Harriette Cole started her first crochet
business at age 12. Years before she was giving etiquette advice on the "Today Show" or to millions of newspaper readers in her column "Sense and Sensitivity
," she was selling crocheted baby clothes to new parents in her Baltimore neighborhood.
"I've never been one who liked a pattern, so I made my own with crazy colors. The piece I remember the best was a flouncy skirt with a bolero," she recalls. At age 13 she started modeling and left the craft behind. She picked it up again twice, once just before the birth of her daughter, and this year when the passion turned into an obsession and a business.
Harriette Cole will debut pieces from her winter, holiday and spring collections on Dec. 17 from 12 - 6 p.m. at The Brownstone @ Upper Lenox, 633 Lenox Ave., New York, NY 10037. (212) 234-0001.
I'm often on conference calls and sometimes I will try to multitask. I was on a conference call this summer and checking my email in the midst of the conversation. The person on the other end said "Harriette, stop reading your email!" She outed me — I was so embarrassed. She could tell I wasn't paying attention. I thought, "What can I do? I have to do something [with my hands]." So I started crocheting while I was on conference calls. One of the ways I describe this work is "Conference Call Crochet." I was on a call once for an hour and a half, and in that time I completed a piece. My staff was like, "Wow! Get on another conference call!"
It's funny you say that. I spoke to a woman who used to be at my first publisher and told her about the call. She said, "When you're ready to do that book, tell me."
Does your work have a specific focus?
This accessories line is called "108 Stitches." I've practiced meditation for about 20 years, and one of the things we use is a rosary or meditation mala that has 108 beads. From early on I was thinking, "How can I make this work mean something more than just 'Here's some beautiful things'?'" So I started crocheting pieces that are 108 stitches wide. The main thing I have to do in terms of concentration is establish the first row in the chain as 108 stitches, and then I go back and forth as a meditation. These are simple, flat patterns. About 50 percent of the pieces I made are 108 stitches wide, although a lot of stuff varies on the yarn and the hook. The clothing tag I created for it says, "This one-of-a-kind handmade item was made as a meditation on love." I'm enjoying it so much — even my daughter is learning how to make these stitches. One of the things she and I have done is take crochet classes together, where the two of us learn things at different levels. I get refinement instruction and she gets basic instruction.
What are the elements of crochet you find yourself refining?
For me, keeping the stitch uniform is still something I'm focusing on. In the beginning, the pieces I was working on were crooked and the bottom was super wide and the top super narrow. This happens a lot with novices.
What tools do you like?
I particularly like bamboo hooks because it feels good in your hands and the movement is very graceful. I use a lot of large hooks. I also like plastic hooks because they also have graceful movement.
What are your designs influenced by?
A friend of mine, an accessories designer named Leonard Bridges, visited me a couple of months ago and he suggested I try materials you don't normally crochet with. I've been working with suede string that I get from a trimming store and I like it a lot. The material twists around and it's impossible to keep it untwisted. So I let it twist and see what it does. It makes a dancing garment and people love it.
How does working with suede compare to working with yarn?
It's extremely difficult to work with. The closest yarn I can compare it to is a nubby mohair. Every time I use mohair yarn it gets knotted up and I can't figure out what to do with it. Suede is a little thicker. The first piece I made with suede, I used a small hook and it ended up being very dense. I made it to approximate an old fur stole. It took five hundred yards of material, but it's not that big — unlike yarn, suede doesn't stretch. But it's fun to work with because it's so different.
How have you applied your experience in fashion to being a businessperson and a creator?
When I started making the 108-stitch meditation pieces, all of the pieces were huge — runway fashion pieces. I'm tall (5'9"), so I was just making things that fashion girls would wear: Big, daring, fabulous pieces that when people see they go, "Wow! Look at that!" Then I realized not everybody can wear a piece that large and not everybody is interested in being that runway girl. Then I thought, "How do I translate the runway sensibility to the boutique or department store product?" My daughter was extremely helpful in making me realize this because everything I make she wants me to make one for her, and she's 8. For example, I make infinity circle scarves that wrap around about six times. Then she wanted one so I made a miniature version that wraps around twice. I realized the piece was also great for a petite woman and I could add it to the line. At Thanksgiving I brought a whole bunch of pieces to show my family. I have a sister who's 5'3", and the big pieces might as well have been a blanket on her, but she loved the smaller pieces. So I'm going from runway couture to what the average consumer would be interested in and able to wear.
Is your hope to grow your line with other people producing the pieces, or do you want to keep it something you can make yourself?
I'm looking for production right now. My goal is to find people in the United States who can work with me so it can remain made in the U.S.A. But there are also several stores that are talking to me about outsourcing. I'm hoping six months from now this accessories line will be set up as one arm of my business. My arms will fall off if I'm the only one making things.