The Cachet of Crochet
Shanie Jacobs turns over a giant plastic garbage bag and out tumbles Ed Wood's idea of Heaven. Angora sweaters pile up on the sofa and fall onto the floor, enough fuzzy rabbit fur to have sent the cross-dressing B-movie director into a tizzy. Jacobs is having quite a time herself. She rubs a pink angora bathing suit top against her cheek and fawns over a baby blue jacket and a matching miniskirt, stroking the furry nap. She picks up a pair of tiny knit shorts constructed of glittery copper and gold yarn. Bobbing to the beat of an old Cuban danzon coming from a cassette player in the corner, she makes the hot pants dance along. Then she abruptly scoops the garments up and shoves them back into the garbage bag as if they were dirty laundry.
Dirty laundry they are not. In fact, at age 57, the diminutive Jacobs is among the toniest of the nation's freelance designers; her handmade garments can fetch up to $2500 a pop.
Not that you'd ever suspect this given Jacobs's lifestyle, which is as frugal as her clothing is showy. She shares her stuffy South Beach rental with a college student from China. Her favorite treat is the Grand Slam breakfast at the Denny's on the corner. For kicks, she sometimes partakes in a low-stakes round of bingo. "Hey, I'm no Calvin Klein," she says.
Jacobs is not restrained, however, when it comes to her achievements. She is happy to haul out a three-ring binder stuffed with magazine clippings: a Harper's Bazaar layout featuring one of her designs next to an outfit by Klein, a People magazine cover showing Christie Brinkley in a white angora jacket, a Cosmopolitan cover showcasing supermodel Paulina Porizkova in one of Jacobs's custom-made crop tops.
Her creations have been showcased regularly in the pages of Cosmo for more than twenty years, from doilylike blouses and peekaboo underwear in the Seventies to her current retro designs. Impractical and exorbitant, her clothes fit perfectly into the fantasy world of fashion magazines. When she works, Jacobs says, she often imagines how the design will look in a photograph rather than in real life.
She sells her clothes to high-profile clients such as Brinkley and Marla Maples. But more often she rents them out for magazine shoots, charging hundreds of dollars per day. These jobs have accounted for the bulk of her income since she moved to Miami from New York last year. Most of her revenue, in turn, is spent on the supplies that make her sweaters unique: the wispy angora spun from the sheared fur of French rabbits, and custom-made wool yarns. With the help of one assistant who works in New York, Jacobs produces about 700 pieces per year. She refuses to mass-produce her designs and frequently launches into tirades about the shoddy craftsmanship that pervades the garment industry. "I have a lot of untapped potential for profit," she says. "But I have my principles."
Not only are her clothes prohibitively expensive, they are unwearable for most women. The small stable of customers who spend $300 on an angora bikini can also afford plastic surgery and daily sessions with personal trainers. As for Jacobs, she greets the very idea of wearing her own skimpy designs with a guffaw. "I can make someone faint and go to a hospital because of how badly I dress," she snorts. "I'm a bag lady." Today her self-described "gorilla" mammaries are hidden beneath a baggy T-shirt. Her legs swim inside a pair of shapeless slacks and her hair is piled carelessly atop her head. She wears no makeup.
In her day, however, Jacobs boasted a look more along the lines of her famous clients. To prove it she turns to the pictures in the back of her portfolio. Raven-haired and wasp-waisted, a twenty-year-old Jacobs smolders on the cover of an early Sixties True Police magazine, clad in a clingy red sweater and pencil skirt, a cigarette between her crimson-tipped fingers."Seattle's playboy lured women to his yacht -- a one-way ride to death," the headline screams. These clippings are interspersed with old photographs of Jacobs striking various sultry poses, as well as snapshots of her as a serious, dark-eyed child.
Jacobs studies pictures she's looked at hundreds of times before and shrugs. "I was gorgeous."
A little girl sits on the stoop of a Brooklyn brownstone and dreams herself away. Sylvia Blanche Cohen was the youngest of three sisters in what she describes as a family "straight out of a Woody Allen movie." Her Lithuanian father was an orphan who spoke no English when he went to New York in the Twenties. For more than 30 years he worked as a hospital orderly, developing an increasing phobia of germs. After wading in bodily fluids all day, he'd scrub up, put on his pajamas, and quarantine himself in a living room chair behind a blockade of gauze rolls and bottles of rubbing alcohol. Jacobs's mother rarely changed out of her housecoat and slippers; she rarely even left the house.
