Handmade: Doll making takes backseat to other crafts

Jocelynn Brown
The Detroit News

Not so long ago, I had a love affair with cloth doll making. I spent years burning the midnight oil, honing my craft as I discovered new and exciting techniques that resulted in whimsical little characters, complete with eye lashes, fingernails and moles.

“Miss Rosalie,” one of my 30-inch dolls, in all her finery.

My handmade dolls started as another way to express my creativity and love for fiber art, but they later became an escape from some of life’s challenges. I taught myself through much trial and error and a few books recommended by others. I started mostly with simple, faceless African-inspired wall dolls, but after years of experimenting with ways to manipulate fabric and fiberfill, they became more life-like, and I began creating a collection of Victorian-inspired dolls elaborately dressed in fine velvet, lace, taffeta and brocade fabrics.

What I liked most about doll making was meeting the little people who seemed to come to life in my sewing room after I’d put in more than 40 hours of work on each. Making cloth figures helped me develop skills I never knew I had – needle-sculpting faces and hands, designing patterns and making miniature garments, wigs, jewelry, shoes/boots, etc. It also gave me another way to put my years of knitting and crocheting skills to use, making fancy little hats and drawstring purses.

During that time, there was hardly a week that went by where you didn’t hear about something doll-related. It seemed almost everyone was a doll collector, or they knew someone who made or collected dolls. And there was always talk of an upcoming doll show, excitement over a nationally known doll artist coming to town, a new technique to learn, a class to take, a guild to join, or a new must-have doll-making book to add to your collection.

There were also weekly doll shows on home shopping channels. I know because I tuned in every week as I sat in my sewing room drawing, cutting out and stitching “body parts” that would later be firmly stuffed with cotton fiberfill. And, you may remember, it was nearly impossible to go to an art or craft show without seeing amazing cloth doll creations artfully displayed for sale by several vendors. Sadly, dolls have become a rare sight at such shows.

At just over 4 feet tall, “Sistah Wannabe,” one of my Victorian-inspired soft sculptures who has graced my living room sofa the past 12 years, often reminds me of what has now become a “long lost love.” She leaves me wondering, “What happened to doll making and doll collecting?” Did the lack of one lead to the other? Did collectors run out of space for displaying dolls in their homes? Where are all the former doll makers? Did their dolls stop selling? Or, was the downturn in the economy to blame?

Washington Township resident Rosie Chapman, once a prolific cloth doll artist, shares her opinion on the subject. “Everything has its season,” she says. “I think doll making, at its peak, caught the interest of women between the ages of 40 and 60, and now those women have moved on to other interests. Many are now into quilting, so the new ‘fad’ is quilting. However, the things they learned with doll making can now be incorporated into their new fiber art endeavors.”

I must admit I agree with her assessment. Bottom line — “The thrill is gone” and the romance has ended — for now, anyway. In the meantime, I’ll just continue to knit, crochet, bead and sew.

(If you’re currently a doll maker and you’d like a chance to be featured in this column, just email me at with a sentence or two about your doll making, along with a couple photos of your recent work.)

Detroit News Columnist Jocelynn Brown is a longtime Metro Detroit crafter. You can reach her at (313) 222-2150, or