In her studio in Stone Lake, Wis., Dee Lindner cuts a stack of red-heeled work socks into pieces that will become gangly arms and legs, oversized ears and rosy-red lips for traditional handmade sock monkeys.
After stitching the pieces together, stuffing the monkeys with polyester padding and sewing all the seams, she adds button eyes and embroidered eyelashes to the comical characters. “They all have little personalities,” says Lindner, 53, who started her business, The Sock Monkey Lady, in 2001.
Lindner never intended to become a professional monkey maker. She giggled her way into business after she bought her first sock monkey in 1989 at an antique shop in Dundee, Ill. She and her husband, Gary, were en route to close a real estate deal on their home near Chicago and Dee bought the monkey because she heard that they bring good luck.
One monkey led to another, and before long Dee was dressing up her troop, photographing them for holiday greeting cards for her family and friends, and having more fun than a barrel of monkeys. “I didn’t even know my creative side when I was knee-deep in paperwork and bureaucratic red tape,” she says about the telecommunications job she left in 1994.
Three years later, Gary sold his computer software company and the Lindners moved to a lakeside home in Stone Lake (pop. 544) where the water and woods inspired Dee to turn her humorous hobby into a full-fledged monkey business.
In 2001, at Gary’s urging, Dee began marketing her whimsical greeting cards and monkey characters. She took them to Art Beat, an art gallery and gift shop in nearby Hayward, Wis., and the owner and customers went bananas.
“It’s fun to see everyone’s reaction. People see the stuffed monkeys and everybody has to point out that they had one when they were little,” says Sally Sorenson, an Art Beat employee. “People look at the whole line of cards and you can hear them laughing. Dee is very clever.”
Dee spends hours sewing costumes for her sock monkeys, and posing and photographing them in homey and heartwarming scenes, such as a granny monkey relaxing on a porch in a red housecoat, fuzzy slippers and spongy hair curlers, or a cowboy monkey clad in chaps and vest feeding his horse a banana.
Gary builds props for the silly scenes and Dee sometimes rigs invisible fishing line to stabilize her monkey models or sews their limbs into proper position for photos, such as a toddler monkey pushing his tricycle.
The Sock Monkey Lady has created more than a thousand monkeys, including 7-foot-tall ones from 144 pairs of socks. She’s sold tens of thousands of greeting cards, which are marketed by Peaceable Kingdom Press, and published two books, Monkey Love and Friends Knock Your Socks Off.
“What’s fun is I get a lot of stories from people about their sock monkey dolls,” Dee says. “A lot of the baby boomers had sock monkeys as children and they bring back so many memories.”
Cathie Stewart-Blais, 63, of Raynham, Mass., ordered seven of Dee’s sock monkeys as gifts for her grandchildren. “My mother used to make sock monkeys. We were poor and that’s what we played with,” Stewart-Blais says. “They’re so precious.”
No one knows who first sewed a sock monkey from the red-heeled socks, first made in 1935 by the Nelson Knitting Co. in Rockford, Ill. The monkey became so popular that the company began including a monkey-making pattern with the socks, a practice continued today by Fox River Mills in Osage, Iowa.
Dee smiles as she transforms yet another pair of the red-heeled cotton socks into a cuddly monkey and helps keep the classic toy alive. “It’s my childhood reclaimed,” she says of her delightful occupation.