How to Be a Better Doll Maker


I posted this a while ago on my own blog, but thought it would be applicable here. So many times we are looking for the magic art supply that will improve our work, but no product is magic, it's our hands and minds that hold the key to improvement. ~ Dixie



Look Honestly at Your Work

Get Honest Input

Try Something New

Make Something You Won't Sell
Look At Others' Work
Don't Look at Others' Work

Look at Art Outside Your Area
Admit Your Weaknesses

Build on Your Strengths

Make What You Love


Seth Godin's posts, my own attempts to improve my work, teaching my Izannah Walker Workshop online class, emails from two artists, and reading The Handmade Marketplace by Kari Chapin prompted me to write this post of ways to improve as an artist. See the list above? This is not exhaustive. There are probably 10 to 1000 more ways that are just as important. Please comment at the end if you have a way to improve to share.

Look Honestly at Your Work

As artists we can fall in love with our own work. After all, we nurtured it and birthed it. It's our baby. We're like the mama with the cross-eyed child. We don't see the crossed eyes - we see the child. We don't notice the child's eyes are crossed until she walks into porch posts. (True story - I had a lazy eye as a child and had an operation when I was 5 to correct it). If your work is walking into porch posts, then maybe you need to honestly ask why. Sometimes we're not able to see the why ourselves. We need an outside opinion.

Get Honest Input
How to get an honest outside opinion? This is tricky. Sometimes artist's online groups can do this, but I think people are cautious about typing up opinions of others' work and that becoming viral. Most online forums lean more toward an encouragement mode. So how can you get honest (but kind!) feedback about your work?

First of all, ask for it.

If you really want honest feedback, be ready to receive it. And maybe pay and work for it. Travel to get it in person. And if you ask for feedback, receive it with grace. The other person is giving you a tremendous gift by really looking at your work. It's a risk on their part.

Try Something New

Step outside of your usual artistic arena. If you're a painter, try sewing. If you're a quilter, try paper collage. If you're a doll maker, try printmaking. It will give you skills and a viewpoint to apply to present work.

Make Something You Won't Sell

It's important to make works that are totally experimental. If you feel that you have to sell every little thing you make you will start to gear your creations to what you think will sell. This can cause you to avoid making mistakes which sometimes lead to discovering new techniques.

Look at Others' Work

This is tricky. You have to approach it with honesty to understand why someone else's work is selling for $400 and your work sells for much less. There can be lots of reasons for this, and sometimes it might have nothing to do with the artwork. Usually I find it's because someone has really pushed to learn something that I have been lazy about. Sometimes it's because they've been at it longer and are better at marketing. But most of the time it's because they've put loads and loads of hours into honing their work. I remember once asking an artist dollmaker how she got her paperclay so smooth. I thought she had a secret paperclay smoothing tool that she could give me the link to. Guess what? Her secret tool was that she carefully fills all the little pockmarks by hand, sands afterwards, fills again, sands again....her secret is hard work, and not being satisfied with pockmarks.

From a selling point, if everyone is making blue potholders and you make a blue pot holder it's going to languish in the sea of blue pot holders. How can you make a pot holder with a different spin than the hundred out there already?


Don't Look at Others' Work

As in don't copy it. Once I made a creation that sold for $200. "Whoo-hoo!" I said. I was so excited, even though I had put 70 hours of work into it. The next week someone listed a creation with the same hallmark features and practically the same copy in their listing description.

If others' work is selling high, and your work is similar, give them a mental high five if they do well. There are all kinds of forces at work that affect the pricing and selling point of works of art. Looking at what sells high will tempt you to do a copy of that particular work. And it won't have the same spirit, because it will read like a photocopy of a photocopy. Don't do it.


Look at Art Outside Your Area

This relates to trying something new. Look at work outside your discipline. If you're a painter, look at a doll show. If you're a sculptor, go to a film festival. Broaden your horizons.

Admit Your Weaknesses

If you're weak in an area you can improve. Not a good sculptor? Take a class in that. Need help with sewing? Buy a sewing book. Improve the areas in your work that stick out in a bad way.

Build on Your Strengths

On the other hand, you don't want to have a lot of strong weaknesses. I've found that painting can cover a multitude of sculpting sins. Or vice versa. Play to your strengths in what you create.

Make What You Love

If you choose to do things you love, chances are you will get better at it, because you will enjoy doing it and put the time in to improve. If you hate something, that's what will come through. If you hate painting but love sewing fabric then what kinds of creative areas will be your best fit? Quilting and fabric arts come to mind. If you hate sewing but love gluing then maybe you will make paper quilts. Making what you love will give your work a kind of joy that will be irresistible to people.

Well, that's what's on my mind very early on a Sunday morning.