The Cohen sisters' beauty was no secret in their Brownsville neighborhood. ("We were the most gorgeous girls on the block," Jacobs says.) She developed early, and although she doesn't remember many girlfriends from her school days, there were always boyfriends; smart, older "Arthur Miller types" who read poetry and talked philosophy. Jacobs's mother urged her youngest to "go work in a factory until you meet a millionaire," but Jacobs knew she would never work in a factory. And millionaires really weren't her type.
In junior high she got an after-school secretarial job at the American Trampoline Company. On weekends she put on short shorts and demonstrated merchandise at trade shows. She saved enough to buy herself a nice radio, then spent hours listening to serials and leafing through glamour magazines in her room. "When your parents don't give you any direction, you tend to float out and fantasize," she says. "And it was kind of a natural progression for someone from a poor background like mine to dream about becoming an actress or a model."
As a teenager Jacobs won an acting scholarship at an off-Broadway theater and earned a coveted part in a Jewish community center production of Arthur Miller's All My Sons. To earn money for more acting lessons, she had a boyfriend take cheesecake photos. Using the name Sylvia Kane, she took her portfolio around to some agencies. They told her she was too short for high fashion. As it turned out, though, she had the perfect shape for pulp fiction. Jacobs wound up posing for dozens of true-crime magazines while trying to launch a serious acting career.
In 1961 Jacobs landed a real glamour job. As Miss Laguna, a traveling spokeswoman for a costume jewelry company, she made appearances in department stores nationwide. She had a wardrobe of chic suits, cat-eye sunglasses, fancy hats in birthday-cake colors, and of course loads of matching beads and earrings. She taught the secrets of accessorizing to housewives from the new suburbia, who bought her merchandise in the hopes it would make them look like her. She presided at lobster luncheons with store executives and stayed in fancy hotels. And she had her own career-girl apartment in uptown Manhattan.
But she gradually grew disillusioned with the life she'd dreamed of in her childhood bedroom. The allure of being a model "went away like a genie out of a bottle," she says. To fill her nights on the road, Jacobs read books by Simone de Beauvoir and poetry and Eastern philosophy that led her to question her Doris Day lifestyle. She began to hate the in-store demonstrations, the customers staring at her as if they could find the meaning of life in a strand of fake pearls. Her smile was as phony as the plastic baubles she sold. She quit.
"I believe that your eyes and your skin and your lips are your accessories," Jacobs says. "Just to sell merchandise, the people in the fashion industry take away a woman's natural accessories and make her feel shitty about herself unless she's wearing a piece of shit from some company. I'm absolutely anti-fashion."
How then does Jacobs square this sentiment with her more recent role as clothier to the fashion elite? Well, she doesn't really. She says she simply can't help it that fashion editors adore her clothes and use them to sell an image of women as sex objects.
Every so often, Jacobs adds, she thinks about doing a line of roomy cotton blouses for women like her who just want to be comfortable. But somehow she never gets around to it. "It is, was, and always will be a thrill to see a gorgeous body," she concedes. As proof, she gestures to the portfolio. "My designs enhance the natural curves," she stresses. "I mean, look at this photo -- I made a shirt that would give a man cleavage."
Fashion mavens certainly have no qualms about endorsing Jacobs's handiwork. "Shanie's clothes were Cosmo at our sexiest," says the magazine's founder Helen Gurley Brown. "Cosmo did things that were standard or traditional -- it's not that we were always dressing in angora bikinis and hand-knit barely there bras with a tiny string in back. But when we wanted a really delicious, sexy garment, Shanie was there."
Sunburned newlyweds and a loud group of retirees line up at a dock in the Miami Beach Marina to board the SeaCruise, a three-tier gambling boat that makes nightly voyages into international waters. Several flashily dressed regulars meander to the back of the line. A security guard at the gangplank pats the men down and gives them the once-over with a metal detector before allowing them to board the floating casino. Anticipating trouble, Jacobs approaches the checkpoint with her purse already open. "It's my work, it's my work," she huffs impatiently as the perplexed guard inspects her crocheting tools. He waves her through.
The boat won't leave for an hour, but the bar is already doing a brisk business. On the upper deck, two couples dressed for a night of partying take each other's pictures. Jacobs wears a wrinkled cotton blouse over leggings. The wind blows her salt-and-pepper hair into a tangle as she settles into a chair by the rail, facing the sunset over the MacArthur Causeway. She takes the five-hour boat ride so often that SeaCruise managers gave her one of the VIP passes they award regulars. They revoked it, however, when they discovered that roulette and blackjack are not what brings her aboard.
"This is the best place I've found to work," Jacobs says, turning her face to the breeze. "Mmmmmm. It's like having your own yacht." She puts her white supply box on a neighboring seat and lifts off the cover. Inside, about a dozen darning needles stick out of a balled-up sock, next to an old metal cigar tube. Jacobs opens the tube and crochet hooks fall into the box like pick-up sticks. She selects one, then pulls a glittery wool halter top from her purse and lays it on her lap.
