The first rule of cloth doll making is: BREAK THE RULES!
Nobody said the skin fabric has to be pink. Or muslin. Or brown. Or whatever.
Your doll’s skin can be purple. Or green. Or paisley. Or white lace over silver lame that you’ve fused to muslin.
Nobody said that your dolls’ legs and arms and faces all have to be made with the same fabric.
If your art doll is for show more than for actually playing with, the skin can be something other than fabric. Like twisty paper. Or layers of raffia that you’ve fused to muslin so the “skin” holds together and the muslin doesn’t show. Or a paper grocery bag. Or autumn leaves. Or even dollar bills, fused to muslin to make a big enough piece of “fabric.”
Nobody said her (or his) clothing has to be tasteful, or stereotypically shocking with black lace and a boa, either.
Of course, sometimes you MUST make a good trashy doll, just for the sake of having her around. Or an Elvis impersonator doll, for the male counterpart. (Or, in my case, Voodoo doll Barbie.)
Nobody said that your doll has to wear clothing made of fabric, either. Feathers might work. Or foil. Or maybe you’ll melt some 3.5″ computer disks (ventilate very well if you heat them) and give her a high-tech breastplate.
When you’re making a cloth or mixed media doll, you have many, many options.
Don’t be limited by rules in your head. And don’t be limited by rules from famous dollmakers or even your teacher.
Cloth doll goddess Elinor Peace Bailey once made an amazingly insipid doll, just to break her own anti-rules.
The point is, when you plan your doll, think big. Think original. Break the rules. Be outrageous.
Not sure how to choose the right cloth doll stuffing?
Here’s the punch line: Buy the best doll stuffing (ex: fiberfill, polyfill, batting, cotton wool) that you can afford.
The cheap stuff may look the same in the bag. It may even feel the same if you squeeze it.
You may think, “I’ll bet this is a no-name brand made by the expensive brand, and it’s really the same stuff (so to speak), for half the price.”
You’d be wrong.
In terms of lumps in your doll (or your teddy bear), and how the batting holds up over time, there is only one way to go: Buy the best doll stuffing you can afford. You won’t regret it.
I like Fairfield and Mountain Mist stuffing and batting for my own dolls. I buy their top-of-the-line products, and I’m always pleased with the results.
Right now, I lean towards Fairfield for doll stuffing, but that’s a matter of personal taste. See what’s available in your local shops. As long as you’re buying a very good brand, and avoid their “bargain stuffing” (if they have one), try different kinds and see which suits your dollmaking style.
While we’re talking about cloth doll stuffing, remember to stuff your art dolls so the filling is tightly wedged into the doll. If it’s too loose, the doll will look lumpy after she’s been picked up, hugged, and otherwise played with for a few months.
Doll stuffing tools
For the best results, collect a variety of doll stuffing tools. One great tool is called a Stuff-It. It used to be sold by Dritz, but it’s hard to find now. It can be used to stuff teensy fingers, as well as turn nice corners.
If you can’t find that — and if you’re stuffing lots of tiny corners, fingers, etc. — you’ll fall in love with the Clover Stuffing Tool. It’s not as generally practical as the Dritz Stuff-It tool, but for detailed stuffing, you’ll want to own the Clover tool. It’s also ideal for turning itsy-bitsy cloth fingers.
Your dollmaking kit will also include a chopstick or two. The lacquered kind with the fine point on one end and a round or square end on the other, is amazingly handy. You may want to sand the lacquer with very fine sandpaper, so the lacquer doesn’t slip through the stuffing too easily.
If you do a lot of dollmaking, go to any arts & crafts store and select a few plastic tools intended for shaping clay. You’ll be amazed at how handy they are, for turning and stuffing dolls. I bought this set and I’ve used them for all kinds of arts & crafts projects… none of which involved clay.
The idea is to have tools that are pointy, but not too pointy for the job. If you try to use a pencil point, it invariably slips through the stuffing, leaving a lead-black mark that shows through the fabric. Ick. Getting pencil marks off fabric… well, it’s not easy.
