The gentle lessons of dolls

In the corner of her living room, up high, my grandmother kept her favorite possessions. I couldn't reach them. I could only stand in front of the green cupboard and wait for her to lift them carefully down, one at a time, for me to look at. They were a collection of dolls wearing colorful folk costumes from around the world. I thought they were perfectly beautiful.

Do you have a doll collection? Maybe you have several different kinds of dolls, each with a different story about where the doll came from. Or a favorite doll representing a child from some period of our nation's history.

Have you ever wondered what kinds of dolls girls of the past played with? Dolls have changed a lot over the centuries. Native Americans made dolls of whatever materials were available to them where they lived: wood, shells, clay, grasses, or cornhusks. Making dolls from cornhusks was one way the Indians respected the plants and animals they ate, wasting nothing. From them, the Pilgrims and other white settlers learned to make cornhusk dolls. (Maybe you'd like to make some for your family's Thanksgiving table. We've printed the instructions here. You can buy cornhusks at many supermarkets.)

Do you remember Laura Ingalls Wilder's first doll, described in "The Little House in the Big Woods" (1932)? The doll's name was Susan, and she was nothing but a corncob wrapped in a handkerchief.

"It wasn't Susan's fault that she was only a corncob," little Laura thought. She loved Susan because she imagined her to be a real baby. But Laura was overjoyed when her mother made her a rag doll for Christmas. Remember? The doll had black button eyes and curly yarn hair. Laura named her Charlotte.

That was in about 1870, when cloth dolls had just become popular in America and England. Before that, most dolls were expensive and often fragile, having heads made of wax, clay, or porcelain. A few wealthy children had dolls, but these dolls were made to look like adults. In France, very fancy dolls were dressed in fine court costumes and sent to other countries to advertise French fashions.

When dolls began to be produced in factories, their price went down. Dolls designed to look like children and babies were made of rubber or "composition," a mixture of glue, sawdust, and dough. The mass-produced dolls were affordable to many families, but that did not stop people from making rag dolls. Can you guess why?

Raggedy Ann was one reason. Stories first written in 1918 about this well-loved character doll with the kindest of hearts made copies of her very popular among American children.

Another reason rag dolls are still well-liked is that they are soft, cuddly, and unbreakable.

Sylvia Slaughter makes cloth dolls in Long Beach, Calif. She has yet another reason why rag dolls are still popular. "Each doll has her own personality and expression," she writes on her website. For example, black-faced Ebony has beads on her bangs and is wearing an outfit of authentic African fabric.

"The Doll Lady," by H. Elizabeth Collins (Illumination Arts, 2000), tells about a woman who spent her whole life making dolls because she believed in them. She did not think they had magical powers, as ancient peoples did. She believed that dolls helped children learn to treat people with tenderness and respect.

Do you know any "doll ladies"? I have a friend who makes dolls for her grandchildren and others. She makes each doll look like the person she is giving it to. She matches their hair, and dresses the doll in the colors that person likes best. She has a lot of fun doing it.

And this, I think, is the biggest reason people still make cloth dolls. Dolls are fun to create! You don't have to be a grandmother to make them, either. If you have a little patience and can use a needle and thread, you can make one yourself.

You can buy a pattern, or make your own. Draw a simple body outline on paper, copy it onto white cotton fabric (be sure to add a little extra fabric all around for the seams), and cut it out. Sew all around the outline except for about two inches on the outside of one leg.

Now, turn the doll right-side out and stuff it with polyester batting, available in craft stores. Sew up the hole where you put the stuffing in. Now you can paint a face on the doll with acrylic paints. Buy doll hair at a craft store, or make some out of yarn.

You can easily make lots of other types of dolls. A sock can be made into a stuffed doll. Walnuts, apples, and eggshells can be used as dolls' heads. Simple bodies can be made from padded wire or from cardboard tubes with pipe-cleaner arms. Find some fabric scraps, and have fun making clothes for these dolls. And, of course, you can always make paper dolls, with endless wardrobes you can design yourself.

Whatever kind you choose to make, use your imagination, and have fun!

Doll websites and other resources
Cornhusk dolls cornhusk.htm

Part of the Chickasaw Nation's website. Includes instructions for a flat cornhusk doll and "The Story of the First Cornhusk Doll."

Cloth dolls mydocuments

An inspiring array of charming cloth dolls, including some African designs. I thoroughly enjoyed looking at every picture on this site.

The purpose of this free site is to teach beginners to make a simple cloth doll. This is the only pattern I found suitable for children. Patterns make a 12-inch doll and clothes.

Commercial doll patterns

These sewing patterns are sold at most fabric stores.

McCall's 3423 ("Betsy McCall"): A 1950s cloth doll. You need sewing experience to make this 16-inch-tall doll. Includes transfers to make a painted face.

McCall's 8377: Authentic Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls in four sizes. You need sewing experience for these dolls as well. Transfers are included to make embroidered faces.

Doll clothes

Check your local fabric store:

Simplicity 8451 and 8460: Four fashionable outfits each. Some are fairly easy. For dolls 18 inches tall.

Simplicity 7688: Seven simply cut warm-weather outfits for 18-inch dolls. These looked like the easiest of all the commercial patterns I saw.

This site has books of tissue-paper patterns for sale to make theme doll clothes, including storybook costumes and international outfits.

Tips for making doll clothes

Lightweight fleece is easy to work with, and the edges won't ravel when cut.

Sweatshirts and pull-on pants are some of the simplest doll clothes to make. For a baby doll, try making a nightgown sack.

The clothes can be sewn entirely by hand; you don't need a sewing machine.

Sew side seams and underarm sleeve seams last, to keep your work flat as long as possible.

Craft stores sell tiny buttons and other notions for doll clothes.

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