Crochet was once considered the pastime of grandmotherly doily-makers. And the sailor’s knot-tying known as macrame decorated groovy pads of the 1970s. But both became high fashion in the hands of Barbara Lewis.
After one of her crocheted swimsuits appeared on the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine in 1969, she was commissioned to make a bikini for movie star Elizabeth Taylor.
Bombshell Raquel Welch wore one of her form-fitting creations when she go-go’ed in Vietnam on a Bob Hope USO tour. Vogue recognized the va-va-voom factor of her creations. The magazine’s longtime editor-empress, Diana Vreeland, included the Welch photo in her book “Allure.”
Ms. Lewis’ fashions appeared in two movies that captured 1960s pandemonium: the Peter Sellers vehicle “The Party” and “Wild in the Streets,” about a Jim Morrison-esque rock singer who leads a youth rebellion in which everyone over 30 is forced into camps where they have to ingest LSD.
Later, Ms. Lewis shifted from worn art to wall art. She also hand-knotted silk to make meticulously detailed macrame Torah covers for synagogues. One of her pieces — at Congregation Solel in Highland Park — encases a 115-year old Czechoslovakian Torah saved from the anti-Semitism of World War II.
Ms. Lewis died March 13 at home in Evanston after a four-year struggle with liver cancer. She was 77.
She came of age in Greenwich Village as the neighborhood pulsated with the poetry, art and music of the beat movement and folk music. She was friendly with actress Tuesday Weld and singer Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary. She knew Bob Dylan but wasn’t a fan of his personality, said Benn Greenspan, her husband of 40 years.
“Apparently, he was a very talented — and defensive — young man,” he said.
Her father, Hyman Lewis, was a furrier. Her mother, Sylvia, crafted custom coats for his customers.
Barbara Lewis had knitted as a teen, but by 20 she was married to her first husband and a mom. In New York in that era, “The thing you did with children was you sat in the park, the playgrounds,” her husband said. A playground mother taught Barbara to crochet, and she taught the other woman to knit.
Later, she experimented with macrame. Unlike knitting and crocheting — done with needles and hooks — the nautical art uses hand-tied knots.
When a friend complained she’d been denied entry to a grocery store because she was still in a bikini from swimming, “Barbara apparently got an evil smile and said, ‘I’ll make you a cover-up,’ “’ said her husband. “The cover-up didn’t cover much.”
After her first marriage broke up, Greenspan said, “She supported her kids and herself crocheting.”
She’d visit avant-garde boutiques and galleries, where admiring owners placed orders for her crocheted and macrame clothing, which was featured at New York’s Abracadabra and Henri Bendel. “They were beautiful, but, for me, what was wonderful is they were also wearable,” said Julie Dale, founder of Julie: Artisans’ Gallery on New York’s Upper East Side.
Ms. Lewis’ daughter, Jenny Baumann, loved to accompany her on her Swingin’ Sixties rounds. Abracadabra “was so mod and cool, really, for a kid in middle school,” she said.
After her crocheted bikini was featured in Cosmo, an assistant to Taylor called, Greenspan said: “She was going on one of her honeymoons with Richard Burton and wanted to wear that bikini.”
But Taylor’s assistant refused to send the zaftig star’s measurements. “Just make it large,” Ms. Lewis was told. She did, but it still wasn’t big enough. The bikini was sent back twice before it fitted La Liz.
Two years before, Burton’s ex-wife Sybil Christopher — who’d been spurned for Taylor — held a luncheon to introduce Ms. Lewis’ fashions to New York’s society women. At the time, Ms. Lewis, described as “shy,” told a reporter she didn’t wear her own creations, saying, “They’re not my type at all.”
Ms. Lewis also made a 14-by-7 foot macrame image of Aeolus, the Greek wind god, for a Sheraton Hotel in Reston, Va.
After marrying Greenspan in 1976, they moved to the Midwest for his job as a hospital administrator. She concentrated on creating fiber wall-art. Her pieces were sold at Marshall Field’s and Ethan Allen.
Ms. Lewis had small, nimble hands. When she tied macrame knots, her husband said, “It was like watching a conductor in a symphony.”
Later, she crafted desserts for caterers, carving racecars and pianos out of cake layers.
Ms. Lewis is also survived by two sons, Jeremy Baumann and Isaac Greenspan; a sister, Nancy Lewis; a brother, David Lewis; and three grandchildren. A celebration of her life is planned in August.