Socking the Monkey

updated 05/08/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/08/1995 01:00AM

SITTING AT THE TABLE IN THE kitchen of her New York City apartment, Roberta Baker is darn busy transforming a pile of socks into stuffed simians. "It's therapy for me," she says. "I enjoy taking a piece of fabric and turning it into something fun."

But ever since David Letterman used one of her sock monkeys on the Academy Awards show in March, the 77-year-old homemaker can't make enough of them. Letterman spoofed his role in the 1994 flop Cabin Boy—in which he holds up a sock critter and bellows, "Would ya like to buy a monkey?"—by showing a video of stars (including Paul Newman, Madonna and Tom Hanks) unsuccessfully "auditioning" for the role. The bit was inspired—rumor has it—by the beloved sock monkey Letterman had as a kid and his single big-screen cameo, and when Late Show staffers searched for one last February, the Woman's Exchange, a crafts cooperative in Manhattan, sent them to Baker, one of their main suppliers. These days sales are climbing—the exchange got 150 orders during the week after the Oscars—yet Baker has barely heard of the guy who helped. "I don't watch his show," she says. "I go to bed early."

Though she raised five children with her husband, Raleigh, a lawyer, it wasn't until she was 62 that Baker even started sewing. Then she happened to see a sock monkey in a crafts-store window and decided to try her hand. After giving the monkeys away as gifts to neighborhood kids for years, Baker began selling them in 1990 through the exchange. (The first sock monkeys date at least to 1920, when the Nelson Knitting Co. of Rockford, Ill., began putting patterns for the dolls into its sock packages after a customer had fashioned one and sent it in.)

It takes Baker three hours to make one of her monkeys, which come in two sizes that cost $16.75 and $26.75 respectively. The critters consist of new socks stuffed with polyester fiber and embroidered with black and blue yarn; the mouth is a red sock heel. "I used to make five monkeys a month," Baker says, "but just in the last two weeks, I've made 15 big ones and lots of miniatures. I'm all monkeyed Out!"

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