Likewise, trying to stuff with scissors results in unexpected holes when the scissors slip, despite your best intentions and efforts at control. (Yes, I cried when it happened.)
How much doll stuffing to buy
Buy great doll stuffing. You’ll need at least two or three times as much as you think, looking at the bag. It will compress to about one-quarter its original size. Or more.
I usually buy a one-pound bag for a normal, happy teddy bear. That same bag will fill at least half a dozen sock dolls, and several medium-sized dolls.
Never, never, NEVER buy cheap doll stuffing. It’s not worth it.
Even from the start, the doll just won’t look quite “right.” I don’t know why, as the stuffing’s weaknesses usually doesn’t show up right away. But I learned quickly; cloth dolls (and teddy bears, and other stuffed figures) don’t look as good if the doll stuffing isn’t top quality.
If you have to cut corners, select a budget fabric rather than purchase cheap stuffing. (See my article about preshrinking fabric for fabric advice.)
Buy the best cloth doll stuffing, and your dolls will thank you for it.
Should you preshrink fabrics (or prewash them) before making a cloth doll?
Yes… and no. It depends upon what’s important to you.
Why not to prewash or preshrink fabrics
Fabrics, especially cottons, never look quite so “fresh” after prewashing.
The sizing* and surface finish wash off, so the fabric doesn’t look as smooth. In most cases, you’ll never wash the doll in a machine anyway. Why worry about shrinkage?
Also, not preshrinking fabric saves you considerable time since you won’t be ironing it.
You can rush home with your new fabrics, and head straight to the cutting table. That’s ideal if you have amazingly creative visions in your head, and you can’t wait to turn them into a doll or two or three!
Dolls seem to turn out best when the full energy of your brilliant concept is right there, fresh in your mind.
Pausing to do anything mundane, such as washing & drying, can be lethal to that fresh & vital energy.
In other words: You don’t have time to preshrink fabrics. Just get to work and create that doll!
Yes, the fresh-from-the-store surface treatment may repel inks and paints when you’re adding details (such as the face). That’s easy to fix. Add a couple of drops of a surfactant** to your painting water, to break down the resistance. Prewashing is not necessary.
Why you should prewash or preshrink fabrics
When fabrics have been treated with sizing and a surface finish, they often won’t accept paint, pen, and/or felt marker designs as well. If you’re adding a lot of artwork to the surface of your doll, that’s a problem solved by prewashing.
If the doll has an accident — like when something spills on her — you can wash her (carefully, of course) without worrying about the results. Prewashed fabrics have already shrunk, bled, puckered, and softened as much as they’re likely to.
If you always preshrink fabrics as soon as you bring them home, you can confidently use the same fabric in your wearable art and know that the finished garment can be tossed into the washing machine.
How I preshrink fabrics
First, I trim any loose threads off the fabric. They’re going to fray in the laundry. Sometimes, those loose thread can wrap the fabric into a tight, wrinkled ball by the time the drying is completed.
If it’s a small and expensive piece of fabric, I may fray-check the cut edges to prevent further unravelling and fraying.
Dritz makes a product, “Fray Check,” for this, and other manufacturers have similar products. It’s a lifesaver, in my opinion.
Before prewashing, I refold the fabric so it is not folded along the same line as it was on the bolt.
If you don’t do that, the original fold line will promptly wear and fade, even in the first washing. You’ll have to cut around that part of the fabric.
I always wash the fabric by itself, or in the laundry with dark items that will not bleed.
(“Bleeding” colors mean colors that aren’t permanently dyed. Some of the color will wash out during the first washing, and sometimes during successive laundering. )
For example, my kitchen dishtowels don’t show stains, so they can be washed when I preshrink fabrics. If I’m not concerned about mixing fabric weights in the laundry, I often wash older blue jeans with my new fabrics, too.
