Achieving artistry doesn’t necessarily require a myriad of materials. Sometimes constraints spur creativity and allow ingenuity to shine through. So it is with sock monkeys. With little more than a pair of humble heathery socks, loving grandmothers, artists, and all kinds of sewers have spawned creatures representing a variety of genders, emotions, occupations, and even species. Depending on the placement of button eyes, embroidered lashes, and embellishments on the wide, red mouth, a sock monkey can emulate sentiments ranging from tender wistfulness to panic.
The raw material for sock monkeys are Rockford Red Heels, socks that are currently made in Osage, Iowa, by Fox River Mills. The socks first appeared in 1932, when the Nelson Knitting Mills of Rockford, Illinois, added the red heels to differentiate their socks from those made by competitors. They named the heel the De-Tec-Tip. In 1951, when the company learned that crafters were turning De-Tec-Tip socks into stuffed animals, they started enclosing sock monkey instructions with each pair sold. Fox River continued the tradition (the pattern also includes instructions for a sock elephant) when it bought the assets of Nelson Knitting in 1992.
Of the 140 styles of socks that Fox River produces, Rockford Red Heels are the best sellers. Last year the company knitted and shipped more than 250,000 pairs. In addition to the traditional brown and white, Rockford Red Heels come in pink and blue, and in a kid’s size suitable for tiny monkeys. Fox River’s pattern book demonstrates that monkeys are just the tip of the critter-making iceberg: patterns include original drawings for sock squirrels, pigs, hobby horses, a dachshund, and numerous dolls and puppets.
Photo by Fox Fiver Mills
Sock monkeys appeal to simian fans of all ages, and so they show up in a multitude of forms. They’ve been the subject of comic books and children’s books, stars of a 1998 Super-8 film, I, Socky, and regularly appear on textiles, children’s clothing, wrapping paper, and in a Flickr pool with more than 3,000 sock monkey images. Rebecca Lessard (who calls herself Fox River Mills’s Vice President of Monkey Business) notes that while the popularity of sock monkeys has waxed and waned over the years, the life-sized sock monkey who took the wheel of a Kia-Sorento in a 2010 Superbowl ad attracted lots of monkey love. “Not a week goes by that we don’t get someone asking if we can sell them a human-sized monkey suit,” she says. (The answer is no. Because socks at Fox River Mills are knitted seamlessly, in the round, they don’t have equipment to knit the large, flat pieces used to create the costume. Fox River worked with another mill on the pattern, sourcing the appropriate rag yarn, to create the Kia-Sorento monkey.)
The red-heeled simians have also starred in numerous art exhibitions. Sock monkey collections have an appeal to those with an interest in outsider art, although collectors are as varied as the critters themselves. Some collect only monkeys wearing clothes. Others prefer critters that aren’t monkeys (the socktopus is a particular favorite). Todd Thelen, whose sock critters were photographed for this post, says he started amassing his collection of between 150 and 200 sock monkeys nearly 23 years ago. Why? Thelen says simply, “They’re hilarious.”
One of the best-documented collections belongs to Ron Warren. Photographer Arne Svenson, intrigued by Warren’s plentiful collection, photographed each monkey and included some in the book sock monkeys (200 out of 1,863). The large black and white portraits of individual monkeys grant each creature a space for personal expression, from a giddy, girly, peppermint-button-eyed critter to a jowly, lumpish-headed monkey lad. The photos provide ample demonstration that an extra stitch here or a bit of rickrack there is sometimes all it takes to create a sock monkey like no other.
Three years ago I stitched a sock monkey, but failed to follow the instructions. My monkey’s back is twisted, as though she has an orthopedic malady. I decided that her spine curvature could best be hidden if I sewed a skirt to hide the imperfection, and then I needed to make a buttonhole in the skirt for her tail to pop through. With sock monkeys, one thing leads to another. What starts as two simple socks can take on a life of its own.