Joyce, Another Doll by Helen Pringle

Joyce is 21 inches tall, one of a group made by Helen for a festival in Salem in 1990. Her heart shaped hang tag says Salem Sisters, 1990. Joyce, as she was called by Helen, is a precious doll, expertly made and having great character.   She has two bonnets, a sun bonnet of cheddar colored calico and a white indoor cap.  I have renamed the doll Phoebe.

A related group was called Maids and Lads of Salem. See Dixie's Post on the Pringle dolls below. 

 I would love to hear from people who have any of the dolls from these two groups sold in MA, and to buy one if it is available for adoption.  Phoebe was recently sold through Withington's auction in October of 2014, to a dealer from whom I was able to purchase the doll.   Edyth O'Neill








Doll Shops United: A Selling Site

Doll Shops United, a site dedicated to selling dolls and doll related items, will be having their Grand Opening on November 15th. Doll collectors, dealers and doll artists will have a new opportunity for buying and selling dolls. You can check out their preview site here:  Doll Shops United Preview Site.   




You can rent a shop for a whole month at a flat fee which allows you to showcase multiple items instead of paying Ebay commissions per item.  I sold an antique doll on Ebay last year and the commission for that ONE doll was would have paid for a shop for a month at Doll Shops United. Doll Shops United has two tiers for membership - a standard shop and a featured shop.  You can read more at the Sellers FAQ page


The Doll Shops United Newsletter will share updates as the date of the Grand Opening nears. The Doll Shops United Facebook page has daily information about the site and images of beautiful antique and contemporary dolls. 

Disclaimer by Dixie:  I am not connected with Doll Shops United, and have not received any compensation for sharing about this site.  A few of the people involved in its creation are people I admire, that's all!  I do not yet have a shop on the site but AM considering it.  :-)

Fairchildren and the Creative Spirit of Helen Pringle



To see more images of Sethany Fairchild, visit this photo album.
Not long ago, I (Dixie) was lucky to purchase a Helen Pringle doll to add to my study collection for a while.  Most doll groups that focus on making vintage and antique dolls will eventually discuss Helen Pringle’s work. Her creations have the appeal of antique dolls, something many of us try to capture. Helen’s work is highly collectible for those who love cloth dolls.

In studying this doll, I had the chance to ask Helen some questions about the doll Sethany Fairchild (pictured) and her other artistic creations. She graciously answered them.  

What inspired you to make antique inspired dolls?  How did you decide to sell them?

My mother, aunts and grandmother were seamstresses and my sister and I learned to sew as girls. I remember an apron I made in 4-H, and learning to embroider as a child. Around 1980 I met Elizabeth Patton, a fellow antique collector who moved from Houston to Fort Worth.  She was a doll collector of mostly big papier maches and had done repair for a doll shop in Houston.  Sitting in a child's chair in Elizabeth’s house was a huge cloth doll in children's clothing - she was mind-boggling.  When Elizabeth told me she had made the doll, I could hardly believe it, and asked her if she ever shared her pattern.  Not yet, she said.  She had devised the pattern from a large doll she had repaired, she told me.  

To see more images of Sethany Fairchild, visit this photo album.

Several years later, she sold me her pattern, reserving the right to make her own dolls still, though I don't think she ever did. (In fact, she later had me to make her three, 36" black girl and black boy and 26" white girl.)  Soon in the mail came a flat envelope containing odd pieces of grocery sack, which I finally figured out was the pattern, without instructions.  

Naturally, I began to tinker with it, and my first efforts at painting were pretty crude, as I am a left-brain person and not at all artistic.  I had made stuffed toys for my children, so I didn't have to learn that.  I don't remember if Elizabeth had an undercoating, or if she used acrylics or oils, but the Miracle Messy Mixture was my own undercoating for the head, shoulders and arms. (See the recipe for Miracle Messy Mixture here). One of the first dolls I made was a 36" girl for Dolly Johnson (Dolly FairChild) in 1983, and then people began to order them.



This is a chicken or egg question:  Did your interest in dolls grow out of your love for antiques or did your love of antique dolls lead you to love antiques?  

I was an antique collector long before and not a doll collector.  Rug hooking also preceded dolls, as that began in 1978.  I was never, and am not to this day, interested in "fine dolls" of bisque, French bebes, etc., though did come to like early small chinas, cloth, wood, and small papier maches.   I am in awe of  Edyth's stunning collection.

In the course of our email conversation, Helen shared about the doll types she created:

Dolls Series Made by Helen Pringle

FairChildren

FairChildren were made in 36” and 26” sizes. They wore actual children's vintage clothes and shoes, or dresses in documentary prints or old fabric made especially for them. There were boy and girl and black and white versions of these dolls.  Helen numbered the larger dolls.

