The Cachet of Crochet

"Hey, I'm no Calvin Klein," says Shanie Jacobs. Yet her handmade angora garments fetch up to $2500 a pop.

After three years on the commune, Jacobs returned to the city; her husband wanted to be with his kids. She left the boys with him and moved back into her flat in uptown Manhattan. She also took a bundle of the clothes that she and her friends had made to Woman's Day. The magazine published some of the designs and asked Jacobs to contribute a regular make-at-home crochet project. Her patterns would appear in the magazine for more than a decade. Some of the designs were later published in Shanie Jacobs's Crochet Book, which featured items such as an op-art bedspread, a fringed disco scarf, and countless varieties of ponchos.

Her biggest seller was the "magical mandala T-shirt": Jacobs cut a large circle out of the front of a T-shirt, replacing it with a crocheted spider-web insert that showed the skin underneath. The shirt was not only sexy, it summed up the soul-searching mood of the era. High Times dubbed the design "zensational," and after a model wore it in Cosmopolitan, Jacobs was deluged with 1500 orders.

The designer set up shop in SoHo, renting two floors in a loft building for $400 a month. Calling her store the Mandala Workshop, she hired several women helpers, whom she taught to crochet. (One of those women, Dotty Holohan, still works for her.) Jacobs maintained a steady mail-order business, but because her store was two floors up, she didn't get much street traffic. To increase her profile she often proffered her shirts to the receptionists in office buildings uptown on Friday afternoons. After five she'd head over to the strip joints in Times Square, where her revealing tops were popular with the dancers.

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By the late Seventies, crocheting had lost its thrill, and Jacobs began restyling and selling vintage fur coats out of her loft. Bette Rossi, Jacobs's partner in that endeavor, recalls their years together as lively: "One night a robber came in and said to Shanie, 'Give me that coat right now, you bitch.' Shanie looked him right in the eye and said, 'Will that be Visa or American Express?' That was just a Shanie thing to do."

But as fur became politically incorrect, the women became uneasy selling it, and after a six-year hiatus Jacobs returned to crocheting. She couldn't help it; ideas for new designs just kept popping in her head. She started working with angora because she liked the furry quality of the yarn, what she calls its "gossamer halo," and because even though it is essentially fur, the rabbits are shorn, not skinned.

She moved to Miami last year because the warm climate helps her asthma. The magazine editors keep calling. Cosmopolitan has featured her designs twice in the past year alone. Her assistant, Holohan, usually starts the pieces and sends them down from New York by Federal Express for Jacobs to finish off the edges and add any detailing. Special orders she does herself. She can make a sweater in an afternoon, but she'd rather take a week. "I'm a temperamental artist," Jacobs says. "I have to really be in the mood."

Back on the SeaCruise, Jacobs is still enjoying the evening breeze. As her fingers move nimbly across her latest design, she reflects on her many careers. She says she has "tried to be a role model," though it's not clear what kind of role model she means: pin-up girl, working gal, hippie mom, designer of sex-kitten fashions?

"Let's just say the times changed and I changed with them," she offers. Her tone is calm, assured. Jacobs no longer tries to reconcile the contradictions of her multifaceted life. Her infatuation with glamour is as intransigent as her desire for independence. They must simply coexist, like separate but knitted strands.

The tiny top in her hands glints in the orange sunset. Several shades of gold and metallic red and green yarns create what the designer calls her Jackson Pollock effect. "I think I've spent half my life hiding ends," she says, snipping the ends of the threads and tucking the scraps into her bra so as not to litter the boat's deck.

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2 comments
john34howard
john34howard

Thanks for sharing this story. I have a grandma that likes to crochet. She has made a lot of stuff for our house. My mom likes to put all of her crocheted stuff around the house. I think it looks good myself.  http://www.frankandsonsmovingandstorage.com 

rpace1906
rpace1906

I'm a firm believer in the art of crochet! My whole mom's side of the family does it, and it comes handy in so many situations. Not only does it come in handy, but it can save you a ton of money on clothes. I can't even begin to tell you how many gloves, hats, and sweaters I have that were crocheted for me. I don't know how to do it yet, but I'm going to have my mom teach me so that I can do it for my kids one day. Thanks so much for sharing this! 

Roger | http://www.drmovingcincinnati.com  

 
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