At one point, when I was living in a one-room cabin (or possibly a shed) in Alaska, I asked my mother for a sewing machine. Specifically, I wanted a 1970s Elna Supermatic in a blue case. It was the machine I learned to sew on and, in my opinion, the best machine in the world. My mom can have a magic touch when it comes to garage sales, so I had no doubts that she would be able to find me one.
The hunt started out slow. I’d call her periodically, asking for progress. One day she responded, “I haven’t found a sewing machine yet—” by which of course she meant she hadn’t found THE sewing machine— “but you will never guess what I did find: a knitting machine!”
Although my mother was ecstatic, I was, to say the least, disappointed. This was the beginning of a knitting machine rabbit hole that was to last over 20 years, involving more knitting machines than she is willing to disclose. However, I wanted her to go down a sewing machine rabbit hole. I continued to push her in that direction. I did not fail in pushing: she did not fail in procuring of sewing machines.
My mother is an amazing person who can go down innumerable rabbit holes simultaneously. Whether her knowledge and volume of knitting machines is greater than her knowledge and volume of sewing machines shall never be known. However, I do feel at least partly responsible for the only collection of curious objects that has ever taken up more space in her house than her collection of fabulous vintage chairs: machines, both beautiful and purposeful, and their accessories and notions.
In case you were wondering: of course she found the perfect Elna. I took it back to Alaska carry-on after a trip home.
I made: myself some pants, my friends and myself some hats and sweaters, myself some shoe-covers, a portfolio cover, a ski bag, some bike panniers, a pair of overalls with an embroidered kangaroo pocket for a pregnant friend, a larger-than-life hobby horse for an equestrian friend, some mittens, a doll, and maybe some other things. They’re mostly gone now, so there’s a good chance I forgot some of them.
The doll I made in that tiny one-room cabin (or possibly a shed) walked out of my life soon after I made her, but she remains close to my heart. She had skin of woven cotton, dyed with coffee. Her face was embroidered with a wide smile, her teeth sparkling white. Her eyes were small from smiling so happily. I cannot say she had a visible nose. Her hair was of torn fabric, knotted then stitched to her head. Her shirt fashioned from scrap of fabric that I found somewhere. The jeans that clothed her long legs were machine embroidered with large red swirls and the word “love.” She wore leather sandals on her over-large feet. Her elbows and knees were jointed. Her hands, like her feet, like my hands, like my feet, were large. Although I never made make a pattern for her, she was, in some ways, the most perfect doll I’ve ever made.
Soon after I made her, a friend came over to chat. He was in his late 40s, single, alcoholic, and on the verge of bankruptcy. He sat on the chair. I sat on the floor. After some time he caught sight of the doll. “I like that doll,” he said. “Did Fletch make it?” Fletch was a mutual friend who liked to sew. I had not seen her in years.
“I made it,” I said, moderately annoyed.
“You made it?” he said, as if he wondered at the fact that I could even sew, let alone make something like that doll. He looked at her again. “I really like her,” he said. He looked at the doll in silence.
“Would you like her?” I offered. I knew he wasn’t asking. He wouldn’t ask for anything. He was merely admiring.
He eventually left with the doll. His glee made me giddy. He took her home to his three-room cabin where he lived alone with many dogs, fifty miles outside of town. The next time I saw him, some time later, he told me about her. He had named her. She had a friend: a little stuffed dog. They were inseparable.
Some people’s lives are troublesome. Some people’s lives are hard. People come and go. I never did see him again.
to be continued
College was difficult. It was not the classes. I was happy with the classes. I loved learning. The difficulty was somewhere in my head. I’d been bulimic since middle school & when I went off to college I simply fell apart. I did fine in my classes and would eventually graduate with honors. I excelled at sports & won plenty of awards there, too, including scholar-athlete of the year upon graduation. But something inside me was in turmoil.
I remember coming home over the breaks and sitting in front of my mother’s sewing machine. It was her only sewing machine: the one she bought when she got married: a beautiful white Elna in a bomb-proof blue case. I made a couple of jointed, felt-bodied dolls. I dyed the yarn for their hair, made them beaded necklaces and sewed them cute little outfits from the huge selection of fabrics at my mothers house. I made a clown doll with floppy limbs, a belled hat and a popcorn-kernel weighted butt. My mother adored the details. I never have liked clowns.