For years Helen included some antique piece with each, jewelry/handbag for the girls, pin/toy for the boys, until it became too expensive.  The 36" dolls had one bag of stuffing in the head and 2-1/2 to 3 in the rest of the doll.  The head pieces are double-stitched because of the large amount of stuffing needed to obtain the rounded shape.  Helen mentions that on special request, she made one baby in these dolls. Helen thinks she may have made up to 90 Fairchildren dolls.  Sethany, pictured above, is No. 58.



Maids and Lads of Salem

The Maids and Lads were 21” in height.  They were made for a Harvest Festival show at the Essex Museum (now the Peabody-Essex) in Salem, Mass.  They were small versions of the big Fairchildren dolls.  Their clothing and shoes were new, but in old styles.

Tansy/Tabby  - A Two-Faced Friend

Tansy-Tabby was made for a class Helen taught at a Doll Seminar in Utah, measuring 10-12” in height.  She was a small project to teach oil painting a doll in an easily portable unit.  Helen loves old topsys and has several in her collection of antique textiles. At one time Helen offered a pattern of Tansy/Tabby.  

Mary Mason-Dixon, She Has North and South Feet
(See Dixie's previous post

Mary Mason-Dixon dolls measure about 14-15".  She was inspired by an antique doll and was also sold as a pattern for other doll makers.   Helen says, “I loved the Marys; a friend in Maine asked me to repair her old, old cloth doll, which I did, and then gave me permission to reproduce her.  They came in both black and white girls; all the white Marys had red hair, and all the black Marys had black hair.The first one I made had a wig of red mohair, but the rest had painted hair. The Marys had a little verse that went with them, which I typed and printed on fabric on my printer.”

One of a Kind Dolls:

Helen also made one-of-a-kind cloth dolls occasionally - Emily Morgan, The Yellow Rose of Texas, Nizhoni, Navajo girl with moccasins made from old leather gloves and real turquoise jewelry.  Nizhoni is the Navajo word for beautiful.

Helen tried her hand at Sculpey and made several dolls of it.  She says it was wonderful fun.

For her niece's collection,Helen made a tiny replica of Hitty, just a little bigger than the real Hitty (made of wood) dressing her in a petticoat with her name cross-stitched on the front just like the original Hitty.

Helen made other doll heads/arms/legs from Sculpey and made cloth bodies for them.  Helen says, “The better one is Persona (The Pleasant Peasant), seated in a rustic chair with a wooden bowl and spoon in her lap, barefoot and with red hair in an early style.  Standing, she would be about 14-15" tall.”

All these one of a kind dolls were finish-painted with oils.


For someone who describes herself as “not at all artistic”,  Helen created a large body of three dimensional works, reminiscent of folk dolls of the past.  Helen’s dolls are beloved by doll makers and collectors alike.  Doll makers inspired by antiques want to emulate the spirit that Helen captured in her work. 

To see more images of Sethany Fairchild,

A Motschmann Variation



This nice early German glass eyed Papier Mache’ head with a snood hairdo once had a Motschmann type body.  Pictured also is a blond waxed doll of this period on her original body.  I will watch for a correct old body, and may or may not ever get it.  There was a broken Motschmann for sale just this week on line, but too small to go with this head.  Meanwhile, I have placed the doll on an old cloth body and added arms from a wax doll of 1870 to 80.   This way she can be dressed and enjoyed with the doll family. The mid 19th century under clothes of little girls and their dolls are so sweet.  How nice it is to find an old doll dress just right for her.






I believe this doll head with a snood was made about 1860. Most dolls I have seen of this type were waxed, but there is no residue of wax on this head even in the smallest crevasses.   She is seldom found in this large size.  As shown she stands 22 inches tall with child like proportions and would look correct on a slightly longer body.  Although she shows wear to her head this is preferable to restoration when wear is minor like this.  Her personality is intact .

To have a doll head with it's correct body is always to be desired. A make-do like this is mess so far as integrity and value are concerned.   I hope this doll can one day have the body she should have.  This does allow me to enjoy her till then.  edyth










Lucy's Doll House to Close in October

Lucy's Doll House will be closing its doors after October 12th of 2014.  Lucy's Dollhouse began in Camden, Maine in 2006 with Lucy Morgan and Susan Singer as the proprietors. Over the past 8 years the shop has been an inspiration to me, Dixie, as an appreciator of antiques and as a doll artist.  Sue graciously allowed me to document many Izannah Walker dolls which came through their shop. From those photographs, the Izannah Walker Chronicles was born.

The shop will be open Wednesdays through Saturdays from 10-4 until Labor Day.  Following Labor Day the shop will be open Fridays and Saturdays from 10-4 until October 12th.  

While the physical brick and mortar shop of Lucy's Dollhouse will close, Sue Singer is looking forward to opening an online shop called Gazie's Dollhouse.  


