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The yarn of the poncho

Times Staff Writer

Even in one of her least glamorous moments, one not too far removed from a perp walk, Martha Stewart has proven she can still set off a mega-trend.

It’s that poncho. The one she wore when she left prison earlier this month and boarded a private jet for the trip home. With paparazzi bulbs popping, Stewart was captured for posterity in the lacy cover-up crocheted for her by another inmate.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Mar. 23, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 23, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Stewart poncho -- The photo caption in Saturday’s Calendar section with an article about the popularity of the poncho Martha Stewart was wearing when she was released from prison said she was wearing a knitted poncho. The photo showed a crocheted poncho.

In this latest example of Stewart’s ever-deepening popularity and mystique, the hand-made poncho has assumed iconic proportions. It has also caused controversy among yarn makers eager to claim that the poncho was made from their products.

“We knew something was up the night she left prison, when people started sending us e-mails, asking if we had the pattern for the poncho,” says Ilana Rabinowitz, marketing director for Lion Brand Yarn Co. in New York.

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Not just a few e-mails, but hundreds. And then thousands.

The 127-year-old, family-owned yarn firm wasn’t too quick on the uptake, Rabinowitz says. “It took us a couple of days to realize something really big was up, and decide we needed to put the poncho ahead of other projects we were working on.” And, of course, Lion didn’t have the pattern. “We believe the woman who crocheted the poncho might not even have used a pattern,” Rabinowitz says. “But we believe she may have used our yarn.”

She says her firm closely examined the look of the yarn in news photos. “We contacted a very fast crochet designer, overnighted some yarn to her, and she made up a poncho like Martha wore in just one day. Within 48 hours from start to finish we had the digital images up on our website, along with a poncho pattern that people could download free.”

That was four days ago, and 219,000 people have already downloaded the pattern for the openwork poncho with a mock turtleneck and a scalloped edge across the bottom, Rabinowitz says in a phone interview.

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The firm, which sells about $200 million worth of yarn a year, is the nation’s oldest and biggest hand-knitting yarn company, Rabinowitz says. “But in all our history, we have never had anything compare to this.” It’s too early to tell if the downloads will translate into increased yarn sales, she says. “Maybe some people just want the pattern as a souvenir.” The company named the style “Coming Home.”

Another yarn maker -- Ontario, Canada-based Spinrite -- has also rushed into production a similar poncho pattern, which they told the Wall Street Journal has increased their website traffic by 300%. They too claim the poncho Stewart wore used their yarn.

Stewart herself unwittingly entered the great yarn debate in an Internet chat with admirers after her release:

Kathryn_NYC: “Can you tell us about the poncho you wore when you flew home Thursday night?”

Martha: “A friend at Alderson made it for me. It is soft and thick and made from Lion Brand Yarn.... It looked very chic and everyone was surprised at how graceful it appeared. I was grateful to have something soft and warm to wear.”

Ponchos, a descendant of the earliest cloaks and capes, have traveled in and out of fashion over the years. Big in the ‘70s, they disappeared, then resurfaced a few seasons ago. “Ponchos were really hot for a while, but by the time Martha wore hers, we were on the downside of that trend,” Rabinowitz says.

Bobbi Queen, associate fashion editor of Women’s Wear Daily and W magazine, recalls that a few seasons back “ponchos were really hot on fashion runways, along with capes and capelets. Everyone started wearing them, until they became too trendy.” This year, ponchos weren’t featured in most big designer shows, she says. But a good-looking poncho is never out of style, says Queen. “I love them. I wore one yesterday.”


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