Monday, January 30, 2012

The River of Beautiful Dolls

A vintage felt doll, probably by the Italian company Fiore





I was 17 or 18 the first time I went to Italy. I can't remember the exact year any more. I can still see it spread out below us as we descended from the sky in a nerve-shattering vintage aircraft. It was small and rocked like a bucking bronco in the air. It had orange shag carpet and turquoise seats. I suppose it was the best we could afford; "we" were my high school Latin teacher, one brave mother acting as chaperon, and about a third of my high school Latin club. I can still see the white hills peaking out from the desert-like scrub. It looked so different from what I was used to. Here, we have red clay soil and pine forests. Once on the ground I fell in love. I felt immediately as if I'd come home to a place I'd never been before ( to nearly quote the late, great John Denver). I connected it finally one night in Sorrento. Walking back to the hotel from a restaurant the scent of lemon trees transported me back to my very early childhood in California. I was suddenly able to recall walking with my parents one night and being startled by a screech owl calling. I could hear my parents laughter at how I jumped, a memory I didn't know I possessed. I guess Italy was a bit like coming home again. Northern California is very like Italy. I went back to Italy in college and spent one summer working in Florence. If I'd had the money and the language skills to get a decent job I'd probably never have returned to America. Every year I still dream of Florence, especially in February, a relatively dark and cold month there.

I never realized how famous Italy once was in the world of dolls, thanks almost exclusively to Madame Lenci. It's surprising, because besides loving dolls, I also love pretty much all things Italian. I think Italians are just better than the rest of us at making things beautiful. I don't even know how I first came to hear of Lenci dolls, but the first time I saw one I was completely hooked. My good husband bought me a reproduction 1930s Lenci (Bettina) for Valentine's Day last year. I bought myself a couple more but held onto them only briefly before selling them again. Even things I love I don't hold on to long anymore. If you've been following this blog you know we've been trying on and off to sell our house ever since the arrival of our third child. We are just completely out of room. So I have something for a short time and really enjoy it and then I have to let it go. A novel I read once described a man who owned an auction house who likened the torrent of beautiful things passing through his hands to a river. Instead of trying to catch the water and hold it, he advised  another character to just let the wonderful things they saw pass through their hands--experience the beauty and let go.

So it is that I decided to sell this lovely doll. I don't know who made her. I don't think Lenci because she's really a bit too pretty. Most of the Lenci dolls from the period of Elena Scavini have either the pouty faces or the surprised googly-eyed look. They are beautiful but not exactly pretty if you can understand that. This doll was certainly made during the Lenci heyday and influenced by the Lencis. She has the side-glancing eyes and a surprised look. She is a felt and linen or buckram construction--if she were a later doll she would have a plastic limbs or a complete plastic body. Her pressed felt face has really strong relief and is pressed really smooth. This is because these commercial makers used metal steam press molds that could really mold the felt like plastic almost. I don't have the equipment to get my faces as well-pressed, much to my regret. This doll also has a regional costume of some sort. I don't know why tourists bought "country" dolls other than from Italy when they were in Italy, but I guess they did. This one looks German or Swiss or even Norwegian, but I guess she could be from the Alpine region of Italy. I've been to the Italian Alps and it was just like walking around in the Sound of Music. The hills were carpeted with soft new grass starred with wildflowers like a picture book and when you got up high the peaks were all sharp points slicing through the ragged clouds like knives. I can tell you, being half Swiss and almost half Norwegian, that if this doll is meant to represent either ethnicity they got it right: all my sisters and I had the same honey blond hair and big brown eyes in our youth. Our hair darkened as we aged, but we started out looking like this girl. My mom is always collecting brown-eyed blond dolls that remind her of her girls.

Another eBay listing showed a larger dolls with a face similar to this one and said it was probably by the Fiore company. I have owned most of the various Italian felt dolls at one time or another, some by Eros of Sorrento or Magis Roma, and some French makers, like Gre Poir, and this one has a different face. What's really different about this doll are her fingers. They are pressed cloth, not stitched or mitten hands. I have only ever had one other doll with these fingers and I thought she was Italian but didn't know what brand. Now I think she was probably also a Fiore doll.

I actually enjoy my "catch and release" collection, but I will still be sorry when this pretty girl goes!

Friday, January 27, 2012

Mandy & The Secret Garden

My Friend Mandy as Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden

She wears her secret key around her neck and carries a basket of flowers


Fantastic condition for a doll from 1984

My own garden, with anemones blooming more than a month early.


Today was Jerry's day off so I could work for a long time and was able to finish another doll I've had in the works. If you read the last post you know I was working on another Burnett doll and here she is! Mary Lennox, of course! I read this novel so many times I probably could have recited it from memory as a child.

