A doll making history

A few days ago, while day-dreaming, I asked myself,

When did my love of doll making start?

I have been crocheting for over 6 years, probably making crochet dolls for 5 years, maybe less.

But as I thought about it I realised my doll making history goes back a long, long way and it has some interesting little dolls in there…

The Cigarette doll

I’ve mentioned in other blogs a little about growing up in Salvation Army hostels, and though some of it wasn’t good, a lot of it was great. I’d often come home from school and whilst my parents were still working I’d join the men in the TV lounge or have my tea with them in the dinning room.

It was, in a strange sense, like having 100+ uncles (just imagine how many sweets that amounted to). None of the residents were rich, all lived off benefits, but as I’ve recently re-discovered, poverty can bring out the best in people.

My first hand-made doll was given to me by guys in the hostel, made out of used cigarette packets.

Back then (and maybe still today) the flip top cartons had a silver foil liner. This was torn into a doll shape and popped back into the flip top box, like a little pocket sized bed.

It fascinated me, as a little child, to have a little paper-foil doll in it’s own little bed. Obviously the doll never lasted too long, but never mind. It was the men making me endless paper dolls that I loved.

The Tissue doll

The next handmade doll I remember was made from tissues, using just two 2-ply tissues , scrunching one into a ball for the head, I made endless little dancing dolls. Again, they didn’t last more than an hour or two, but it was the making of the little dolls that was the thrill.

My Cinderella, Topsy-turvy doll

 This doll was bought for me when I was little, perhaps 5 or 6, and I still have her now. She was bought from a church craft fair, made by one of the older women in the church.

My Air-dry dolls

I was perhaps 19 when I next started doll making, this time using air dry clay. I sculpted heads, arms and legs onto wire, wrapped cloth around for a body and glued or sewed clothing. I remember my first doll (about doll house size) was meant to be a hippie and had one hand in a peace sign. I learnt the valuable lesson on making strong individual fingers when they snapped off. The doll features were rather basic and almost frightening, but to me they were wonderfully made.

My trip to the dark side

Moving on many years later and again I am making figures, although I’d been making jewellery for years. Yep, the dark side got me for a while and I made teddy bears. I still have some fur in a box somewhere, so maybe one day.

Then a flood of figures, teddy and dolls came as I moved back to Leeds and started working more and more on hand making.

Sculpey figures

I started playing with polymer clay, mostly to make small beads for earrings, but using the old air-dry clay idea and my new skills from studying ceramics, I came up with some rather dashing fairies and witches.

Then I started sewing…

And needle felting…

And maybe I love all different crafts, but maybe I have a special love for dolls (and felted mice).

But somewhere along the line I made my crochet dolls…

And I loved them, so I wrote the pattern down and found others liked them too.

So, why am I telling you all this?

I might have mentioned that I’m about to start my intern year, and thought I had a place all planned out. 

Then a few weeks ago I was offered a place on the University’s Enterprise year, where you spend the whole year looking at setting up and running your own business. 

I’d gone to the interview, where I had to pitch my business idea and spent the time speaking about doll making.

Over the years, especially the last few years, I’ve come across people who’ve not been too enthusiastic about my ideas.

Several people have told me I can’t run my own business because I have a mental illness, but as I once told a packed room of civic leaders, if Maggie Thatcher can run a country on her period and Paula Radcliffe can run a marathon with asthma, then I can run my own business with a mental illness. I just need a bit of support.

I’ve also met my fair share of people who think making dolls is lame. I’ve met artists who laugh at cute looking dolls because, well, I can’t be an artist if my work isn’t threatening or obscure. Maybe though, I don’t want to be that kind of artist. The most annoying thing is that they (often ‘friends’) don’t seem to have any problem with telling me my cute looking dolls are horrible, but would be hurt if I told them I didn’t think much of their artwork.

I’ve done many things, went to college to learn brass and woodwind instrument repair, liked the metal work, not great at woodwork. Done a lot of silversmithing courses, qualified as a reflexologist, even done Bible college. Yet, through it all, I return time and again to making dolls.

Of all the business pitches I could come up with, I talked about my doll making, and it struck me, how much of a passion I have for that.

Over the next year I’m going to be looking into my doll making, trying to see whether I can make a ‘go’ of this.

That’s why, a few days ago I sat there thinking about it all, wondering where this doll making thing came from, yet looking back, maybe it’s just something I have to do.

Published by bettyvirago

Betty Virago is an award winning textile designer. Based in Yorkshire, England, and known for her Northern Folk dolls and the Quilts of Hope project.

2 thoughts on “A doll making history

  1. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you this, but follow your heart! Working with your hands, whether dollmaking or shawl making or jewelry making, is a form of freedom, and a lovely way to express yourself. But, making a doll is special. There is something of your heart in every doll you make. Do not let anyone make you feel small or somehow marginalized as an artist because your dolls are lovely. The world needs more beauty, not more edginess; in my opinion, of course :-)

    There is a place in the world for someone who makes dolls from the heart. Every success to whatever you put your hand to; you have the drive and the passion to succeed.




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