These dolls are made from Jess Brown‘s book, The Making of a Rag Doll. Her dolls are really ‘arty’. They look like the sort of thing Miss Haversham might have sitting next to the crumbling wedding cake. I have always really wanted one since I saw them featured in Selvedge, the arty textiles lover’s bible. They aren’t ruinously expensive, but they would be an investment rather than a little self-present. I was delighted, therefore, on a trip to my mother’s to find Brown’s book in the big branch of Waterstone’s in the middle of Nottingham.
Once I started making the dolls from the full-sized patterns in the book, I realised that these are designed to be heirloom presents for little girls and not playthings. The dolls are pretty robust, but the clothes are very distressed (Derelicte, for Zoolander fans). Because they are not finished, by which I mean no neatened seams or turned up hems, and the closures are almost all by embroidery drawstring rather than buttons, I think the average child would destroy them within weeks if they wanted to play dress up. This is not a problem for me, my dolls are for display only, but I wouldn’t make one without modification for a child.
Having said all that, I loved making the dolls. The artiness of the enterprise is reflected in things like the assumption that you know what you are doing and what you want to achieve. I really wanted to achieve the arch expression that Brown gets with the straight-stitched eyes and pursed lips, but there are only the most basic instructions for how to do this. Brown states that the face and hair for the doll is where you express your own ideas and personality and that is pretty much it. She explains that she uses strips of wool for the hair but there are no close up photos to show you how to do it – there are, however, loving semi-sepia shots of her studio and piles of vintage textiles. I used a really thick boiled wool jacket which shrank to Barbie size in the wash, and which I really loved and wore to bits. It made great hair, and I liked the suggestion of hair for once rather than using wool to create strands.
I used a brilliant tool that I was sold at the Knitting and Stitching Show to turn the arms and legs which are really spindly. You may well know what I mean by being sold something at a trade show. I have a failsafe pompom maker which is totally useless but looked fantastic and I think most sewists (a term I am trying out) have got a draw full of useless gadgets. This one, sold to me by a charming Frenchman, turns rouleau very easily and comes in three sizes for the various gauges of rouleau. I understand that you can get the same effect with a crochet hook and drinking straw.
This is a Prym brand set, but there are lots of others. Using this really made it easy and even fun to turn the limbs through as opposed to the usual frustration with a pencil or the chopstick that Brown suggests. Seven pounds well spent for once.
As usual I made a sample doll before cutting up any fabric I was particularly fond of, and I began with a remnant of furnishing weight linen with a vague chinoiserie pattern:
You can also just about see the fun I had with her braids/plaits. The other two dolls were tea-dyed white cotton. I used three Yorkshire tea bags for three hours. I really liked the mottled look it gave to the fabric, making it look vintage. All the creases came out easily when I stuffed them:
I dressed her in cast off furnishing linen, and she ended up very faded, but quite smart because hemmed and finished for the most part. The second doll was dressed entirely in Liberty Tana lawn and became a riot of colour with orange eyelash yarn which came from a lucky dip pound shop bag from out by the M32 motorway. Her flower hat is from a bag of trimmings which was part of my Christmas present from my resourceful mother. I loved her exuberant style. The final doll is dressed entirely in silk. I started with a printed silk dress which was so elegant I decided to make it a dupion silk coat and to give her a cocktail hat which is a large piece of costume jewellery. The only problem is that it is so heavy she can’t really sit up. But I loved the look with the bob hair do.
I don’t know why I love making dolls so much, although a psychiatrist would probably have a theory, but one of the reasons is that I never know who will emerge. I didn’t intend to do linen, cotton and silk, and I wasn’t expecting tasteful Liberty prints to come out quite so eccentric old lady-ish. She also has a Klimtian hair do which you can’t quite see in these pictures. Making them is quietly addictive, though, and I realised during the making that this is because I am making a kind of fashion doll rather than a toy or character doll. That makes it feel much more grown up.