I made a series of three classic jointed teddy bears. Their bodies were cut from fine woolen skirts and slacks. For stuffing, I meticulously cut old woolen socks and fabric scraps into tiny pieces with pinking shears. The bears were solid. I remember making the grey bear over the summer when I’d come home. I had convinced my mom to have a garage sale to clear some stuff out of the basement. I remember sitting outside in the sun on a chair sewing the bear’s head on in tiny stitches. Each stitch was the entire world. In that moment, I was at peace.
The clown— possibly my least favorite doll I’ve ever made— went into the eating disorders unit of the recovery center with me for five weeks. I don’t like clowns. While I was there, my boyfriend visited me a few times. After I left I made him a doll. I had forgotten about it until relatively recently when, over 20 years later, he reminded me of her and sent a blurry photo. I remember now. I loved him.
And then I left. After graduating from college I bought a round-trip ticket to visit my older sister in Arizona. I never did use that second half. I left all the stuffed animals and bears and the dolls I’d sewn sitting in my old bedroom at home. I left them amongst the dollhouses and dollhouse dolls, amongst the barbies and Madam Alexandre dolls and folk-art dolls from around the world that lined the walls of the room and amongst the boxes of eternally happy Playmobil dolls that stuffed the closet. I left the antique composition doll, the mid-century fashion dolls, the dolls from Mexico and the tiny puppets from Germany. I left the dolls that had arrived from all over South America, the dolls from Africa and Japan, and the art dolls from the US. I left the corn-husk doll I’d made in 5th grade. I left the 1965 Girl Scouts of America doll. I left the doll from Peru who, like Penelope waiting for Ulysses, sat at her loom. I left the multitude of dolls I can’t remember. I left them all sitting there to keep my mother company and to clutter up her house.
I guess I was a little girl at one point and eventually I wasn’t a little girl anymore, but no one told me when one ended and the other began. I had no idea what I was supposed to do next.
to be continued
I started making Waldorf-style dolls four years ago. I enamored with the style of doll— soft, cuddly, simple, personable. I realized it was what I would have always wanted in a doll, as a young child. Instead I had plastic, “realistic” baby dolls with sleepy-eyes (or, blinky eyes, as I called them) and rooted hair, stiff jointed limbs and molded fingers. The dolls were so stiff that the dolls’ clothing was hard to change. Later, I moved on to a doll named Velvet (Chrissie’s little sister, circa 1970 Ideal®), an 18-inch fashion doll with adjustable hair and a wardrobe of clothing. My younger sister didn’t have a comparable doll, however, so playing with Velvet required playing alone. Finally, after Velvet came the inevitable Barbie. Or, in my case, Francie.
I liked Francie. She had rooted hair, rooted eyelashes and a disfigured hand, acquired from a burn incident that happened before I knew her. She had a 1963 Susy Goose wardrobe full of gowns sewn from fine knitted fabrics with tiny button closures. The closet had a shoe rack for her collection of heels and a small set of drawers for her sunglasses, panties and other miniscule accessories. It had a mirror above the shoe rack. On the top, it had a center finial flanked by two curved pediments— similar to my four-poster bed. My younger sister had a Tammy doll and a Pepper doll who kept their clothing in a basket. Later she had a Barbie that we named Jane. And not too long after we were done spending our allowance money on My Little Ponies (from the 1980s), we spent it on a plethora of Barbies. I liked their size and their clothes. Why on earth did I feel I needed so many?
I stopped playing with Barbies at an embarrassingly late age. But I wasn’t losing anything. By then, I had begun to design my own dolls. It started innocently enough with a 1:12 scale dollhouse and dollhouse furniture and some porcelain-faced dolls to dress. When the dollhouse design, the room design, and the furniture construction was complete— or, as complete as I was going to complete it— it was the dolls that stuck with me.
After dressing two sets of porcelain-faced dolls, I designed my first set of dollhouse dolls. Their bodies were made of twisted 18-gauge copper wire, their heads of polymer clay. Their over-sized polymer clay feet were embedded with steel washers to help them stand, unaided. After cooking the dolls, I wrapped and padded their limbs, did their hair, and dressed them in permanent clothing. I never did paint the faces.
For my second set of dollhouse dolls, I again used 18-gauge copper wire, but I decided to bypass the polymer clay. I padded their bodies & sewed their skin of flesh-toned felt. Their heads were felt-covered wood beads. Their hair was embroidery floss. Their faces were blank. And the dolls’ clothing was changeable. Teeny tiny jogging suits and dresses slipped on and off their wire-limbed, footless bodies. Of course, I could bend their wire up for feet.
And then I went off to college and left the father sitting there in his green lounge chair reading the newspaper by a cozy fire under the stairs in the inglenook. I never returned.
to be continued