager Anthony Fletcher (or, as he's called internally, 'the Crusher-Musher-Masher Man' - just don't tell his mother!). 'And then he started thinking that keeping our bottles warm could be keeping people warm.'

If the cap fits

New Adam's plan was to put woolly bobble hats on smoothies in the two months before Christmas; for every behatted bottle sold, Innocent Drinks would give 50p to Age Concern.

The initial challenge was to produce enough woolly hats for the drinks. Using sweatshops in Asia or producing too-perfect machine-knitted hats just did not fit the Innocent image, however.

'We thought we would approach the people that we would ultimately be helping,' explains Fletcher. Innocent Drinks contacted Age Concern in Montgomeryshire in Wales. 'They thought it was a fantastic way to raise money and to incentivise the local community to get involved,' Fletcher continues. 'They thought it was enjoyable, and they felt empowered. They set up knitting groups and got other people involved.'

In that first year - 2003 - around 15,000 bobble hats were produced, eventually finding their way onto Innocent smoothie bottles.

'The knitters found it really exciting to go into the stores. One even found her own hat on a bottle in her local Sainsbury's,' says Fletcher. 'Then we started being asked, Does it have to be bobble hats? The hats that are sent through show that people have made a real effort. They've put in time and creativity.'

Close-knit community

To highlight this creativity, Innocent Drinks set up the Knitter Natter page on the Big Knit section of its website for knitters to share patterns or pictures, and each week the Hat of the Week is shown.

This year the weekly highlights have included a red and white bobble hat and scarf combination inspired by the Where's Wally? character (produced by the knitting team at Sainsbury's Cheltenham store), a pairing of Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf, and a green dragon.

Knitters have also sent in miniature Bagpusses, Humpty Dumpty sitting on a wall, a selection of 17 pink piggies with knitted snouts, ears and curly tails, and fairy princesses.

One knitter assembled her creations and spent a full day moving them and capturing them on camera to create an animated Riverdance-style routine. The video has been uploaded on YouTube.

A Flickr group allows knitters to display photographs of their creations and collectors to show where the hats eventually end up. More than 600 pictures have been posted.

'People hunt down favourites at Sainsbury's,' explains Fletcher. 'As soon as the shelves are stacked, the collectors are there looking for a new design. You need to get to the store as soon as it opens to get the best designs. We encourage collectors to let us know what they do with the hats; some give them to children for their dolls, while others use them as Christmas decorations or display them on their office desks.'

Expanding the project

'We have built the Big Knit scheme in stages,' explains Fletcher. 'It started with Age Concern, but then we made it so that anybody could get involved. We enlisted grannies, mothers and local Girl Guide groups. There is a lovely story about a lady with Alzheimer's who was given some knitting needles, a pattern and some wool and who then created some really wonderful designs.'

Last year Innocent Drinks held 'knit-ins' at Sainsbury stores and Eat sandwich outlets, where the company would throw down some beanbags and invite shoppers to join a group of knitters. Big Knit the Movie, featuring an Innocent employee being taught to knit by two pensioners in Sainsbury's, is on the company's website.

'This year we have encouraged the idea of people having their own knit-ins,' says Fletcher. 'We mail out special packs to help people organise them, containing patterns, special stickers, invitations and everything they should need.'

During the Innocent Drinks village fete in London's Regent's Park, knitting packs were sold in association with Rowan Yarns - with the money going to Age Concern - to get people started. Three knitting patterns - the simple bobble hat, a striped version and the advanced ladybird hat - are available on the company's website; on the Knitter Natter page, patterns for a Christmas pudding, flower-shaped hats, a teapot, a cupcake, a penguin and a red, white and blue Thanksgiving hat have been posted by participants. 'The feedback is that they want harder patterns and more varied styles,' says Fletcher.

At Fruit Towers, the Shepherds Bush headquarters of the drinks company, staff even spend lunchtimes knitting hats. 'I got my mother to teach me,' says Fletcher. 'You couldn't really be involved with a scheme like this and not be able to knit. That would be a real banana skin.'

Star quality

Celebrities such as Joanna Lumley, Chris Tarrant and Russell Brand have all supplied designs, and following a visit to Fruit Towers by Prince Andrew, the Duchess of York and Princesses Eugenie and Beatrice sent their designs in. (Beatrice favours a strawberry-style hat, while Eugenie's red and blue hat has a smiley face.)

This year Innocent Drinks aims to sell 400,000 bottles of fruit smoothies with hats, raising £200,000 for Age Concern. By the middle of November, 379,000 hats had been sent in. They will be placed on bottles and packed in specially marked boxes for distribution to Sainsbury's.

'We know exactly how many hats we have sent,' says Fletcher. 'We have put them all on by hand, but Sainsbury's have been great to work with. They have recognised the value of the knitting scheme. It is a totally unique concept that really gets communities involved.'

The project also serves to make elderly people feel that they are doing something for themselves, and provides an opportunity to connect with a younger generation keen to learn a new skill.

Age Concern believes that the campaign will help to dispel the image of powerlessness that some people associate with the elderly.

In the four years that the knit-ins have been running, they have gone from strength to strength. By the second year, the number of hats sent in increased almost six-fold from 15,000 to 83,000, and last year about 230,000 hats made it onto smoothie bottles.

Innocent Drinks has also noticed that during the hat period, sales of smoothies rose. During the second year, for example, sales rose 50 percent during the campaign.

Fletcher says: 'What started as a little off-the-wall idea has become a major campaign that is just that extra bit different. It works for the retailer because there is an uplift in sales. It works for Innocent because of the positive brand association it brings. And it works for Age Concern because people love it and can embrace the knitters' creativity.'