12/02/1996 at 01:00 AM EST
GIVEN THE HOURS OF LABOR JUDY Graham puts into each of her hand-loomed sweaters, you'd think her Hollywood clientele would treat them with tenderness. Knot a chance. By the time shooting ended on Waterworld, for example, the 20 or so rayon dresses she had knit for Jeanne Tripplehorn were torn and misshapen by months of constant exposure to seaweed and salt water. In The Long Kiss Goodnight, Samuel L. Jackson's six wool turtlenecks were worn out by the constant fisticuffs. And in Bruce Willis
's latest flick, Last Man Standing, the vests Graham created for the action star were, by movie's end, in shreds. "I had to make eight of everything because they kept getting bloody and torn and had bullet holes," says Graham, 60. "But that's show business."
She would know. Ever since Graham knit Valerie Harper's hippie-style sweaters on Rhoda 20 years ago, costumers have been clamoring for her one-of-a-kind creations. Able to whip up anything from itsy-bitsy midriff-barers to Alps-worthy cardigans (original designs start at $350), Graham and her Los Angeles staff of eight have produced such distinctive pieces as Tom Hanks's striped socks in Forrest Gump and—cultural icon alert!—the oversize red-and-green-striped sweater worn by Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street. This year alone, Graham-wear can be seen on Friends, Melrose Place and 3rd Rock from the Sun. "They come to me, they tell me what they want, I do it," she says. "They ask, 'Can you make it shorter? Can you make it smaller?' I always say, 'Sure.' "
"You never get exactly what you want from a store," says 3rd Rock costume designer Melina Root, who hired Graham to make John Lithgow's trademark nubby cardigan. "She has such a great eye." Even offscreen, where Graham's handiwork is available at boutiques under her Topaz Knitwear label, the stars are sold. "I love her stuff," says Whoopi Goldberg, who kept the chenille duds she donned in The Associate. "I would wear them all the time if I could."
Raised in Indianapolis, Graham learned to knit from her mother, Flora, a homemaker, in high school (father Stanley was a businessman). "If you really loved a guy," she laughs, "you made him argyle socks." In 1970, after she and then husband Jerry Graham, a radio broadcaster, moved to Stock-bridge, Mass., with their two sons (Jefferson, now 40, is a journalist; Jez, 37, a keyboardist), she became part-owner of a crafts store. Impressed by her designs, a friend suggested she show them to New York City's Henri Bendel department store. She did—and left with her first order. "I'd been questioning what I wanted to do with my life," she says. "That was good for my ego."
After she and Jerry separated five years later, Graham moved to L.A., where a friend invited her—and her sweaters—to the set of Rhoda. The show's costumer snatched up her samples. "It's been word-of-mouth ever since," says Graham.
Now sharing a one-bedroom Hollywood Hills bungalow with longtime beau Michael Ansell, 48, a photographer, Graham lives frugally despite her income—which in a good year can total $250,000. "A Honda goes anywhere a Jaguar would," she says. As for her sweaters, she scans for them only in the movies and TV shows that she likes. Other times, such as during the occasional episode of Melrose Place, she admits sheepishly, "I'll watch for the costumes—but keep the sound off."
ELIZABETH LEONARD in Los Angeles