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I'll Be Darned, Sock Monkeys Are Back

The Toy Grandma Made Wins Over a New Generation

July 18, 1999|ELAINE GALE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

More than 50 years ago, women used to make toy monkeys out of socks to keep their kids company because many toys were too darn expensive. Now, nostalgia has catapulted the homemade monkeys back into people's hearts.

There are hundreds of sock monkey World Wide Web sites on the Internet--from cheeky to reverent--where owners reminisce about owning a monkey "just like Grandma used to make."

On one site, a chimp named "Nate" asks you to sign his guest book and read about his trip to Indonesia. On others, women advertise "custom-made" socks, like the mini-monkey, which is tiny and has washer-safe eyes.

Traditional sock monkeys are about 16 to 20 inches tall and made from brown tweed fabric. They have white feet and hands, red lips, a red tush, either felt or button eyes and a long tail. The girl monkeys are distinguished by embroidered eyelashes, and the boys usually have caps.

Inexpensive and easy to make, these simple chimps first became popular during the Depression, only to be tossed by the wayside in the '50s and '60s when the economy improved and more sophisticated toys hit the market. But those who thought the woolly gray-and-red creatures were near extinction should think again. Sock monkeys have become so popular that they are now featured in television commercials. And it is not unusual to see them lining the shelves of swank antique stores, with price tags in the hundreds.

Celebrities have rediscovered them, too. Bridget Fonda cuddles her sock monkey ("Mongro") in last month's issue of Allure magazine. Cameron Diaz is known to sport a Paul Frank purse, which sports a cartoon representation of a sock monkey. Frank, a Huntington Beach designer, has built a $5-million business by featuring his sock monkey, "Julius," on T-shirts, bags, wallets, furniture and other products.

Even cash-cow retailers have caught on to the sock monkey craze. Restoration Hardware--which has found a profitable niche in the retro rage of vintage-looking lamps, throw rugs and other overpriced tchotchkes--carried a sock monkey this spring. However, all 12,000 of the monkeys were recalled in early June after the Consumer Product Safety Commission reported that a young girl lacerated her lip on an errant needle in a monkey's stuffing.

That incident aside, "People have the fondest memories of sock monkeys from when they were children," said Janelle Ladret, 24, who runs Sockmonkey Productions out of her Vancouver, British Columbia, home.

Ladret started collecting vintage sock monkeys five years ago, but it wasn't until her mother gave her a sock monkey kit that she thought to start her own company. Ladret said her clients run the gamut, but most are in their 20s and 30s--and remember receiving sock monkeys when they were young.

Monkeys are traditionally made with the Original Rockford Red Heel sock, a patented sock that dates back to 1915. Now, the Bemidji Woolen Mill, in Bemidji, Minn., carries the Rockford sock, selling them for about $4 a pair. Ladret buys the red-heeled socks in bulk, then tailors the stuffed monkeys for her cyber-customers by sewing them monogrammed T-shirts or sailor suits.

If you want to make your own, directions are posted on numerous Web sites, along with instructions for a sock menagerie--from frogs to giraffes.

Trying to find instructions on the Web to make a little monkey business? Check out these sites:

http://www.angelfire.com/biz3/sockmonkeyprod/

http://www.sockit2me.com

http://www.socktoys.com

http://www.thebigt.com

http://members.aol.com/sodak50/sockmonkey.html.

There are hundreds of sock monkey World Wide Web sites on the Internet.

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