Maria, Hen Empress of all the Russias

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If you have been following my blog for a bit, you will know that every New Year’s Day I make a doll which either says something about the past year, or about the one coming up.  My rule is that it has to be completed from scratch in one day.  This year I knew that I wanted to do some work on Easter eggs, and Fabergé Easter eggs in particular, and so I decided to start work on that by making a Fabergé hen.  After all, you do need chickens to make eggs, the old – which came first, the chicken or the egg conundrum notwithstanding.

I started off by adapting a pattern from one of the Tilda craft books:

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I was rather pleased about this as these books are a regular impulse buy and I never actually use them.  The pattern had to be adapted as the chicken had bloomers on:

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I don’t really think that a Fabergé chicken would show her underwear, so I had to cut those out immediately.  I decided to make mine in felt for some reason which now escapes me, so I made the wings and stitched them on:

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I used a ready made motif from Aarti J and sequins from a bumper pack bought at Paperchase.  Paperchase and Tiger are a really good source of cheap sequins, but they do come in variety packs so you can’t be choosy.  Then I started to encrust the body with beads.  This is where the plan went awry.  It takes a while to encrust a felt chicken with jewels:

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So I broke my one day rule.  This seemed a reasonable sacrifice given what I wanted to achieve.  You can see that I used another Aarti J motif for the eyes.

The second snag came when I got round to the crown.  Because I have spent over thirty years in the educational company of a medieval historian I know that because she is an empress she needs an imperial crown, which is a closed crown.  A crown would be easy to make:

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A nice strip of gold fabric with some points joined into a ring.  But an imperial crown needs a bit more thought:

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Much fancier.  In the end, despite a lot of internet searching which resulted in instructions for making tiaras for Barbie on YouTube, I resorted to that old favourite: the pipe cleaner.  I pushed it through some gold tube knitting yarn that I bought at a knockdown price in Homescene, and cobbled it together with some very plastic-y bead braid and a button which had lost its shank which was lurking in my collection.  I have no idea where this bead came from, no recollection of buying it nor of my mother’s giving it to me:

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The beak is two separate quarters of giant sequins from a garland I bought in Habitat’s closing down sale stuck onto the felt underneath and the wattle is from the same garland but sewn on.  I am adding these provenance details because people often ask where I get my beads.  The large pearl beads come from a five pound bargain bag from Hobbycraft.

The whole crown affair is rather wobbly and what my native dialect would describe as makkled together, but it represents the outer reaches of my chicken jewellery-making skills.

I am quite happy with the finished article:

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Of course, Fabergé would have hated it.  It is cobbled together and it is too irregular for him.  He loved very fine craft skills and a neo-classical style, so this would have appalled him in its cheap materials and cobbled together making.  On the other hand, he loved novelties and small animal knick-knacks, so he might have given a half-smile.

Finally, she is called Maria because this was the name of the first Romanov empress for whom Fabergé made an Easter egg.

More on the Fabergé egg project later.

Cossacks for Christmas

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I can’t imagine that many of you  are interested in my Christmas decorations, but just in case you are, here we go.  This year they are minimalist to say the least.  I have had a lot going on and putting up trimmings seemed way down the list of priorities.  But I did get round to making and putting up these gentlemen.  They are dancing cossacks.  I would like to tell you that they are my design, but they came from a book called Homemade Christmas, (which is very cheap on Amazon):

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It doesn’t seem to have an author, but it does have a number of surprisingly nice looking things to make.  The author, whoever it is, as no author is credited, made their cossacks out of old book covers, but I thought it would be a good way of using up gelli-printed papers that I had done myself:

 

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I rather like the way that the printed paper for his face makes him look like he is rather keen on the vodka, or doesn’t use a good enough moisturiser in all that cold weather.

I also used some painted paper:

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This one has jewelled brads or paper fasteners on his joints.  Finding paper fasteners, which are those split pin things with the round heads that you push through papers and then open out, turned out to be one of the hardest parts of the project.  I had to go to the internet to find them.  Clearly the paperless office is becoming a reality.

After I had made a couple of cossacks, it occurred to me that this might be a really good use for some notecards the Medieval Historian gave me a couple of years ago.

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So I had quite good fun fussy cutting bodies to get a good cover image on the chest:

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I also liked picking the most un-Christmas-y titles such as this:

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Nothing like a nice Ballardian dystopia to set you up the festive season.  We also have Lady Chatterley’s Lover as a nod to my home town.

