Palo Alto Weekly

News - August 17, 2012

Monkey business

Resident mixes sock-monkey art with philanthropy

by Sue Dremann

The sock monkeys peeking out from Dara Olmsted's bag are not the usual brown and white variety with full red lips. These simians have giant stripes, argyle and polka dots. One was black with white skulls, she recalled.

The College Terrace resident has a penchant for making sock monkeys, those squeezable, whimsical stuffed creatures that are part folk art, part kitsch. Gender neutral until they are given names, they've been given away as baby gifts and sold by the dozens to folks who just think they're cool, Olmsted said.

But the monkeys have a deeper purpose. The toys have funded monkey-related causes through the Nature Conservancy and another nonprofit. Olmsted, 33, a Harvard University graduate who has a master's degree in environmental policy and urban planning from Tufts University, has turned the monkeys into a business called Monkeys and Mittens (www.monkeyandmittens.com). With each stuffed animal priced at $30, a percentage goes toward the purchase of socks that she plans to donate to a homeless shelter. And she has a large bag of socks to donate, she said.

Olmsted got interested in sock monkeys while an undergraduate living at Mather House at Harvard University — "where they do not teach you to go into the sock-monkey business," she said, grinning.

Sewing became an outlet for her.

"I can't draw, and I can't paint. But there's all sorts of creativity," she said.

She sold the monkeys at crafts fairs. They were even part of an art installation at Harvard's Arts First Weekend, which was started by actor John Lithgow, she said.

She moved with her fiancÚ to Palo Alto in November and now works for the nonprofit Iridescent Learning, which fosters engineering and science education for low-income girls.

Olmsted makes about 60 each year. She has sewn them while traveling on Caltrain and even on planes.

Airport security thought she was up to monkey business one time: She tried to board with a pair of scissors, she recalled.

"We were debating where the length of the scissors began," she said, referring to whether it was from the handles to tips or from the screw that attached the blades.

"I did not agree with the TSA person."

But she ended up checking the scissors, she said.

A passenger did buy a monkey — a Native American-themed one with a necklace, she said. The monkeys have given her entry into all sorts of situations and with all kinds of people.

"It opens conversation. I'm really interested in community and bringing people together," she said.

Each monkey takes about three hours to sew. To combat the isolation of monkey-making while "watching bad TV," Olmsted started a neighborhood crafts group for people who want to socialize, work on projects and share ideas. They do not make sock monkeys, she said.

Olmsted said it has been difficult to make the monkeys 100 percent environmental. The best materials environmentally don't always make the best stuffed animals. The natural socks are expensive and lumpy, and things like bamboo stuffing don't have the right level of sponginess to make the animals cuddly. So she has settled for the more synthetic stuffing and socks from The Gap and Old Navy. Their eyes are made from felt made out of recycled plastic soda bottles.

When she does find a sock she likes, she goes whole hog.

"I'll buy 30 pairs. People usually think I'm crazy," she said.

She recently found her first pair of the classic brown, white and red sock-monkey socks at a flea market.

Not much of a shopper, Olmsted said the socks provide a legitimate and fun way to do collecting. The rainbow-striped ones are her favorites, but she hasn't kept any monkeys for herself, she said. She has made a red fuzzy monkey for her fiancÚ, Brian, however.

Olmsted grinned.

"Ironically, the band he is in is called the Sock Puppets," she said.

But the most important aspect of monkey making for Olmsted remains what she can visually express that is in her heart.

"I feel that there's got to be this other aspect of giving back," she said.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at sdremann@paweekly.com.

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