Sally Williams
"Bollocks, Sandra. I told you to knit 20 and then mark it. How the hell am I going to know when you changed tension?" Pam White slammed down the phone, muttering "useless cow". "I bloody love this job," she said. Pam, not her real name, is 50, disabled, and runs a knitting syndicate from her council-house kitchen.

Knitting syndicates are made up of mainly elderly women and some men who knit - both by hand and machine - for designers. Numbers of knitters in a syndicate can vary from two to two hundred. Most work from home and recruitment is by word of mouth or by advertising in trade magazines such as Machine Knitting News. Nobody knows exactly how many syndicates there are in this country, but each group is organised by an agent or manager who liaises between the designer and the knitters.

Ros Badger is a knitwear designer who works for leading designers such as Margaret Howell, Betty Jackson and Copperwheat Blundell. "Designers who work with woven fabrics often don't know about hand knitting, but most want a collection with knitwear in it.So I advise them on designs and translate their vision into knitting terms." A designer may say to Ros something like: I want a dress that's size 10, fluid, above the knee, open knit, low cut. Ros will then devise a pattern, knit up a prototype and, once agreed by the designer, an order is placed. Ros supervises production of the garments and ensures they are delivered to the designer by a specified date. She does this with the help of women like Pam, or Wray Edmans, head of a hand-knitting syndicate in Halifax, or Hazel Scott, who runs a machine- knitting company in Cheltenham.

It all seems straightforward enough, but mention knitting syndicates to some and they clam up. "They [designers] will hate you for it," said one woman ("please don't mention my name"). Another woman who eventually agreed to a meeting at her home was interrupted mid-interview by a phone call. "Yes, she's here right now. I've already said too much. OK, I'll tell her." The interview was promptly terminated.

So why all the fuss? "First," said Pam, "designers don't want it known that their fantastically expensive jumpers are knocked up by the likes of me in council-house kitchens. Also, my input is much greater than many would care to admit." She points to a glossy magazine catwalk picture of Naomi Campbell wearing a metallic-grey cashmere dress. "That's mine. I devised the stitch, I created the pattern, but do I get any credit? Do I hell."

Ros accepts that lack of recognition goes with the territory. "Why should designers know about technicalities? Anyway, it should be the designer's name on the label because it's the name that sells." Hazel agrees, although she did admit that when invited to a Caroline Charles fashion show, "I had the urge to nudge the woman next to me and say, 'I made that'." While Wray is happy to be a "back-room girl", she said, "[One top designer] won an award with one of Ros's commissions and yet Ros got no credit. That can't be right."

Maybe not, but there again, says Pam, "designers wouldn't be too happy if they knew how many big names I work for". Pam works for about 35 designers at any one time. "I know what all their looks are for next season and what all their secrets are." Not that she would tell. "Do you think I'm mad?"

But, according to Sophia Wilkinson (not her real name), a leading lecturer in fashion design, the biggest worry among designers is not that their ideas will be ripped off, but being accused of exploitation. A designer hand-knit sweater in the shops sells for pounds 250. The old lady who knits it might get paid pounds 35 maximum. Wray Edmans confirmed that knitters in her syndicate are paid on average pounds 20-pounds 25 for a jumper that can take anything up to two weeks to knit. Hazel Scott declined to give figures and Pam mumbled something about pin money. As syndicate managers they are paid more than the knitters, but both said they often work through the night to meet deadlines. Whether stuffing envelopes or knocking up designer knits, home workers are notoriously badly paid.

But according to Pam and Wray, most knitters, at least in this country, do not feel exploited. "Most of my knitters, including myself, are knitaholics," confided Wray. "Other people take books to bed, I take my knitting. I cannot sit down and watch TV with idle hands. If I wasn't doing this, I'd be sewing or crocheting for jumble sales and bring-and-buys." In the 10 years Wray has worked as a syndicate manager, only once has somebody complained about wages. "My knitters know that it isn't lucrative but, like me, they love getting new yarn and the chance do knit up some exciting patterns."

Likewise, Pam, is passionate about wool. "Balls of boucle or mohair really get me going. I love texture." A hip problem forced Pam to take early retirement from the factory where she worked and she is now more or less chair-bound. Her son bought her a knitting machine four years ago and she hasn't looked back. "The body may be knackered, but the brain isn't."

"When critics talk of exploitation," said Sophia, "the fact that these old ladies like knitting, that they can't afford to buy their own wool, that they like talking to the syndicate manager or dropping by once a week for a cup of tea is not considered." The problem, said Sophia, is not exploitation here, but lower wages abroad.

Knitting syndicates are not a particularly cost-effective method of producing knitwear. "It can take six weeks to turn around 20 pieces, probably longer, and once you get the garment, it might be horrendous," said Sophia. Wray has had misread instructions, two right fronts, a back-to-front collar, and the name Norton knitted upside-down. Ros has seen loose ends sealed with pink nail varnish, jumpers stinking of cigarettes and colours put in the wrong place. "You get tight knitters and loose knitters and no matter how precise you ask them to be, you always get things back that are too big or too small," she said.

Many designers now opt for machines and mass production methods rather than risk human error. "Sales of hand-knits have dropped because of competition from machine knits," says Susan Turton, former designer for Edina Ronay. "When hand-knits are needed - machines can duplicate only 85 per cent of hand-knitting stitches - many designers now find it is cheaper to use knitting syndicates abroad."

There have been reports of British designers using knitters in the Far East, Russia and Greece. Exactly which designers are difficult to establish. "I can't possibly answer questions like that," said one spokesperson, when asked where his company's knitwear is produced. "That's the strangest thing I've ever heard," said another. Rowan, the yarn manufacturers, however, did confirm that they had switched production of their jumpers from hand knitters in Halifax to hand-knitting factories in China. "It's the only way to get volume," said a spokesperson.

Wray used to need 60 knitters. She now has six. "My ladies love to knit, but the demand has dropped. Knitting as a craft is dying out in this country. Young women aren't interested. Not even my own two daughters. I've tried all the kits, but they just don't enjoy it. If it all goes abroad, what future is there for knitting in this country?"