Then I remembered that I had bought some Marimekko notecards as I love the graphic designs and clear colours:

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Both of these worked brilliantly which makes me thing that you could do it with any postcard:

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This one is decorated with washi tape.  This one is fussy cut:

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In the book they are strung to work as jumping jacks, but I like them just as posable figures.

In the end I made twenty-five of them and they dance around the room suspended from the picture rail.  So quite a lot of cutting, punching, sticking and stringing, but I think that they make quite a smart decoration, even for people, mentioning no names, Medieval Historian, who claim not to like Christmas.

 

 

Concerning dolls and perfection

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For my birthday, my very generous mother bought me a Mimi Kirchner doll.  I have wanted one of Kirchner’s dolls since I came across her work in a book on doll making and used it to create my Laura Ashley husband dolls.

There happened to be some for sale in Kirchner’s Etsy shop and my mother gave me the money to buy one.  They are expensive, and put customs and various handling fees on top and they become very expensive, but they really are worth it.

I chose one of her tattooed lumberjack dolls.  The minute I saw him with his tattoo of Washington on his chest, I knew that he was the man for me:

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It was the time of Obama’s visit to Britain and Nigel Farrage called him the most anglophobic president ever, which made historians all over the land call out in unison: not as anglophobic as Washington.  This made it possible to choose between the lovely dolls on Kirchner’s Etsy page.  He arrived in a big box and was wrapped up in tissue paper.  It was love at first sight.  I decided to call him Richard after Richard Armitage, a splendid-looking actor with a big beard:

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This is a great picture of him by the photographer Sarah Dunn.   I love the ‘here I am just back from the high seas’ feel of this picture.  Armitage has blue eyes and my Richard has brown eyes but otherwise they are peas from a pod.  I think Mimi loves him too as he appears on her blog with some pieces she took to a show:

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I have, and this is a bit weird, fallen in love with him.  He is so perfect.

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You can see in this photo quite clearly that he has beautifully embroidered fingers.

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In this one you can see the embroidery delineating his ears.

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This one shows the accomplished pattern matching on his flannel shirt.  Everything about him is exquisitely made.  As a doll maker myself, I know that this doll is a piece of perfection and I know how hard that is to achieve.  I love him because he is a piece of hyper-masculine protection (‘Step aside while I lift that tree trunk off your car, little lady’) but also because of his invisible construction and attention to detail.  Consider, for example, the way that his braces have the suggestion of loops in the above photograph.

Moving onto my own efforts, I mentioned in a previous post that I was following an on-line arts class with Carla Sonheim.  Part of the process is to make a series of work to develop a theme.  I was very taken with some pieces of children’s art, but at one point I thought my series would be dolls inspired by the work of Joan Eardley:

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Eardley died very young and so never really reached the attention and appreciation she deserved.  She painted magnificent seascapes, but I love her pictures of Glasgow children living in slums.

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They could be exploitative or sentimentalised, but I don’t think they are either.  I think she paints them with great gentleness, honestly but with love.  I wanted to make some dolls in the same spirit.  This is the doll that I came up with:

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I love her.  She is made from my own pattern because I wanted a pronounced nose and proper feet.  Her jumper is hand-knitted to my own pattern.  I am so happy with this because it is the first pattern that I have ever written and it absolutely fits her.  I wanted it to look a bit small so that it looked like she was growing out of it.  Her skirt is made in panels and quilted:

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Her hair is meant to look unkempt although it is made from quite upmarket double knitting wool.

I was talking about her to someone in the week who asked me what was so wonderful about her.  I thought for a bit and then said, ‘She’s perfect’.  And this is the case.  It might sound conceited, but what I meant was, she achieved exactly what I wanted to achieve.  I have enough technical skill to be able to achieve the effect I want to get.  I can make a pattern, make the neck stand up, construct her hair so that she can have a side parting, give her rosy cheeks, give her dotty eyes, knit her a sweater, design a gored skirt that fits.  This is the 10,000 hours of practice which has been so popular as an idea.  It is a delight to know how to do something like this with my hands.  Perfection here is having the repertoire of skills to express an idea.  I am largely persuaded that we come from a gene pool selected to persist because its possessors know how to make things (shelters, textiles, food and so on).  Part of being human is to make, and making well is a great delight.  This delight comes through Kirchner’s dolls.  She clearly delights in the details like the french knot buttons down Richard’s shirt and keeping those checks running far more smoothly than they would in a real lumberjack’s shirt.  I delight in making a doll which captures something of Eardley’s treatment of the tenement children, something which witnesses with warmth and generosity but does not sanitise or sentimentalise.

Trio of dolls

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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.