INDIANAPOLIS — The sweaters with the intricate designs inspired by the art of Andrew Warhol, Picasso or a Grecian urn, can fit in the palm of a small adult’s hand.
The knitted gloves sit on a fingertip.
It’s hard to imagine that human hands, however deft, created the elfin-sized pieces. But these pieces originated not in a fairy glen but a Bloomington artist’s home.
Althea Crome, 52, has made a name for herself in the rarified miniature world. Her most expensive elaborate pieces hang in museum collections from the Kentucky Gateway Museum Center in Maysville to the National Museum of Toys and Miniatures in Kansas City, Missouri.
No doubt, her most well-known piece is the blue grey sweater dappled with stars and sparkles worn by the title puppet in the 2009 movie “Coraline.”
While many miniaturists are happy to dabble in the world of the dollhouse at a so-called 1:12 scale – in which one inch in the smaller world correlates to one foot in ours – Crome has gone beyond that to produce singular works of art.
“I have always loved the magic of miniatures and the way it transports you into this tunnel vision.. I never got into dolls, but I loved visualizing myself in that space, shrinking myself down mentally,” she said in a recent phone interview. “I’m experimenting with that, taking it out of the realm of the miniature dollhouse and more into the realm of conceptual art.”
Earlier this year Crome completed a mini masterpiece: A cardigan based on The Nativity, an altarpiece in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The sweater contains more than 70 different colours of different thread, more than 50,000 stitches, at about 64 stitches to the inch. Twelve 18K gold buttons dot the front of the sweater, one for each month it took her to finish.
In September The Nativity captured third place, a $5,000 purse, in the first-ever Barbara Marshall Award for Artistic Achievement, sponsored by The National Museum of Toys and Miniatures. The 33,000-square-foot museum purchased the piece and it will go up on display this week.
Interest in miniatures dates back to the 1970s, starting as a hobby for many artisans. Some started taking it to the next level, creating museum-quality work, said Laura Taylor, curator of interpretation at the National Museum of Toys and Miniatures. The movement required pieces to be perfect and correct, reflecting the full scale counterpart in every way.
Many miniature artisans who work with textiles focus on creating pieces, such as tablecloths or bedspreads, that become part of other pieces. Crome’s work stands on its own, Taylor said.
“She’s creating an original work of art that’s reflective of a very different medium,” she said. “It’s intimate and it requires close study and the amount of time and the conceptualization that she has to do it is quite incredible.. It’s not just about creating a miniature cardigan that looks realistic. It’s creating a work of art.”
Crome’s fascination with a Lilliputian reality began with a dollhouse nearly 20 years ago. A knitter since college, Crome had always gravitated towards making baby sweaters whenever she set out to knit something, the more complicated the better.
Then the mother of a six-year-old and toddler triplets, Crome decided to build a dollhouse, as much for her as them. Soon, she lost interest in the exterior of the home but she became hooked on the challenge of creating miniature knitted goods that made the tiny environments miniaturists created look that much more real.
In hindsight, Crome looks at everything she made in those early days as “very clumsy and clunky.” Crome switched from baby weight yarn and small needles to fine thread and knitting needles that she fashioned from surgical stainless steel wire. Her designs grew even more complicated as she drew inspiration from works of art.
In 2003, she attended the annual week long school of the International Guild of Miniature Artisans for the first time. Each year the school includes an auction of items that the students and teachers donate from their own collection.
Crome contributed a pair of tiny gloves each with a figure on it – one a boy, the other a girl. She had no idea how much to ask. The gloves sold for $600 or $700. Crome was as amazed at the price people were willing to pay as her fans were by her craftsmanship.
“People love it and they’re willing to spend a lot of money for it. That was a revelation,” she said. “People weren’t looking at these things as cutesy, little crafty dollhouse things. They were looking at it as art.”
To market her work, Crome started a website. One day in 2006, her phone rang as she lunched with her mother. The caller explained she was with Laika Studios in Portland, Oregon, which was making a stop motion feature. They needed some tights for their star puppet, the Coraline in the title. They had found Crome’s work online and thought perhaps she could help.
She could and did. But the filmmakers wound up not using the leggings that Crome made. Instead, they asked her to custom design Coraline’s sweater. Crome had wide design latitude; they said only that they wanted a garment with sparkles and stars. Those two requirements alone made it a challenge. She tried stainless steel thread to get it to sparkle, she used silver thread, dyed it herself.
When she finally found a winner, she made 14 sweaters for the studio and an extra for herself.
Her work awes even those in the miniature world, said Nell Corkin, past president of the International Guild of Miniature Artisans. The Guild, set up on the model of medieval guilds, exists to promote fine art miniatures and has about 1,000 members.
About 170 of those carry the title of artisan, meaning the work has been judged to be of sufficient merit for the honour. Another 111, including Crome and Corkin, are considered fellows meaning their work rises to the highest level.
“There are some other people who do knitting in miniature, but there is nobody who does it the way Althea does,” Corkin said. “It’s extremely fine work and the engineered designs she comes up with her sweaters, I don’t think anybody had ever seen anything like it.
In 2013, Crome quit her job as a respiratory therapist and devoted herself full time to her art. It’s painstaking work and Crome can only do it for about eight hours a day. Because she used to sit in a position that lead to a pinched nerve in her neck she now prefers to recline when she works.
Although her pieces are tiny, they can take weeks or months to complete. A tiny cabled sweater takes about a month. A sweater with images can take four to six months.
An eensy pair of mittens with no designs sell for between $100 to $150, her miniature sweaters range from $800 to $900. She has created a few framed pieces with her work that go for anywhere from $1,200 to $6,000 in which her creations almost appear like fine biological specimens pinned on display.
The unfinished dollhouse that started Crome down this path still sits in her basement. She also still has the first black yarn sweater she made, using needles far larger than the ones she uses now.
“It’s clunky and I made pockets,” she said. “I like to look at it still, 16 or so years later, because I like to see where I started. I started with this really clunky thing and was really one of those moments in my life when I created that thing and I felt I have found my medium.”