Three things can happen when you preshrink fabrics:
First, there’s the effect of water on the fabric.
Some fabrics pucker, wrinkle, and go limp in water.
The puckering and wrinkling can be steamed out when you iron. The limpness is resolved with a spray sizing or starch, usually added when you iron.
However, if you’re going to paint or draw on the fabric, it’s best to apply the sizing or starch after you paint or draw, so the pigment is well absorbed.
Next, consider the effect of soap and water on the fabric.
The colors may run as you preshrink fabrics. The texture of the fabric may change, too.
Almost anything can happen, particularly if you’ve bought a cotton by an unknown manufacturer, or a mixed-fiber fabric from the markdown bin.
I use cold water the first time I wash a fabric. Some people also add a small amount of vinegar or salt to the water, to set the colors. Or you can use one of those disposable towels that absorb excess (“bleeding”) colors in the washing machine.
Sometimes, texture changes can be remedied with plenty of steam ironing and starch or sizing.
However, some fabrics will never look the same as when they were new, which is why some dollmakers prefer not to prewash.
Finally, there’s the effect of dryer heat. I use the hottest dryer setting and dry the fabric for over an hour, usually tossing in other loads of laundry rather than wasting dryer heat on just one piece of fabric.
(Exposure to dryer heat can be the most important step when you preshrink fabrics.)
In my experience, shrinkage is not eliminated until the fabric has been through two to three hours of dryer heat.
If you love the fabric just as you bought it, and you don’t plan to wash your cloth doll, ever, there’s no reason to preshrink fabrics.
However, if your doll may be exposed to wear & tear, and stains or dirt are possible, preshrinking can reduce worries.
Fabrics can change color, size and texture in the laundry and dryer. In some cases, you can restore the texture. Faded colors and shrinkage usually cannot be reversed.
I preshrink almost all of my fabrics before using them in dolls, but there are exceptions when the doll will be displayed, not worn (as a pin doll) or played with.
* Sizing: Similar to starch, sizing is a fabric treatment that makes the fibers stiffer, crisper, and “fresher” looking. Sizing washes out in the laundry, but you can replace it in the rinse cycle, or with spray-on sizing when you iron.
** Surfactant: A product which breaks the surface tension of water, and helps “cut through” the protective layers sometimes applied to stain-resistant (and other) fabrics.
I use a Shaklee product called Basic H, and place two or three drops in a pint of water when I’m using watercolors on a doll, if the paint beads too much. But, you can do the same thing with a drop of dishwashing liquid. (That is, liquid soap intended for washing dishes by hand.)
Consider every reason to preshrink fabrics (or not to) before deciding.
This is the second page of a two-part interview with British dollmaker Ambermoggie.
Q. If you were stranded on a deserted island and could take just a few supplies with you, what would you need to make dolls?
A. If I were stranded on an island the items I’d need would be wool, wire, a needle and cotton and paint. I could make my own felt and the wool would also make the dolls hair. With paint I could make any colour and by thinning it down dye the fibres. I’d hate to not have a doll in progress… it doesn’t feel right.
Q. What’s your best advice for someone who’s just beginning as a dollmaker?
A. For anyone starting out I would say: Just play and let your mind lead you to your kind of doll. There are no right and wrong ways to make dolls; there are only people’s interpretation of the ideas within. I’d just go for it.
If after that you want to take classes that’s good, but don’t feel that is the only way to learn. It isn’t. I’ve never been able to take any classes in any of the arts I do but it doesn’t stop me having a go.
Q. Do you have a special way of displaying dolls that you keep, or your own collection of dolls?
A. I display my dolls that I keep on a fairy tree .It has tiny christmas lights on and the dolls. These change quite often as I tend to give most of them away.
For me the joy is in making them and then the pleasure people get from receiving them, They seem to bring something to people and that for me is the best reason to make them.
