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.  :-)

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.  

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.  


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

Antique Alabama Baby Doll with Bobbed Hair

Alabama Baby Doll for sale on Ebay20" in height 

The MAIDA Dolls Group will be doing an Alabama Baby inspired doll challenge in early 2014, so I am saving images.  

I asked Ebay seller 4206diane for permission to share pictures of the 20" Alabama Baby she has for sale on Ebay.   Diane graciously shared her images for us to keep for study.  She has this to say about the doll: