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what goes into making a doll

To help you understand what goes into making one of my dolls, here is a run-down on what it took to create Romeo and Juliet.

1. First, I went through all my fabrics and trims to find a grouping where all the colors matched and the properties of the fabrics (weight, fluidity) would work for my vision. Color match is supremely important to me; if the colors are off, even if the fabrics are otherwise perfect, I won't use them. I then did several sketches using the fabrics I'd chosen and when I had something I liked, I put away all the fabrics I didn't think I'd be using. This whole process took about 5 days because I needed to make sure the fabrics match in every light – daylight, fluorescent, incandescent, and halogen so that the outfit will match regardless of where the doll is displayed.

The fabrics I chose were 4 different silks, one satin, two velours and a lining. I also had two different colors of suede for Romeo’s shoes and about 20 different metallic trims in different colors and sizes that I would select from when the time came. One of the silks cost me $60 for 1/4 yard and the antique Belgian braid at her waist was $48. In total, they'd cost me $200 to acquire, and the amounts I'd use would be worth $60. Yes, I will be using the remainder on another project, but I had to come up with the $200 up front.

2. Second, I chose the dolls I'd be working with. Because most of my fabrics are either vintage or limited edition designer scraps that I've collected over the years, how much fabric I have frequently determines which dolls I'm able to use. In this case, I was forced to chose a 12-inch or smaller couple as the silk pieces I had were minuscule. I needed articulated dolls because I wanted to pose them in the "palm to palm" scene from the play.

After playing around with all the dolls in my collection I chose FR Erin for Juliet, and Mattel's superman Ken for Romeo. Erin had the right body but her face was too wide so I heated it and reshaped it. Even though Ken's wrists do not move, he has a gorgeous 'roman' nose and the flexibility in Erin's wrists enabled me to create the pose I was after. I wanted to use an FR male doll for Romeo, because of their height and posability, but their facial sculpts were too mature. When I transplanted superman's head on the FR body, it looked ridiculous; so, I went with the shorter Mattel doll and convinced myself that, at that age, boys have not reached their maximum height and the pair would look realistic. This took another day or two and the dolls I finally ended up using cost me $125 ($100 for Erin and $25 for Superman).

3. Now that I knew which dolls I'd be dressing I used another, cheaper, fabric with similar properties, and made my pattern. For Juliet, in order to get the drape of the dress the way I wanted it, without bulkiness around the empire waistline, to line it without interfering with that drape, and to create a slit detachable sleeve that did not make her look like a bodybuilder and still allow the arms to be posed, it took me a month and several yards of both the test fabric and pattern paper. I had hoped to make the dress removable but was unable to accomplish that as well as meet all the other objectives I had set.

4. At this point, I've spent over 5 weeks and $300 on this project, not including the crystals and beads which would be added later, and I have nothing tangible to show for it! Nevertheless, I order the lambs wool I'll need for Juliet's hair, that's another $45, and pick up more trim at a local craft show. It's only $2/yard but I buy 15 yards in case I make a mistake, and I get every color that matches the fabrics I’ve chosen – red, blue, gold and white. Now that I have everything I need in order to finish, I take a deep breath and cut into the 'real' fabric!

5. The appliqués on Juliet's dress are made from the $60 piece of silk which is an intricate Egyptian pattern that needs to be cut apart into its components and then reassembled into a more Italian design. Even though the fabrics I have were bought to be used, and it’s frequently the fabrics themselves which inspire my designs, it’s still difficult for me to use my favorite pieces and this was the hardest fabric in which to make the initial cut because I know I’ll never find another piece like it again. When I see the resultant appliqués, though, I’m happy I forced myself to do it as they are EXACTLY what I was hoping to achieve. I assemble as many as I think I’ll need plus a few extras.

The fabric I chose for Juliet’s sleeves is striped and I need to decide whether to have the yellow stripe down the center or the white one. Before I can do that, though, I need to determine whether the pattern will be centered on the sleeve or more towards the front. I’m concerned that if it’s centered, it may not be visible from the front, so I mark a center line on the pattern, pin it to the doll, and manipulate the arm to see how the pattern reacts. The center line doesn’t move much so I cut out two sets of sleeves, one with the yellow stripe in the center, the other with the white. I position the grommets (they must all be in the same color stripe) and see which ones line up with the bodice better. I also lay the appliqué pieces on the sleeves to see whether they show up better against the white stripe or the yellow stripe. I take photographs and analyze them on the computer. Although I had expected the yellow center to look best, it’s the white one which “wins”: if the yellow stripe is centered, the appliqués will cover too much yellow overall, making the sleeves look white and, therefore, not a good match for the rest of the fabric.

I devise a pattern for Juliet's sleeves, glue on the appliqués, and then hand embroider the design around them with silk thread, adding the microscopic beads as I go. The beads require a needle that is so thin you can barely see it and special thread that is strong yet fits through the eye of this needle. The beads are transparent so I have to use white thread for the light ones and black thread for the dark ones, which means I'm changing needles and thread throughout the whole process.