The ones that I most remember from selling were made for auctions to raise money for 9/11. People gave most generously and I received some lovely emails saying how they loved the dolls. I like the idea that my dolls are in many private collections around the world for one reason – they are loved. Not bad for someone who, up to a few years ago, was too scared to make anything.
Q. Do all of your dolls have names when you make them? If so, does the name “come to you” or do you think it up deliberately?
A. I don’t name them usually if they are going to other people; I leave that to them. I just think of them as a representation of the element they embody . I have named some of the figures that I’ve kept, from characters in books.
For example, I have one with feathers and gems who is my idea of Margaret Pye (Magpie) in the Charles de Lint Some Place to Be Flying. His work has influenced me the most. I see characters I want to make in all his books. Charles and Maryann have quite a collection of my figures and also commisioned one for a friend of theirs several years ago.
Q. Your art is always breathtakingly beautiful. Where do you plan to go with your dolls and figures in the future?
A. I look now at the first doll I made. She is sitting on my desk as we speak with her brush in hand, ready to create. The ones I make today resemble her but yet are different and that is what I’d like to continue doing: Moving ever on in different directions from this beginning.
I’m currently exploring pixie feet, faces and hands, and that is fun.
I’m also enjoying getting back to writing stories. I’ve had quite a few dolls and other items in magazines and I’d like to do more of that.
I’d also enjoy teaching some more. I did a workshop last summer at a camp we were at. There were 30 people there from around 4 years of age to 80, both male and female. It was a shock when I saw how many were waiting for the class, but we had great fun. Everyone made a doll and each one was different. It was so much fun to see how they all did.
Q. Is dollmaking an evolutionary process for you, and–if so–where do you see your dolls and figures going, in the future? Were there significant discoveries ∓ turning points for you, along the path?
A. The most significant stepping stones for me and my art were: Firstly, I could make something that reflected what I could see. Secondly, that following your heart is the most important tool in making dolls. Thirdly, that it doesn’t matter that I can’t cut a straight line or turn tiny fingers out of fabric with these stiff and clumsy fingers of mine. Finally, that I make my dolls and my art for me. That other people love them is a bonus… but not the reason to do it.
Q. If someone is new to dollmaking, what’s your best advice?
Go for it. Don’t worry about how it is done by others. Experiment first, create your style, then read what others have to advise.
Some of the best things I have done I have done not knowing the correct way. I feel there is more creativity when there is more freedom.
Sure there are some things you will need to know for some projects but take a look at the best known doll artists their work is unique.
Do your own thing. Be unique.
Q. What book or books would you recommend to a new dollmaker?
Any and all of Susanna Oroyan’s books : Anatomy of a Doll, Designing the Doll, Finishing the Figure.
Q. What tools or products do you recommend for the best possible results?
For needle-sculpture–good value NEW nylons, never support hose. Or, a very stretchy swimsuit fabric, or loose weave linen. A small-eyed slender long strong needle, and upholstery thread.
The glues I prefer are for fabric, Fabric-tac by Beacon. For gluing embellishments of different materials together, I like E-6000 or Goop.
I don’t like to use hot glue because it does not stand up to temperature changes. Many times my wreaths are hung outdoors.
Q. How and where do you sell your dolls?
I sell my dolls at fine art and craft fairs, and I have a booth at a local craft mall. I will soon be opening a portal at the www.CNYDAG.com. I have received a few orders from people who are members of the doll lists as well. (I would like to sell on eBay, but haven’t yet.)
Q. Where do you see your dolls going in the foreseeable future?
In the future I hope to take part in selected Fine Art and Craft shows. I also hope to be able to take part in a doll conference.
The portal at the www.CNYDAG.com website will link the viewer to my www.picturetrail.com/whatanexpression site. In the future I hope to have my own web-site.
I would like to have photos of my work in national publications. My long, long term goal is to be a dollmaker that is as well known as elinor peace bailey! I want to continue to make more expressive wreaths as well as design more one-of-a-kind dolls, each with a full body.
