When I was young my parents travelled a fair amount. And they would generally bring me back a present – perhaps bought, last minute, in the airport. And, as often as not, this was a small doll, dressed in the national dress of the country concerned. You know the kind of thing, plastic, often with eyes that shut, clothes stuck on, sometimes impaled on a stand. I loved them. The best was a Japanese girl with the whitest face, a Kimono, and a contrasting nagoya obi belt. You couldn’t cuddle them, and you couldn’t even dress and undress them. They sat on my mantlepiece and I enjoyed looking at them. I have always, since then, really liked dolls. Not so much Barbies, and not so much baby dolls. More representations of grown up children, proudly wearing their national dress. Actually i like vintage toys of all sorts – dolls, automata and tin cars. And I also have a keen interest in folk costume and the enduring styles of various nations – the kilt, basque berets, European embroidered styles, French and Welsh lace, headdresses and hats. Did anyone else develop the same interest in these things? (I just had a look on eBay and I could recreate my long lost collection – there are some “job lots” for around £20.)
Anyway once I had kids of my own I did a little doll making, which I enjoyed immensely.
I joined a class in Battersea called Ethnic Doll Making. This was about 1990 and perhaps there weren’t that many ethnic dolls available in the shops, but it was a well attended class and I made a few dolls over the term.The teacher was very talented and had lots of amazing materials. The doll’s bodies were made out of cotton jersey which she had dyed to replicate a wide range of skin shades. She had paints and stuffing and patterns for clothes, including underwear. I am pleased to say all my dolls got knickers! The most unusual thing was the faces. These were created in some sort of rubbery material in moulds and the cotton fabric was pulled around the mask. Our teacher had acquired a range of different faces and ages so there you could create just about any look you wanted. I can’t find exactly the right image, but something like this:
I made a baby doll that looked like Gus, a boy that looked like George and a girl based on my daughter Esme. I carefully matched the fabric colour to their skin shades, I made the hair as realistic as I could (using a cheap second hand wig that I unravelled), using paints to colour their eyes and mouths as close to their actual shade as I could. It was a bit like how artists do self portraits – it forces you to really look closely at what you (or someone else) really looks like. I think George’s doll had dungarees, but I remember clearly the outfit I made for the Esme doll. I had previously made my daughter a black leotard (for dancing) and a woolen skirt in a light weight Liberty wool. I used the off cuts to create the same outfit for “dolly”. I think the “baby” doll had something knitted, or a very small baby gro.
I am sorry that these three dolls – given to the child they were based on – are now lost.
However although my children’s dolls were “ethnically” true in terms of colouring, the whole point of the ethnic dolls workshop was to create a range of ethnicities. I decided on an African and an Oriental child. We were encouraged to decide exactly where our doll was assumed to come from, and to research the look of the local girls. I found pictures of Kenyan and Japanese children and tried to create the right colouring and facial features. Once the doll was made we needed to create anatomically correct(ish) hair and clothes from the culture.
For my Kenyan doll I made her hair from black wool, winding each section around my needle a bit like a loose French knot. And for clothes I found a book with quarter scale patterns and adapted this to create a “butterfly” dress. This is a T shaped garment, with loose sleeves – a kind of African caftan with an underbust tie to control the fullness. I used a small scrap of African wax fabric that I bought on Brixton market. I was amused by the motif (a hairdryer I think). I also made a shirt for my husband from the same fabric.
With the Japanese doll I found a black hair piece in a charity shop. And a Chinese jacket that I altered to fit my doll.
I had this pair of dolls sitting on the window cill at work for years, but I brought them home for this post. I am thinking of taking them to my new sewing space which we are hoping will be ready by Christmas.