A coral reef grows on the second floor of the Chicago Cultural Center. Coral reefs are conventionally created by living organisms called corals, which leave behind bits of their skeleton as they grow. In the case of the coral reef in the Cultural Center, these living organisms are human crochetiers, their hooked needles darting through loops of yarn and leaving behind the “Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef.” Prominent among the nimble-fingered are Erika and Monika Simmons, identical twins serving as spokeswomen for the event.
Erika and Monika (also known as the Doublestitch Twins) design colorful and funky sweaters, dresses, tops, and other apparel for their fashion label, Double Stitch. They got introduced to crochet in elementary school, and rediscovered it four years ago when they turned 30. In between, they attended college, modeled commercially, braided hair, and taught dance. Without any formal training in design, their transition from casual to professional crocheting began fortuitously. “We first started with family, making gifts for Christmas, but we were born entrepreneurs. We know the value of our time,” Erika explains.
Lifetime South Siders, the twins’ apparel was “Initially accepted by people in Bronzeville. We struck a chord with people,” says Erika. Of the South Side fashion scene, they acknowledge, after some hesitation, “They’re coming around…it’s a progression.” Helping that progression along, Double Stitch spread quickly to other parts of the city. Popularity at the West Loop Indie Designer Fashion Market, trunk shows, and local boutique parties soon brought the Mayor’s Office of special events knocking. They’ve been a part of Fashion Focus Chicago, an eleven-day city-run fashion festival centered on independent designers in Chicago, since its inception in 2005. The twins recently wrapped up their show for the Allure of Couture closing show at the 2007 version of the event at Millennium Park, sponsored by Macy’s. “You can buy our fashions right around the corner, at the State Street Macy’s,” they announced.
For inspiration, they are open to everything. “I could have been influenced by anything I saw, like colors, shapes, nature,” says Monika. Fast crocheters from the beginning, owing to years of braiding hair, Monica explains, “[We]start off with accessories, just off-the-wall things, like a one sleeve.” That is, they didn’t like sweaters, so they would just create sleeves. Erika adds that they don’t usually work off of other crochet designs, and this is evident in their apparel.
Crocheted clothing usually ends up looking either matronly or babyish, nothing that could, for example, end up being featured in Smooth Magazine by someone named Ms. Applebottom. Celebrities such as Common and Eve are happy customers, as well.
Double Stitch clothing is not for the fashion conservative. Many feature bare stomachs, plunging necklines, and Caribbean cut-outs, and the whole lot is colorful. Chicago fashion tends to stay to the tried-and-true (and boring) palette of black, gray, and tan, and Erika exclaims, “All we did were colors and we were like aliens.” The twins take advantage of crotchet’s versatility to be a bit racy, putting holes in anywhere but the bust. One wonders why many other designers haven’t milked this concept before. Fishnet stockings are one of the sexiest garments in a woman’s wardrobe; why not use webbing in tops and dresses as well? Double Stitch even has crocheted swimwear, though one would be hard-pressed to see anyone swimming in it.
Their fashions, Erika admits, are “hard to wear around the house,” but that seems to be the point. Double Stitch wear isn’t something you grab on a whim; when you wear a pink crochet dress with purple trim and netting at the waist, it’s usually for an event, an occasion to look and feel hot. “We try to appeal to the dramatic person in everybody,” explains Erika. “Women from eighteen to forever who are not afraid to stand out.”
As the two described their fashions to me, they were crocheting, apparently effortlessly. Each garment produced takes “around two to twelve hours; some things take longer, like wedding dresses.” Yes, crocheted wedding dresses.
Deft self-promoters–Erika is wearing an attention-getting orange cardigan, and Monika a more subdued black one–the twins can rarely be found outside not wearing a garment of their own design. Over the course of our interview, two separate people stop by, asking about their crocheting, one exclaiming, “You’re the crocheting sisters!” “That’s very common,” Monika says of the interruptions. “We’re kinda people people.” Much of the success of Double Stitch can be attributed to this. The twins are friendly but professional, self-promoting but not obnoxious.
When asked where they would like Double Stitch to go in the future, Erika replies, “Our initial response was worldwide domination!” Though their fashions are available at Macy’s and Mai Rees boutique in the Gold Coast, the twins are still in the process of searching for the right manufacturer. A Double Stitch boutique doesn’t seem to be in the horizon, however, as Erika explains, “It’s too stationary.” Instead, the Simmons are coming out with an eponymous Double Stitch book in April of 2008, published by Interweave Press, a craft media company.
Indeed, the twins are quite open to expanding outside of fashion, and as a first step, they have gone into social consciousness-raising endeavors, like a recent benefit for the Let’s Talk, Let’s Test Foundation, an organization dedicated to raising awareness of the HIV epidemic in African-Americans. Their involvement in the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef was in line with this. The Hyperbolic Reef, an homage to the Great Barrier reef, was begun by another set of twins in Australia (Christine and Margaret Wertheim) as an effort to alert people to the crisis of global warming and coral bleaching. The “hyperbolic” part comes from a mathematical oddity: the hyperbolic plane, a shape where space curves away from itself at every point, thus making it the geometric opposite of a sphere. The shape could only be imagined by mathematicians until Daina Taimina at Cornell constructed a physical model of it–in crochet. The exhibit in the Chicago Cultural Center, running until December 16, is a glut of color, featuring fuzzy sea urchins, pink sea anemones, and hyperbolic sea slugs. A glut of color, that is, except for the sad models of bleached coral, sobering one to the threatened present and uncertain future of these havens of biodiversity.
Chicago is the only city to have its own coral reef, with about 120 volunteers, though crocheters in other cities are contributing on their own. The Simmons twins describe the project as a mash-up of feminism, environmentalism, and crafting. Like a coral reef expanding forever outward, Erika and Monika Simmons are on the rise, and, as Erika says, “[We] intend to go everywhere–in an organized fashion.”