A Good Yarn About Those ‘Carousel’ Costumes

Posted May 25, 2018 12:16 a.m. EDT

Judith Durant gained 10 pounds between early December and mid-March. And she has “Carousel” to blame.

Durant, of Lowell, Massachusetts, spent three months tethered to her couch, knitting 13 of the 47 sweaters featured in the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, now at the Imperial Theater on Broadway. She’d sit down to work as early as 6 a.m. and stay firmly planted until 2 a.m., listening to the click-clack of needles and binge-watching “Nurse Jackie,” “Mad Men,” “Scandal” and “Twin Peaks.”

“I’d break for a meal and to say hi to my husband,” Durant, 63, said with a laugh.

The hand-stitched sweaters adorn the torsos of the carousel barker Billy Bigelow (Joshua Henry) and his sailor friends, played by dancers and ensemble members. While the tight fit and multicolored horizontal stripes have proved appealing, the garments are actually meant to be kind of raggedy, capturing the hardscrabble life in 1870s Maine.

“I wanted them to look like they were torn and mended — to look like the sailors made them,” said the show’s costume designer, Ann Roth, who is nominated for a Tony Award for her work. “That was the key — that they should not be beautifully done.”

This meant Roth had to find an expert knitter. Through the theatrical milliner Rodney Gordon, she landed on Durant, a former costume designer turned book editor.

“It was not an easy chore,” Roth acknowledged. “It was a lot of knitting to do in a short amount of time. And I wanted rough wool. But rough wool is not what you want to put on a dancer.”

Durant agreed that it was hardly a standard knitting job. Once she accepted, her first thought was, “What have I gotten myself into?”

“I did panic a bit,” she said.

A self-described “fiber snob,” she prefers to work in natural fibers only. But since the sweaters are washed daily, she was forced to dabble in acrylic, which can be thrown in a machine.

A simple sweater typically takes between 30 and 40 hours to knit, but the “Carousel” costumes were unique, and some took longer because of their materials or uses onstage. Durant estimated that she spent more than 70 hours to make each of Henry’s blue, brown and orange sweaters. (He also wears two, simpler-to-make black sweaters with green and maroon stripes, one fitted with a microphone.)

To meet her deadline, Durant recruited a skein full of knitters to assist. She got recommendations from yarn shops in nearby Billerica and Northampton, ultimately hiring 10 people from Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Michigan.

But the most challenging part was deliberately injecting errors into each garment.

“These were not gorgeous, beautiful sweaters — these guys are rough, they knit them themselves, so there should be some errors, snags, some wear,” she said. “I found myself ripping it off the needle because I saw a mistake. And then I thought: ‘What are you doing? That’s the point!'”

Ryan Steele, a dancer in the ensemble, said the results are worthwhile. “Spending most of the show wearing my sweater is actually quite grounding and establishes a sort of tribe feeling among the men,” he said. “Also, it’s very, very warm.”

Others affiliated with the production, including the conductor, want garments of their own. “Everyone says, ‘Where can I get one?'” Roth said. The project was a homecoming of sorts for Durant, who received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in theater, with a focus on costume design, from Emerson College in Boston. She lived in New York for 15 years, working in Broadway costume shops. Her own designs were done for shows “off off off — way off” Broadway, she said.

She left New York in 1984, and began working as an editor at Interweave Press, which publishes arts and crafts magazines and books. There she discovered a passion for knitting and edited a few books on it. But she never expected it to be responsible for her big break on Broadway.

On Feb. 28, the day of the show’s first preview, Durant took a train from Boston to Manhattan for a final run-through. She had completed the front and back of one of Henry’s sweaters; a hired helper was supposed to do the sleeves. But the knitter only had time to finish one of them.

The show must go on.

“I sat on the train and knit like a maniac, very dramatic,” Durant said. “Three minutes outside of Penn Station I took the last stitch.”