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
Rapunzel has come to pay me a visit. She is traveling from one person to another, and she would like a set of ears & a bath. It is an odd thing to see her. When I made her a year and a half ago, I was in love & all I saw was her perfection. Now, when I opened her package, the first thing I noticed was how my work has changed— the subtle differences in the shape of the mouth, the nose, the placement of the line for the eyes. At first, I saw the differences as imperfections. My daughter picked her up and said, “She looks funny.” And then she said, “I love her, anyhow.”
But the next day, when Iris woke, she said, “Rapunzel looks different today. She’s beautiful!” & I thought it was wonderful, how love works, how something can be not so beautiful, or not as we expected, but when we love it, it becomes beautiful!
When I made Rapunzel, I made her with brown skin and dark wild curls because we are raised to think that is maybe not your typical faerie tale princess.
But let us look beyond these superficial descriptions of European girls: Rapunzel is nearly every teen. Ugh, that awkward age when we deny that our parents are our parents— No! I was abducted by some sorceress when I was just a babe! And maybe she was fine for a while but now it is— This woman does not let me do anything! Rapunzel is every teen with too many pimples or hair that cannot be subdued or too much fat here and too much skinny there or too dark or too pale— or maybe she is stunningly beautiful. But she is a teenager, and therein lies the problem.
The child is lost in daydream. The mother tries to keep her child safe. Somehow, the outside world breaks in. The child is cast out. Or the child casts herself out. She stumbles, lost. She looses her love. She is alone. Suddenly she is an adult, piecing her life together, making sense of all that has happened to her. And in growing up, she makes the world her kingdom.
This is Rapunzel. This is every one of us. And this is my Rapunzel, perfect in her imperfection, making her own way in the world. And before I send her off once more into the world, I say— Be wise, my love. The world is a ferocious place, and you are my only Rapunzel.
One time, when she was six, she found a key while playing cave-explorer under her mother’s bed. It was a regular silvery-colored key. It looked like it might open the door to someone’s house. Instead of leaving it under the bed or giving it to her mother, she slipped it in her pocket. On her way out of the bedroom, she tested it on the door. It didn’t fit.
Sometime later, she strung it on a shoelace. She wore they key as a necklace, hidden under her shirt. It started out innocently enough, the testing of doors. She just wanted to see if the key fit. She started with all the doors in the apartment building, and the locked front door to the building itself. If no one was looking, she’d test a keyhole on a shop door. Then she started with cars, even though it didn’t really look like a car key, and mail-boxes, tho it didn’t look like a mail-box key at all, until the time came when she couldn’t walk by a lock without trying to poke the key in. If she could do it secretly.
When she was ten, her mother took her to stay in an inn that had once been a house on the underground railroad. And it was here, walking down the hall, she noticed a key hole. There wasn’t a handle, just a key hole, so she would have to put in the key and turn it then open the door by pulling on the key like with the mailboxes by the entry to the apartment. That is, if the key fit. Which, of course, it wouldn’t.
But it did.
The door swung inward. Pink walked in and, without thinking, she shut the door behind her. She was in a small, dark space. There was a slit of light to her right, down at floor level, as if coming from under another door. There was no sign of the door behind her. Without moving her feet, Pink leaned as far as she could, hoping to find a wall, but there was none, so she dropped to her knees and crawled slowly toward the thin strip of light.
It felt like a door. Eventually she found a knob, a few feet up the wall where a knob should be. The knob turned easily. The room she entered was decidedly not in the same house as the room from which she had just come.
A girl not too much bigger than her, dressed in a fancy-dress costume with some kind of hat, stood gazing out a tall window. And the window, instead of cars on the street and people walking and houses all around, was grass. Lots of grass. As far as she could see, there was grass. And then, at the edge of it, trees. Pink had never seen such a lot of grass and trees in her life. Without thinking, she walked closer.
The girl at the window must have heard something. She turned toward Pink, dropped what she was holding, and almost screamed. But did not. She covered her open mouth with her hand.
Then the girl spoke. “What on earth are you wearing?” she said. Pink looked down. Jeans, sneakers, t-shirt. It seemed like such a dumb question, she couldn’t think of how to answer it. Then, “Are you a boy or a girl?” said the girl, crossing her arms.
Where is this place, through the door in the hall of what was once a stop on the underground railroad?
How did the key get under Pink’s mother’s bed?
Who is the girl in fancy dress costume by the window?
What kind of magic is here?
Which girl is a princess in this princess story?
Why didn’t Pink’s mom ever talk about the girls father?
When on earth will you ever find out???
Maybe in fifteen or twenty years, when my children are big and I am old. I dream there will be time to pull the tall tales from my head’s netherworld from out my finger tips— to type them on a keyboard— that they may some day fall upon a page.
In 1994, my older sister brought a large yak hair sweater home from Nepal. My mother estimates it weighed at least five pounds. It was so large, the only person it could possibly fit was my older brother, who is over six feet tall. Unfortunately, it had a rather strange smell to it, and it was harsh in a manner unfit to be worn.
My mother washed the sweater. After the first wash, the water was brown. It reeked of animal poo and floated with bits of plant material. The second wash was little different. But after five or six washes, the water came clean and the sweater was significantly lighter in weight. It still was nothing that anyone would have worn, so Mom decided to unravel the knitting to save the yarn. As it was a fair isle knit of three entwined colors, this was not so simple as having a song bird fly off with an end of yarn in its beak and having the whole thing come unraveled. In other words, it took a long time.
