Doll making

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:

Dolls face mould
Dolls face mould

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.

Ready to move into Rainshore
Ready to move into Rainshore

18 Responses

  1. Joyce Latham

    These dolls are adorable! Too bad no one has a picture of the dolls made for your children, but I can imagine them well enough from your description. They would have been super cute.
    Back in the day, I used to like to make marionettes. Once I made for for a drummer my daughter was dating…he called it his ” Mimi me”. I craved their heads from wooden fence toppers, bought at the headwear store? More recently – One Easter I made hand puppets for my grown daughters family ( looking like each family member ) . Such fun.
    I do hope your dollies reach their new home in time for Christmas, fingers crossed!
    Joyce from Sudbury.

  2. Seamsoddlouise

    I had the plastic dolls you describe at the beginning too.My favourite was a Swiss doll that had a little wooden yokes around her neck and two small milk pails hanging from it! In terms of ethnic dolls my Mum still has her only baby doll from being a child in the 50s, and its a small new-born black baby called *Louise* and she is totally beautiful. Mum says she was taken to the shop to choose a dolly and this one she desired most. It surprised me to be honest as I had thought there would have been less ethnically diverse toys in that era.

  3. thedementedfairy

    They’re lovely [although I found some of the earlier images in the post decidedly creepy!] I definitely do not have the patience to make such beautifully detailed creations.

    NB ‘Oriental’ is now considered non PC as it’s Eurocentric…just sayin’ lol

  4. Sue

    My parents used to bring me dolls from around the world and I think there are still a few packed away. This post brought back lots of memories of my own dolls, some of which fitted the diversity category, even back in the 1950s (I had a black baby doll, a white baby doll and an Asian baby doll, as well as a blonde haired, blue-eyed little girl doll called “Rosebud”). I am desperate for a grandchild so that I can explore the doll genre more fully as I adore dolls. My sons wouldn’t look at them at all, although teddies were acceptable to them, so I hope my grandchildren are more doll-centric! Your dolls look wonderful and it must be nice to have them at work where they can be enjoyed by a wider audience.

  5. Catherine

    Like you, I was given a doll in national costume whenever a relative returned from a foreign trip. I remember I had dolls from Finland and Spain, and an American Indian one too. We lived in Edinburgh when I was a child, and I also had my fair share of dolls in kilts, usually toting bagpipes. I loved them so much, I remember coveting a very popular and expensive range which featured Henry VIII and his wives, the emphasis being on the sumptuousness of their outfits. I imagine now that my parents easily recognised them as being for an adult collectors market, though, as I never received one.

    Your soft dollies are delightful, and very creative – they elicit a powerful affective response. That seems to me to be different from other connotations of dolls in general, explored in the late 19 century by quite a few writers, and implicit in the ballet, Coppelia. They can be quite spooky!

  6. Sarah

    My sister made a doll for each of her friends/sisters when we met up recently. We loved them.

    Interestingly, without giving it much thought we all gave them the sort of names we would have given our dolls when we were children. My doll is Susan (the most common girl’s name when I was a child in the 50s). My (other) sister called hers Wendy.

    I can’t add a picture here so I’ll put one on Twitter.

  7. Annieloveslinen

    Your dolls are lovely, I used to collect dolls from far away places too when I was little. My youngest daughter also chose an ethnic baby doll she called Lindsey, I think she’s in the loft now. I made a darling little Waldorf doll for my great niece but tbh I don’t think little girls play much with dolls today although I could be wrong about this.

  8. ceci

    I sometimes got travelers’ gifts just like that – my mother was very scornful of them because the clothes were glued together/on (and thus not sewed, she did beautiful garment sewing) and I remember trying to disguise how much I loved them. I remember one from the Netherlands with a stiff white cap and wooden shoes, and from Korea with a beautiful dark long dress……and Japan. No idea what happened to them! I am resisting checking e-bay, my current goal is less stuff not more.

