JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden. Americans love festivals: artichokes, rattlesnakes, frozen dead guys, yes, all are celebrated in beloved local festivals from California to Colorado. So is the sock monkey, the knitted red-lipped primate child's toy stitched from the Nelson red-heeled work sock.
Even today, as Jenna Dooley from member station WNIJ reports from Rockford, Illinois, sock monkey devotees are cherishing the little critters at the Eighth Annual Sock Monkey Festival.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONKEY SOUND)
JENNA DOOLEY, BYLINE: Adele Jedynak makes monkey sounds to a group of kids who are steps away from playing sock monkey bowling and plush-primate parachuting. It's all part of the Sock Monkey Madness Festival. But why Rockford? The Nelson Knitting Company made and sold Rockford Red Heel work socks in this industrial city from 1932 to 1992 before going out of business.
The iconic socks were used to create the granddaddy of homespun kitsch. In the 1950s, the company got a patent and included the sock monkey doll pattern with each pair of socks and people went bananas. Mark Herman is the curator of education at the Midway Village Museum, host of the two-day indoor festival. He says there's a difference between the famed sock monkey and ordinary stuffed animals.
MARK HERMAN: I think it's often made with endearment. I think it's a matter of grandmothers and moms and people making them as gifts for other people, and I think that's what really connects the memory part.
DOOLEY: That's what attracted Martha Pyles to bring a shopping cart - yes, really, a shopping cart - filled with her cotton treasures to the festival.
MARTHA PYLES: My grandmother made them for all the generation in my family so - when I was a little girl. And then my mother made them for my grandchildren.
DOOLEY: Her Elvis lookalike sock monkey was last year's best of show at the festival. This time around, she made a Jack Sparrow sock monkey, complete with dreadlocks, for the contest.
Nearby, Joe Kroc and his friend Megan Saba are seated at an accessorizing table to give their companions some bling: colored cotton balls, fabric and shiny buttons for missing eyes. Joe gave his traditional plush some pizzazz.
JOE KROC: This is very eclectic. We got camouflage shirt, Santa hat, and then the rest is pure sock monkey.
MEGAN SABA: We named it Rocky for Rockford.
DOOLEY: Names. It's all about the names.
GRAYSON BLAKEMORE: Scooby-Dooby-Doo.
DOOLEY: Grayson Blakemore took his brother's toy to a makeshift clinic, also known as Sockford General Hospital, because the mouth was tearing, and it was missing something very important.
BLAKEMORE: A eye.
DOOLEY: At the hospital, volunteers dressed as nurses, stuff and sew the monkeys back to their former glory. At the other end of the hall, Emily Yarger peddles sock monkeys. Her mother helps her craft standout sock monkeys to sell.
EMILY YARGER: So we love really bright socks and bright colors. This guy has a sombrero on. This guy, we did some - do crocheting to, so we made this hat for this guy here. The thing is like, when you make a monkey, I don't know, it's like they kind of take a personality of their own, I guess.
DOOLEY: One of her creations caught the eye of Max Green. He added to his collection with an orange-vested monkey and says it's a true example of folk art.
MAX GREEN: I think a big part of it is just the history behind it, you know, that they're made in America, that they're made out of materials that are made in America. I think that's a big part of it too.
DOOLEY: Whether it's a traditional or funky sock monkey, these huggable heroes all have a story: lovingly made from scratch and built to last, unless your little brother accidentally pulls its eye off. For NPR News, I'm Jenna Dooley in Rockford, Illinois.