An Early Wooden Doll at Lucy's Doll House

Even though I originally visited Lucy's Doll House in 2007 because they had an Izannah Walker doll, I try to get there every year to see what they treasures they have in store.  And I am never disappointed.  Here is a little wooden Queen Anne style doll.  She was hand sized.  I wish I had gotten a whole body shot!  She has what appears to be human hair.  This doll is SOLD and not available any more, but I was glad to be able to cross paths with her.  







For my doll making friends, I usually try to take pictures from odd angles.  


The following video is quite imperfect.  but it gives a sense of the size of the doll as well as the legs.  Enjoy!


Tiny Moravian Dolls


When most people mention antique Moravian Dolls, we are accustomed to thinking of Polly Heckwelder dolls, such as this one sold at Morphy's Auctions.  

On a visit to Lucy's Doll House, I saw this collection of little dolls, also made by the Moravians.  These tiny dolls are about 4.5 to 5 inches tall and were "named Benigna, after the founder of the first Protestant boarding school for girls in America" (Cloth Dolls  From Ancient to Modern, p. 27).  In this case, some of the dolls come with a little pocket which holds a card describing the doll and the project they were being sold to help with.  








It's little details like this that add not only charm
but provenance to a creation like this. 



Thank you to Lucy's Doll House
for the opportunity to share these charming dolls. 


A Simple Support for Sitting Dolls

When I was taking pictures of the Babyland Rag pattern tester dolls, I needed a way to prop dolls up in a sitting position without seeing the support behind them.  I thought of using corner braces, which can be had for pennies.  And it worked very well!  



Next time I would wrap them in decorative tape of some kind to be sure the corners don't damage the dolls (they didn't).  This is what it looks like from the back:

doll by J. Ann Firth

You could put the angle iron underneath the dress and beneath the doll so the hardware is hidden.  It was a simple solution, so I thought I would share it!


Custom Reproduction Dresses
for Izannah Walker Dolls

People often ask me if I will make additional dresses for dolls they purchase from me. Making dolls is my focus, not making doll clothing. I have my own undressed dolls which need help as well! Recently I saw a reproduction dress made by Carol McDaniel on Ebay.  I bought the dress and tried it on a doll made from my pattern, at left below. It was a perfect fit.  


 


For fun, I tried the dress on my antique Izannah Walker doll, and except for the length of sleeves and skirt, it was workable.


So I emailed Carol, asking if she could make a dress with a specific length of skirt and sleeve.  She replied that she does custom work. So....if you have dolls to dress, and like the style dress above, contact Carol about making a custom dress for your doll.  Carol also sells ready-made dresses for dolls on Ebay.  

Carol McDanielcarolmcd@arvig.net

A Babyland Rag Spring Fling

Last fall I asked for volunteers in the MAIDA dolls group to test a pattern I had drafted from an antique Babyland Rag doll who had lost her face a while back.  Several of the group joined into a Spring Project Group. The only constraints were to create something spring inspired and in the smaller sized doll in the pattern. (The pattern comes in a small size around 14" and a large size around 32".

The Babyland Rag Doll Body pattern is just what is says.  There are no instructions for clothing or for the second attached face.  Some people decided to create a doll inspired by antique Babyland Rag dolls, and others decided to use the rag doll pattern as a springboard for their own unique creation. 


When their dolls were completed, they mailed them all to me.  You can imagine it was like Christmas at my house.  Actually, it was Christmas season. It was very fun to open the boxes and see all of the wonderful creations there!  You can see the complete album of these creations here

I asked my photographer friend Danielle Dewald Pease to take a group photo of the dolls.  You can see Danielle's photo above.  I was there, unpacking dolls and getting them set up as best we could for a group shot. I have a new respect for photographers and magazine editors!

What outstanding creations these doll makers made!  Some doll makers were directly inspired by the Antique Babyland Rag Dolls.  Using their own ingenuity, they added second faces to the dolls, just as the original dolls had, and created clothing similar to the ruffle adorned originals. 

Dolls l-r by:  Wendi Dunn, Artis Corwin, Elaine McNally

dolls by Diane Peachey

doll by Diane Peachey


Others created dolls using 
the basic rag doll pattern as a springboard:


Beatrix Potter doll by Audrey Why



dolls by Judi Hunziker



doll by Mary Stivers

doll by J. Ann Firth


doll by Dixie Redmond, using the pattern she drafted



What a fun project this was!

MAIDA Dolls Group Alabama Baby Dolls


Doll by Wendi Dunn


The most recent doll making theme in the MAIDA Dolls Group has been Alabama Baby Indestructible Dolls.  Here are a few of the finished dolls as well as a slideshow of all the dolls done in the group at the end:

doll by Svetlana


doll by  J. Ann Firth


doll by Susie McMahon -  available for purchase here

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