After assembling the bodice and front panel, I don't like the way they look – it looks totally different in this fabric than the one I used to make the pattern. For some reason, the grain of the fabric when seen in this direction is dull. Also, the front panel is too wide but if I make it narrower, I will loose the jeweled flowers along the edge. I can’t visualize the changes I need to make so I take a picture of the dress, load it into the computer and play around with it to determine what would look best, since I don't have enough fabric to cut more than one new set. Thank goodness I bought extra trim because what I used on the first set can’t be salvaged; neither can the crystals.

6. Now it’s time to connect all the dots, bringing all the pattern pieces together. When I attach the skirt to the lining, I realize it’s too heavy for the thin lining fabric to support it long term so I add several ‘straps’ using white silk ribbon which is strong yet thin enough that it won’t be visible under the bodice. The bodice fits perfectly, thank goodness, so I sew it to the skirt and cover the seam with the waist band. The sleeves give me problems, though: the cord I had chosen to tie the eyelets closed with will not hold a knot and the ends ravel terribly! So, for EACH pair of eyelets I have to tie a single knot, glue it, and then hold the knot closed until the glue has set. Once it’s set, I tie the double knot and hold that until it’s set. When I’m sure the knot will hold, I snip the ends and glue them. There are 12 pair of eyelets for each sleeve and it takes me an entire day because the ties on both sleeves must match (in other words, the elbow on one sleeve cannot be tighter than the other, the shoulder ties cannot be longer, and the sleeve cannot be tighter at the top than the bottom).

I look at the finished sleeves and I don’t like them! The red cord not only doesn’t show up against the red trim on the sleeves but it also makes them appear heavy and clumsy as all the reds blend together into a big blob. It took me another full day to remove all the red ties and go through the same process with blue. Thank goodness I bought trim in both colors. It’s still not right though, the cords joining the upper sleeve to the bottom are too short and limit the arm’s mobility so I redo them and, finally, I’m satisfied. It took two full days, though, just to attach the sleeves to the dress. Unfortunately, using a different cord was not an option as this was the only one I’d found which was thin enough AND matched the color of the dress exactly.

7. One month after I started, I finish Juliet's dress. Now, I start on her head. I decide to do the repaint first, before I invest the time to do the hair, since I don't trust my repaint skills. Removing the old paint, preparing the vinyl for the new paint, and actually doing the work only takes a few hours but because I have to let the paint dry in-between each layer and I only have one work surface, I can’t move on until the repaint is complete.

The repaint turns out OK so I do Romeo's head (wash, cut and restyle his hair, and repaint his face) and set them aside while I work on Romeo's costume. This one only takes me a week as it's much less intricate. I have to cut the cotehardie twice because the first one had a pin-sized boo-boo in the silk, and for some reason I keep sewing the codpieces together backwards. I spend a day creating the perfect in-scale lace-up front on the doublet and then discover that I like the cotehardie better with the v-neck in the back, even though my beautiful lacing isn’t visible. I can’t bear to cover it up permanently so I make the cotehardie reversible. The red cords I use to lace the sleeves make him look like a jester so I have to remove and redo them. Eventually I like the result and put him aside, too.

8. Finally, I'm working on Erin's hair. It takes several hours to remove the original hair and it’s such nice hair I hate to ruin it, but it’s just not long enough. Normally, mohair is applied with glue, and the hairline camouflaged by the hairstyle. But Juliet's hair will be pulled back so I need a perfect hairline and, because I can't afford to make a mistake, I pull an old Barbie out of my bin and see if I can create a line that will look OK. I can't and realize I need to root the hair. My mohair is long enough but because I've reshaped her face I can't heat the head, which makes it much easier to push the rooting needle through the head. I have to reroot it cold!

I test every needle I have and finally find one that is small enough to fit through the existing holes without breaking and still pull a reasonable amount of hair through with it. I run to Joann's and buy a dozen of them, just in case. It takes me an entire day (only 4 needles break) and a lot of fiber ends up in the garbage but the result is gorgeous, worth every minute! I glue the remainder of the hair on, finish the braid and cap, and put the head back on the doll.

9. Fortunately, I love it! But I have now spent almost 3 months on this project and used almost $300 worth of materials (dolls, fabric, trim, beads, crystals, hair, etc...). I never charge for the time I spend researching or making the pattern, and I only charge for the materials actually used, not what it cost me to get them, so I look at this couple and wonder what it would take to get me to agree to make another set, in a different color perhaps.

10. I price them at $800. Is that high? Yes, it's a lot of money for a doll, even one that will never be repeated. But, only $500 of that is my ‘salary’ and, for 6 weeks worth of work, I’m earning less than $2/hour IF you figure five 8-hour days per week, although I frequently work more than that. So, obviously, I’m not doing this for the money! I’m doing it because I love it and I’m lucky enough to have a husband who’s willing and able to support me.

Here is a photo of the finished piece. You may click on the photo for a detailed description of the dolls.

Romeo and Juliet

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OOAKFolk, Inc., and artist Barbara Healy are not affiliated in any way with the original manufacturers of the dolls pictured in this site. No photograph, text or graphic on this site may be copied without written permission from Barbara Healy. Copyright © 2004 OOAKFolk, Inc.

Last Revised: August 23, 2007
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