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Seventy Stitches To The Inch: Althea Crome's Tiny Knits

pair of miniature hand-knit socks

When Bloomington-based knitter Althea Crome finds inspiration while driving down the road or standing at a museum, she asks herself one question: How can I make that smaller?

Crome knits sweaters, socks, and gloves that have complex, full-color designs-all at one-twelfth the scale of normal knit objects. This makes for two-inch tall sweaters, gloves that are less than half an inch long, and a challenge that Crome finds just her size.

She knits her sweaters and gloves with silk sewing thread instead of yarn, and polished surgical wire instead of needles, because conventional knitting tools are just not small enough.

Off The Deep End

Althea Crome started knitting tiny objects to give herself a challenge after getting bored with the usual knitter's fare of scarves and gloves.

"Things kept getting smaller and smaller. I liked socks and gloves and baby booties, and little baby things. And before I knew it I was really off the deep end, going very small," Crome says with a laugh.

Sitting with her project and magnifying glasses, Crome will sometimes knit for eight to ten hours at a stretch, between her job as a respiratory therapist and raising four children.

A lot of her work tells the story of her family life, like one pair of impossibly tiny socks.

They tell the story of my life in Chicago, the big city. So I have the Chicago skyline, with a few of the big buildings that you might recognize-there's the John Hancock and the Sears Tower. And you'll see lake Michigan here, and as you go toward the foot it's a little road which is symbolic of our trip out of Chicago. And then the other sock is symbolic of our trip to more serene country life in Bloomington.

To be clear: These socks that Crome is describing, with skylines and lakes and a winding road, are an inch and a half tall. "They are miniscule," she says, laughing.

A Claim To Fame

Some of Crome's sweaters are reproductions of recognizable works of art. Her Andy Warhol cardigan features the pop artist's famous Marilyn Monroe screen prints on the back, and tiny Campbell's soup cans for front pockets. Knitting her own autobiographical designs and popular works of art at such a small scale draws attention to the craft of the  garment's creation.

"It begs the question of, how is that done?" she says. "And it's a matter of figuring it out. Â And really it's done in a very traditional manner, but it's also innovative as well. You have to figure out, 'How in the world am I going to turn this tiny heel?'"

And although in recent years Crome has had to put knitting more on the back-burner, she isn't exactly toiling in obscurity. She hand-knit the sparkling star sweater for the 2009 feature film Coraline, which in the movie is given to Coraline by her evil 'other mother.' Crome actually had to scale up and make the sweater bigger than she usually would, because her stitches are so small they "didn't read as fabric" on the big screen.

"That was a whole other kind of challenge," she says, "because they just would sort of send me a really rough sketch, and a little color palette. They would send me Coraline's torso and just say, ‘make this.'"

On The Hunt For Her Next Challenge

For her next project, Crome will be taking on a new challenge: knitting at a large scale. She has partnered with her best friend, photographer and bookmaker Yara Cluver, to create one of the brains for Jill Bolte-Taylor's BRAIN Extravaganza.

"Our concept is about pain and comfort," Crome says, "and how our minds and our bodies and technology all combine to create that. I'm actually going to be knitting a cozy for the brain. And the cozy will represent how we create comfort for ourselves."

Whether knitting at a small scale or very large, Crome continues to seek that satisfaction that comes with overcoming a challenge. "I don't feel like there's any limit to this. I could do this for the rest of my life and still find new things."

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