    Your new sewing space sounds very close to realization!


  9. Stephanie

    Kate, Is there anything you don’t do?? (I second Demented Fairy that “oriental” is not considered OK these days. I may be wrong but I think simply “Asian” is preferred.) I think these kinds of dolls are beautiful. I only had one or two when I was a little girl, but I remember being taken to the Canadian National Exhibition and my mom saying that I could pick out one doll. I picked out a Ukrainian one as I loved the national dress. I still have it. Otherwise, I never liked actual play dolls and the Barbies that a neighbour girl passed over to me were overlooked in favour of my brothers’ trucks.

  10. Giorgia

    Not a doll fan either I’m afraid. Apart from barbies, I was never really interested in the “doll” as a toy. Whereas many children play happily inventing stories animated through their dolls/soldiers/dinosaurs… my imagination has always been 2D based. I would either write or tell stories or I would draw them. I was always bending over a desk and my favourite, favourite toys were crayons and paints. I had a huge bucket full of all sorts of coloring tools a child can dream of and it was the one recreational thing my mom could never put away because it was always, always in use.

    This said I love folklore (in its etymologic sense of folk-lore) and folk/local clothing has always fascinated me. Despite my coolness towards dolls I can definitely see the point of making these! The min-turban is particularly adorable.

  11. kareb

    Kate, your Scottish piper looks like a deer caught in headlights if you don’t mind my mentioning it. Don’t give that one to a child please. I love the dolls you brought home. The hardest part must be getting the fabric with a pattern appropriate to the size of the doll. I make Barbie doll clothes for my great nieces and have to find fabrics with tiny patterns so the clothes don’t look “off”.. Things are not always obvious.

    • fabrickated

      The piper is scary, isn’t he!! I agree about the scale of the patterns. We all need to wear the right scale for us. Victoria Beckham makes herself look extra small (doll like, even) by using enormous handbags. As a slim/medium build person I keep my prints medium sized. Ditsy prints look terrible on large women, but sweet on petit ladies. Whereas those Marimekko prints are perfect on someone with a large frame.

      My father was in the textile trade, and he told me (not sure I believe it) that the fabric required for a popular Barbie outfit despite being relatively tiny, were some of the longest runs ever ordered.

  12. Anne

    I love the dolls you made. Such talent! I was never really a doll person, though I did make a rag doll with my daughters when they were much younger (we still have that). My mother made my baby doll (must have been near baby sized, with a china head) clothes to match mine but didn’t do the knickers and my school teacher when I was 5 made a pair out of a hanky as we were in some kind of show with our dolls. That doll had an accident that same day due to my mishandling it; it flew out of my hands and its head broke. The dolls hospital had closed and my father repaired it but then it always needed a knitted hat to cover the scars. I’d love the doll now but it is long gone.






  14. Alli

    hehe, I love that you made underwear for your two dolls! At first, I found the undermold of their faces a little creepy, but that’s just because I find semi-realistic dolls creepy in general. In any case, you painted their features on beautifully!

    Through my life, I’ve been slightly irked when I see “Japanese” dolls and movie characters wearing cheongsams, and the same for “Chinese” dolls and movie characters wearing kimono. In those cases, I figured the creators either didn’t know they were mixing up cultures, or didn’t really care and maybe expected their audience to not know or care either. This time, it was funny because you weren’t even confused — you straight up told us that you were putting a Chinese dress on your Japanese doll. :D:D Of course, they’re your dolls for your private use, so you can call them whatever you want. 😉

    I do like your other doll’s butterfly dress!

    • fabrickated

      One of the funniest experiences of my life was being with my son and his friend Ben in Ghana. Although they looked nothing like each other many of the local people got them mixed up all the time as they thought all white boys looked identical. A good lesson for me. Also we have mixed up Chinese and Japanese clothes for hundreds of years here – the Kimono sleeve is actually the Chinese cut sleeve and nothing to do with the Japanese Kimono.

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