I want to expand the media I use. Of course I will continue with cloth and needle-sculpture, but also want to do more with polymer as well as other clays and papier mache’.
I love the Bossons Heads that I purchased a couple of while we were in Germany. I would love to do a line similar to those… only “ala Alice”.
Q. What’s your greatest influence today? Do you get your ideas from other dolls, other art, or something else altogether?
I read Soft Dolls & Animals, Art Doll Quarterly, and I belong to several internet doll lists. I love all of these, but things and people influence me the most.
Things? Well, here’s an example: Once while shopping, I went down the cleaning aisle. I stopped at the Chore-Girl display and picked up one and stood there studying the copper fibered scouring pad. I envisioned the pad unraveled and as hair on a cleaning woman wreath. She was hilarious and got plenty of laughs.
People? I am a people watcher. I love studying faces and expressions. Expressions say more than words ever can.
Q. When you make dolls, do you tend to include consistent elements such as striped legs, glittered hair, wings, etc? Has this changed?
I think it is the expressions of my creations. That is where I got the name for my business–“What an Expression!”
When searching for a business name I asked my husband for advice. He said, “Why don’t you call it what everyone says when they come into your booth–“What an Expression!”
Needle sculpture was my only media but I have begun working with clay and papier mache’ as well. (I entered my first all-polymer clay doll in an internet challenge and won beginner level–since it was my first in clay–plus best of theme and people’s choice.)
Q. Tell me about your design process: When you design your dolls, does the idea pop into your mind fully formed, or do you sketch it out, or what?
Oh, wow…hmmm… Usually, I have an idea. It stays in my head until I can envision it completely. I may spend hours, days, even months, thinking about it, and getting to know it, until it becomes “real.” Then, I make it. I don’t sit down and sketch it first because I can’t sketch. Well, sometimes I have drawn a stick figure, but my mind can see it better on its own.
It is funny because it may only take a day or so to “make,” but that is not counting months of thinking.
Q. If you were in the cast of “Survivor” and could take just a few dollmaking supplies with you to a deserted island, what would they be?
Just My Size nylons, poly-fill, upholstery thread, needle-sculpture needles, scissors.
Q. What do you like best–and least–about dollmaking?
Best: I like making faces. I love to sit and make faces all day. LOL
Least: Making the rest of the doll. That is why I like making the wreaths.
Q. Do you collect dolls by others?
I have dolls that I have received in swaps and one from a round robin. They mean a lot to me.
Alice C. W. Dennis makes art dolls with wonderful facial expressions. In this interview on three pages, she shares her insights, inspirations, resources, and recommendations for new dollmakers.
dolls by alice c. w. dennis (c)2005
The interview starts here…
Q. How do you describe your dolls?
I sometimes have difficulty with this. My “creations” are of everyday people, mainly. I am known for my “people wreaths”. These wreaths are wall art; busts of people.
Using a wreath for an armature, I do a caricature of a person of a certain occupation, interest, hobby or character. I needle sculpt the faces from nylon or swimming suit fabric. I use gloves for the hands. I either paint the eyes right on the fabric or sometimes make them from polymer clay.
Q. Are your dolls intended for play, or mostly for display?
Display mainly, although sometimes I do make dolls for play as well.
Q. Did you play with dolls when you were little? Do any of them influence your work today?
Yes I had dolls. The only one that really impressed me was also the only handmade one I had. It had been made for my older brother. It was a cloth doll sailor, with an embroidered face, and tight curls for hair that I think were made from french knots.
Q. Are your dolls “real”? Do they seem to dictate how they are created, what facial expression they wear, and what you name them?
Definitely! They evolve with each step. Once I thought I was making a sea captain. Boy was I surprised when It turned out that I was making a likeness of Dame Edna!
The older characters I make seem to be full of stories. I feel like they are eager to sit and talk for hours about their experiences. When finished their name seems apparent, as if I have always known them.
