Knitting shop owner’s creations have shared silver screen with Hollywood stars

By Mariam Kasem

If you’ve seen the Oscar-winning movie The Shape of Water, a love story between a mute woman and a scaled, aquatic creature, you may have been too entranced by the colourful visuals and the all-encompassing storyline to notice much else. The cozy, knitted sweater worn by the lead character’s friend might’ve been the last thing that crossed your mind. 

The sweater’s creator, Wendy Mortimer, plays a similar supporting role in the Danforth knitting shop where she has worked most of her life, nestled among flashier shops dotted along the commercial strip.

She bought The Wool Mill from the previous owner when she was 32, after saving for years while working two jobs, including night shifts and days that stretched longer than eight hours in the shop she now owns.

Wendy Mortimer at her work table, knitting at The Wool Mill located at 2170 Danforth Avenue on Friday, Feb. 22, 2020. (Mariam Kasem/T•)

From the outside, there is little to indicate the shop has become a go-to spot for professionals in the entertainment industry as well as neighbourhood customers.

Peering through the big window at front of the store reveals floor-to-ceiling shelves on each wall, stocked with textured yarns in a burst of colours including mossy green and light lilac. A cream-coloured sheep wallhanging at the front of the store was a gift from Wendy’s previous neighbour. A chipped, wooden spinning wheel passed onto her by a customer showcases scarves and hats she has knitted. 

A visitor to the store would have to go all the way to the backroom to see any connection between Wendy and the bright lights of Hollywood. There, a poster for the 1993 film Searching for Bobby Fischer is glued on the cream coloured, patterned wallpaper. 

That film featured actor Ben Kingsley, the first movie star Wendy knitted for, and catapulted her work onto the silver screen. 

As Wendy recalls that first experience with the film industry more than two decades ago, her mouth is tugged into a smile, and crow’s feet form at the corners of her eyes. It was her upstairs neighbour who recommended her work. 

“She was in the wardrobe department and they were looking for someone to knit a bunch of sweaters for Ben Kingsley for a film he was in and she sent the wardrobe people up to see me to see if that would be something I could do and it started from there,” she explains. 

The poster for the first film that featured Wendy Mortimer’s work is tucked away in the back room of her shop on Friday, Feb. 22, 2020. /Mariam Kasem/T•)

Since then, she has gone on to do knitwear for more than 250 movies and television shows, her work showcased — if something of a background player — in some of Hollywood’s most renowned productions. 

Wendy’s voice bubbles with excitement as she tells the story of the first time she saw one of her pieces on screen in a darkened movie theatre. She was out for an evening with her husband and friends, seeing Simon Birch, an adaptation of the novel A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving.

“When I went to see the movie I waited until the scene where my sweater was going to be and I said right out loud in the theatre, ‘There it is! That’s my sweater!’ and I was elbowing my husband and my friends were laughing,” Wendy recalls. 

The sweater had to look like it was knitted by an amateur. It was rejected at first, for appearing too professional, so she had run over it with her car, cut pieces out, and poked holes in it to achieve the look the production wanted. 

Wendy’s Hollywood connections would not be apparent to a passerby who might see her hunkered over on her work table by the side window of the store, madly working on the next project that might require knitting up to 16 hours a day for six weeks or more.

Nor is the casual visitor to her store likely to guess that she has played a role in big Hollywood films and TV shows such as X-men, Black Mirror, The Umbrella Academy, Reign, and Bride of Chucky. Her knitting could’ve been on display in the background in a stream of Hallmark movies as they wrapped Christmas gifts, or they might’ve seen it — without even thinking about who made it — in a Purina cat food commercial. 

A customer peruses the different colours and textures of yarn for sale on Friday, Feb. 22, 2020. (Mariam Kasem/T•)

Wendy seems content in her supporting role, so much so that visitors to the low-key Danforth shop might be surprised to learn that her work landed her a lunch date with some of Hollywood’s hottest stars: Hugh Jackman, Famke Janssen, Anna Paquin and Patrick Stewart. 

Wendy lets out a booming laugh when she tells the story about how those stars tricked their server into thinking she was famous. 

“The director of the movie said, ‘We would like you to meet our wonderful friend Wendy,’ and he started fawning all over me and all the actors were sitting around the table just killing themselves laughing at this guy.”

Though the work comes with such perks, toiling on multiple projects at the same time with tight deadlines for each has, at times, taken a physical toll. 

“I’ve torn my muscle in my shoulder two or three times by knitting,” Wendy says. “When I’m working on films, I’m working hours and hours and hours, day after day so it’s a repetitive strain injury that caused muscle tears in the rotator cuff so that’s something that I have to watch out for.”

The third time it tore, she got acupuncture, massages and physiotherapy. When all else failed, she had to get a cortisone shot to numb the pain and keep working on her projects. 

“There have been times when I’ve been so tired I’ve actually been sitting there knitting, crying because I’m so tired,” Wendy adds with a painful laugh. 

Yet she doesn’t ask to be recognized for her work, not even wishing to be credited at the end of movies and TV shows.

“I probably could, it doesn’t interest me to do that,” she says. “The people who need my services know where to find me.”

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