The end result of at least 10 hours of labor was four large cakes of yak-hair yarn of three different natural colors: dark brown, brown-grey, and natural white. It is a hand-spun yarn of variable width from fine to bulky. The yarn is not the luxury yak down, finer-than-cashmere stuff that is found on the internet when searching for yak yarn. It is a coarse yarn that incorporates any hair that might have come off a yak along with very fine bits of plant material that were tightly spun into the fibers.
What I love about the yarn is that it crochets into an amazingly realistic curly wig. Thus far, I have only used the dark brown. When I eventually dye the white, I hope I manage to do so in a way that does not mute the subtle variations of the natural fiber.
Because I fear I will eventually run out of this yarn, I looked to see if I can find similar yarn for sale on line. I haven’t. The only similar yarn I found was for sale on Etsy for about $16 for 50 grams, plus shipping from China. It is only 50% yak hair, does not contain all the subtle variations in color, and does not appear to have the same hairy appearance. So if anyone knows an exporter of similar hand-spun, thick-thin yak hair yarn, let me know!
The question was raised— and is raised often— as to why Waldorf dolls cost so much.
I sell my simple dolls for $85 & up. They are on the less expensive side. My goal as a doll-maker has been beautiful simplicity in the name of affordability, without sacrificing quality of materials or durability.
My dolls are made of heavy-weight cotton tricot skin, minimally processed, humanely-raised wool stuffing, and various natural-fiber yarns that are often hand-dyed by me. I use high quality thread, have a high-end sewing machine made for heavy use, and go through quite a number of needles, both hand and machine. When I sew the dolls, I use a stretchy-stitch that uses quite a bit of thread, because I want to be sure that children playing tug-of-war will not pop a seam. I hand-sew three times around the attachment at the head and at the shoulders with doubled, waxed thread, using tiny, invisible stitches that go deep into the body. The hair, too, is stitched deep into the head, so as it cannot be easily pulled out. Hair alone can take 4 hours or more. In order to save money, I try to source the most economical of high-quality materials. I purchase them in bulk.
Rolling a happy, round head with big cheeks takes experience, as does producing a consistent expression. For a more seamless look, I stuff the body through a tiny opening with 8” forceps.
As for clothing— my dresses are fully reversible and have no raw seams showing. To ease the user’s frustration, all clothing can be worn frontwards and backwards because there is no front and back. And all of the clothing and the dolls are my own design.
When I make a custom doll, do I like to spend time talking to my customers to insure that they are getting what they want. If I am making a doll to look like their child, I like to know what their child looks like. I hold this child in mind. And with each simple mouth I embroider, I smile, for I want the doll to be happy. Happiness grows happiness.
When I am done creating the doll, I photograph it. As a good photograph sells better than a shoddy one, I take some time. Then there is the dull, behind-the-scenes stuff: marketing, searching for customers, listings fees, PayPal fees, accounting, website maintenance, and so on. When a doll sells, I pack it lovingly for its trip to forever-home— I attach it’s little numbered tag on a gold band, write a hand-written note, include a blush kit, and tuck it in a bed of colored paper. I want my simple brown boxes to be a joy to open. I estimate, with everything included, each doll probably takes 16 hours.
But honestly, it is quite difficult to keep track of time. I spend plenty of extra time starting and stopping, and this I can’t really account for, for I work on my dolls with one small child running around and one 6-month-old baby to care for.
I hope people wonder, by now, why a doll costs only $85 in stead of wondering why the dolls cost so much. There are plenty of artists whose dolls cost much, much more than mine. And these doll-makers are just that: artists. Their dolls are objects of beauty. The highest-end dolls are generally collected by adults, not played with by children. The maker might make one doll per month. I do not believe there is a single doll maker who is over-charging customers. Most do not make a livable wage. A few make a living.
If one needs to have a less expensive doll, it is a wonderful experience to make one from scratch or from a kit. There is a lot of information on line on how to do so, and there are a number of good books out there. There are also used dolls, cheaply-made dolls, plastic dolls, and factory-made cloth dolls. So many options! How we make our choices depends on our value system and our pocketbook.
I make dolls with love. I make dolls for loving. I make dolls to last. For those who can only afford to look at them in photograph, I hope they bring a smile. These little dolls are smiling for you.
I’ve been making a lot of patterns lately, but this is the first time I’m writing a set of instructions for others to use. This is about as simple as a pattern and a set of instructions can get. Click on the link above to download the pattern.
I am giving two options for making this diaper:
1) one layer of fleece or felt
2) two layers of fabric sewn together
If you are making your diaper of quilting fabric or another fabric that frays at the edges, cut two different fabrics using the solid line as a guide.
Pin the fabrics right sides together.
Sew from point A to point B, leaving open the 2” space indicated.
Clip the curves and the corners.
Turn right side out Use a chopstick to get the corners nice and square.
Iron. Topstitch the opening closed very close to the edge, then topstitch around the entire edge of the diaper, ¼ inch from the edge.
Sew the fuzzy part and the prickly part of the hook & loop closure on the diaper as indicated.
Be sure to attach the hooks and the loops on opposite sides of the fabric, or your diaper will not be functional.
For my very first blog post, I would like to describe to you the process I used in attempt to make curly hair from yarn. Unfortunately, the "blog editor" software on my website builder is currently having a glitch that will not let me upload photos. To make this post more interesting, I am requiring you to use your imagination both in picturing the photographs I took and reading about my process. More to come later...