Now and then I do see the actual people who have influenced the faces. I have seen them in the line at my bank or at the coffee shop. It always surprises me when I realize I have needle-modeled a face from a person I might have seen often but don’t really know.
Q. How long have you been making dolls? How did you get started?
The Christmas eve after my first child (a daughter) was born, my mother gave me a sewing machine and a book on how to sew.
The first thing I made was a rag doll for her. I used a pillowcase for the fabric for the body and old clothes of mine for the fabric for the doll’s clothes. I found an old foam pillow and tore it up to use for the stuffing. LOL what a lovely doll it was!!!
I continued sewing and made dolls and stuffed animals for gifts over the years.
In 1981, I bought a little old lady face magnet. I looked at it and thought, “I can do that.” I began experimenting with needle sculpture.
In 1984, I bought Judy Mahlstedt’s pattern, Emily. I learned so much from that pattern. I showed the first Emily I made to some friends and they all ordered one! I got permission from Judy to make and sell the little puppet baby. I have continued making that little puppet baby for these past 20 years.
The success I had with Judy’s pattern gave me the confidence to experiment more and create my own dolls. Often people asked if I couldn’t make something in the line of home decoration. I made life size figures, which people bought for antique cars and front porches, and living rooms. I made vacuum cleaner covers as well as tree ornament angels, tooth fairies, and “angels of the month.”
One day while watching the Carol Duval show, there was a young man that fashioned a scarecrow wreath. He gave it a simple muslin head. I saw it and thought, “That is it! I can make people wreaths using my needle-sculpted heads and give them much, much more detail!”
This is one of a series of pindolls that I’ve made by hand. These “Annie Faeries” sold out within minutes at Artfest 2001.
First, I create my doll collages digitally, using antique photos and illustrations.
When I’m pleased with the design and colors, I print each doll onto iron-on transfer paper.
Next, I apply each doll design to cotton, usually unbleached muslin, raw silk, or a light-colored cotton.
The edges of the fabric are treated with Fray-Chek, a product that prevents the edges from fraying. (You can find it in any fabric shop or sewing supply store.)
Then I sew, quilt, stuff, and bead the doll by hand.
(This is a very relaxing activity, and I often assemble my dolls when I’m traveling by airplane.)
Finally, I add the beaded antennae and a simple pinback, so you can wear the pindoll as jewelry, or attach her to a curtain.
Because these are sewn, quilted, and beaded by hand, not machine, each doll is slightly different, and one-of-a-kind.
These dolls are three inches tall without the antennae, and nearly four inches tall with them.
This design includes the face of Annie Maloney Morey, a wealthy young woman who eloped to America (from County Cork, Ireland) to marry her True Love, a dashing local lad with eyes the color of the Caribbean and the reputation of a rake.
They had six children and lived happily ever after.
My faerie grandmother pindoll is still among my favorites. That’s partly because the doll’s face belongs to my paternal grandmother.
I wanted to create a happy pindoll to remind me of what I liked best about that grandmother. She’d lived to age 80, but that wasn’t long enough.
(click image to see full sized)
This is the second of a series of pindolls that I created by hand.
I printed my original collages on cotton. Then I sewed, quilted, stuffed, and beaded them by hand. (I did a lot of this work on airplanes, as I flew across the U.S. to teach my “wild art doll” workshops.)
Finally, I added the beaded antennae and a simple pinback, so she could be worn as jewelry, or attached to a curtain.
Because these were sewn, quilted, and beaded by hand, not machine, each doll was slightly different, and one-of-a-kind.
I swapped lots of these dolls, and sold some of them at conferences such as Artfest. If you’re not sure if you have one in your collection: These dolls are three inches tall without the antennae, and about three and a half inches tall with them.
My original collages, printed on the fabric, were made with antique photos and illustrations.
This one includes the face of Mary Ann Loretta Boyle, whose family was from County Cork, Ireland.
Today, I think of her as a “faerie grandmother,” sort of a fairy godmother, but with chocolate chip cookies.