Jacobs wouldn't want the SeaCruise people to get the wrong idea: She does spend some money on the slot machines once the boat anchors offshore. But mostly she takes these sojourns for the solitude they offer. "This is like nun's work," Jacobs observes. "It's like a yoga exercise to learn patience; you have to concentrate." She threads her needle with one of several long strands still dangling from the halter and begins to weave it into the garment's finished edge, a process she calls "hiding ends."
When she crochets, Jacobs's tools range from a tiny hook -- the kind used to make Irish lace -- to one about eight inches long. She wraps the yarn around her index and middle fingers to form a loop, then catches the loop with the crochet hook and pulls the yarn through into a kind of slip knot. Jacobs likens the motion to playing a tiny trombone. The secret, she says, is gauging the tension of each knot. A tight hold on the yarn will result in tight rows of stitches, rather than the "spongy gems" she produces. When she teaches others to crochet, she first tells them to relax. If they can't stop hunching their shoulders or clenching their fingers, she refuses to instruct them further.
"You really have to give up your nervous system to do my work," Jacobs says. She compares crocheting to a Tibetan love dance in which the participants expressively twist their hands in toward their wrists. "My hands dance a lot."
Crocheting, cross-stitching, knitting, mending. Needlework is usually associated with the Victorian age, home ec classes, or bored housewives. Given this baggage, it's hard to envision crocheting as a path to creative liberation. For Jacobs, though, the activity triggered an epiphany.
"I was already 30 years old and I had a whole lifetime of unexpressed creativeness inside of me," she says. "It all came out in crochet."
In 1964 she married David Jacobs, an electrical engineer. "I was thunderstruck," says David, recalling their first meeting at a Latin dance club when Shanie was still living the go-go life of Miss Laguna. "She was the most beautiful person I had ever seen, but she had a personality that went along with that. She was and is very outspoken and completely unwilling to bend. You can take Shanie two ways. You either don't like her or you love her. I'm in the second category."
It took a couple of years of courting, but Shanie finally said yes to Jacobs because she wanted to have a baby. Before doing the deed at city hall, the bride insisted they make a pact that the arrangement would be temporary. They quickly had two baby boys. Almost as quickly, Jacobs grew bored.
Not only had she abandoned the Miss Laguna title, she had also decided to stop acting. "I got into the Tao, and there was one line in there that said, 'You should do nothing through acting, only through living,'" she recalls. "I took it completely literally." She laughs. "Well, I've always been a little spacy."
Jacobs found little contentment in the routines of a young city mother, taking her sons to the park and gossiping with her fellow moms. "I was craving to do something on my own," she recalls. "I needed something to fill my lonely moments."
As the Buddhist proverb goes, when the student is ready, the master appears. One day Jacobs wandered into a crafts store. She had thought about taking up crochet, but being left-handed made it difficult to learn. A saleswoman agreed to teach her if she bought fifteen dollars' worth of yarn. Around the same time, Jacobs met another young mother who owned some land in upstate New York, near Woodstock. The pair and another friend decided to move there, to take their kids and leave their men behind.
"Everyone was doing it," Jacobs reasons. "It was women's liberation; women were choosing to work and support themselves. Marriage wasn't cool then. It wasn't hip. Everyone was ready, willing, and able for more relationships."
After a period of understandable depression, her husband gave his blessing to the arrangement. Although they have lived apart for 25 years, the couple is still married and they see each other frequently. Now in sales, David remains in his and Shanie's original Manhattan apartment.
Up on the farm in the Sixties, love didn't flow as freely as Jacobs had expected. "No one would come near us, with seven kids," she says. That left more time for crocheting. Each day one of the three women would be responsible for the chores and children, while the other two concentrated on their needlework.
"Everyone was so creative in those days," Jacobs recalls, then drops her voice to a whisper. "Because we were so stoned." Her first major creation was a wool coat modeled on Joseph's biblical coat of many colors.
Jacobs and her commune sisters were following a national trend; women all over the country were bringing new life to "women's work" -- traditional crafts that had previously been the staid domain of their grandmothers.
"There was like a germ that all of us caught," says Miami-based artist Dina Knapp, who began making fiber works and one-of-a-kind clothing at art school at about that same time. "A big part of it was drugs and the camaraderie of women. Support groups were happening, communes were happening, consciousness-raising and Gloria Steinem were starting to make their voices heard. So it came out of a lot of things: being hippie-dippie children, going back to the land, wanting to do things with your hands."
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.
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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