Shaggy dog story
Lucinda Bredin meets Martha Stewart of canine couture
Saturday 24 August 1996
The writers of this small, but information-packed volume are Kendall Crolius, a senior vice-president of J Walter Thompson, and Anne Montgomery, a journalist for Town and Country. Inside is a complete guide to each stage in creating clothing from "a dog you know and love rather than a sheep you'll never meet" as the book puts it - from picking up the hairball under the sofa to spinning the yarn. At the back of the book are patterns for scarves, mittens andjumpers, with the finished results proudly modelled by the dog owners. There's even an exhaustive guide to which dogs provide the best yarn. Readers learn that the Rottweiler, "calm and intelligent by nature", has a very short, fine undercoat that can be spun when mixed with longer fibres. Or, as the book brightly suggests "you could simply sprinkle it in - but do make sure you have his full co operation before you pick up your brush".
I felt I already knew Kendall, and indeed, her family, from the smudgy black-and white-photographs which are littered throughout the book. There's little Martha, her daughter, with mittens from a Samoyed puppy, Trevor, her eight-year-old son, in a jumper knitted from two-ply great pyrenees, and one must not forget Cynthia, Kendall's sister who models a "tam" made from Ollie. But when it was mentioned that Kendall was in London on a high-powered mission for JWT, I couldn't pass up the opportunity of meeting her.
In the publicity pictures Kendall Crolius and Anne Montgomery look apple- pie normal, rather than dog-crazed rustics, but I still wasn't expecting the perfectly manicured vision of corporate America that greeted me at the front door. Kendall wasdressed in an elegant cream suit - exactly the sort of attire one could not wear anywhere near a dog. This was a bit confidence-denting. Perhaps the whole project was merely a warped marketing ploy to sell more knitting needles.
This notion, however, was instantly knocked on the head. Kendall was only too happy to tell about the benefits of knitting with dog hair. This isn't just knitting. It's a cause.
The whole "dog-hair thing" as Kendall calls it, began 15 years ago, when she learnt how to spin. Kendall says this in an off-hand way, but the only excuse for an advertising executive to resort to spinning is watching Sleeping Beauty too many times. "Spinning is becoming increasingly popular," Kendall explained, "and I do like to master new skills." But why spinning, when one can buy wool from a shop? "Oh, it's not that I thought I'd need to make my family clothes, it's just that it is so fundamental. You can't go through a day without dealing with fibres. And it's very therapeutic. It forces you to relax, and the great thing about spinning is you can take it out on to the porch and the kids will come out and we'll tell stories." A craft for the Nineties? "Exactly."
It was on a spinning course, in Brooklyn, that Kendall first heard about the amazing properties of dog fur. "Our teacher happened to mention that one could spin dog hair. Everyone went 'hah, hah', but I thought 'hmmmm'. There aren't a lot of sheep in New York and buying yarn can get expensive and we already had a golden retriever... in fact this is golden retriever," said Kendall, brandishing a coppery-brown scarf. Although the dog departed life in 1986, she lingers on in Kendall's wardrobe.
"I smile every time I wear the scarf. There are people who stuff their dogs - I don't think I could do that - but this is like carrying a lock of hair. It's a lot of hair , sure, but it is that little touchstone that makes you feel connected and it looks quite beautiful when worn with my camel-hair coat. It's been quite a conversation piece."
Kendall now has a chocolate-brown labrador, Cadbury. Although she stresses that she really didn't want a dog "just to make sweaters", she does accept that it was fortunate when Cadbury turned out to have long hair of the sort that covered upholstery in a fine layer. The hair, by the way, is gathered after it has been shed, or as a result of grooming with a brush. I was under the false and truly horrible misapprehension that they sheared the dogs like sheep.
The book, which was "written on a lap top on business trips back and forth to Michigan" has been an immense success in the States, after being turned down by countless publishers. One has to face facts. There are many people knitting up their dogs. Suddenly I felt the surreal quality of this conversation was overwhelming. Surely it was all a joke? Kendall was unrelenting. "Well, someone did describe the book as 'Martha Stewart in the Twilight Zone'. And we did want this to be a fun read. But we're not kidding. Look upon it as recycling. This is just a how-to manual." No it isn't. It's barking.
Knitting with Dog Hair by Kendall Crolius and Anne Montgomery is published by Hutchinson, pounds 6.99
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