Why did Frances Hodgson Burnett's books speak to me so alluringly? Maybe because they both featured girls who were orphaned, as I was partially orphaned. But instead of my humdrum existence these girls were sent to lives that seemed very exotic to me. The manor Mary inhabits, with its miles of corridors full of empty rooms, gardens within gardens, rooms within rooms, secrets within secrets. The story was just thrilling to me! For ages I was obsessed with moors and heather. Even gardening took on a certain cache--a real challenge for me. We did have a huge garden and I had to work in it a lot. I particularly hated picking strawberries. Strawberries themselves don't bother me, but the leaves give me a rash and make my hands itch terribly. Picking them and cleaning them was one of the banes of my youth. I still grow strawberries but now I wear gloves to pick them! Now of course I love to garden. It is getting hard with the big swing in climate we have experienced lately. Today I was shocked to see anemones blooming; we don't usually have them until March! And I have a midget hyacinth blooming already. I hope my peach tree doesn't come out early and get zapped.

One of my favorite parts of the book was when Mary finds the family of mice in the chair. Now of course that seems pretty disgusting, but I was a big animal collector at the time and finding baby mice would have been heaven to me. I actually did have some pet baby mice as a girl, rescued after my step-father accidentally dropped a log from the woodpile on their mother.

For this doll I made an old-fashioned gown out of some pale aqua fabric I found in my parents' attic. I don't know if it's cotton or voile or what. It's pretty sheer, so I'm going back and forth about whether to make a slip to go under it. I machine-embroidered the dress with flowers and then hand-beaded the embroidery. I made a key necklace for Mary, and a hat for her to wear in the garden, and added a basket of flowers to complete the look. You can see the "before" state of the doll in the Illustrated Life post.

I sometimes have a recurring dream in which my sisters and I are cleaning out my grandmother's house after her death and we find a room in the basement which we never knew existed. In it we discover rows and rows of clothes from my grandmother's youth (she was famous in her little town for her fabulous sense of style!). I am always so disappointed to wake up from that dream! I think this story holds the same appeal. It's so exciting to imagine a place where you discover something new every day. The trick, I guess, is to realize the world itself can offer that opportunity and seize it!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Jenny as A Little Princess

My Friend Jenny restored as Sara Crewe.


Sara comes with her doll, Emily, a restored vintage celluloid doll.

Emily has working sleep eyes.
In many of these posts I've talked about the various books I used to read as a girl. I'm one of those people who can read the same stories over and over. I loved the books by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I read A Little Princess and The Secret Garden probably just about every year. Burnett can enchant a young girl like almost no other author. Who wouldn't want to live in a world with fabulous dresses and dolls, Indian servants, and friendly monkeys? Of course there is that period where Sara has to be a slave!

This Jenny doll was crying out to be Sara Crewe. A previous owner cut her hair. Not too much, but now her layers are a bit uneven. It is easily minimized by styling in a curly 'do. You can see the "before" pictures of both these dolls and the method of hairstyling I used in the Illustrated Life post, my previous post.

I had a great time making Sara's dress with a remnant of checked taffeta. This is the dress she would wear at the beginning and end of the book when she's still rich! I made Emily a matching outfit, since this is described in the book. I also re-wigged Emily. She was a brunette before.

I have a ton of dolls to work on right now, thanks to a recent consignment sale. I have a couple new felt faces in the works as well. I think I will do another Burnett doll (I'm sure you can guess which character!) for my next project! Frances Burnett wrote stories as a child and acted them out using her own dolls, so I'm sure she'd approve! Keep watching!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Illustrated Life

A new project box

My worktable

Homemade pipe cleaner "pin curlers"

Preparing a celluloid doll for restoration
I got my worktable all set up last week and started my next projects only to have to pack them all back up due to an all-day session of showings of our house Saturday. I am grateful to have all the interest, but I do wish someone would make an offer! I am really, really sick of trying to sell the house. Week after week, we hear the house is great and the people may return, but they never do.

This week started with the baby having pus running out of his ear again and now we're all sick. So I haven't done much more than take photos. I do love my iPhone for its photo-taking ability. It is so easy to take pictures and videos when the phone is right there. For this series I used the Instagram ap and then further altered the images with the Photoshop Express ap. I decided the rough borders don't really work with the vintage tints. Next time I'll use the vignette border with the vintage tints.

Something about the Instagram images makes everything look so important and archival, as if these very mundane moments are already consigned to the vaults of memory. It is these very everyday happenings that are so often lost in life. They are replaced by important things and slip away until you can no longer remember exactly what your room looked like or how your grandmother's voice sounded. I think these photos look like memories to me also because they ARE the way my memories were preserved! Photos of my childhood are all same the round-cornered, faded, orangey variety, except for the occasional Polaroid square. I think too that anyone who grew up in the 70s must have  the same mental image of living life in an orange haze. Our California house, where I lived until I was 3, exists in my mind as a dark orange riot of shag carpet and macrame, spider plants and Indian-print vinyl.

In California too, I remember a glut of string art on wood-paneled walls featuring ships, butterflies, owls, and mushrooms. I don't remember the string art being popular anywhere else, so maybe it was a California trend. For those of you who are too young to remember, string art was made by outlining  a shape in tiny nails hammered into a board and then stretching colored threads from nail to nail in an intricate pattern to make the picture. It was actually pretty complicated; the resulting image was like a 3-D Spirograph picture. I can remember just being fascinated by the string-art pictures.

This week in my work-table images you'll see my method of rolling shorter doll hair on "curlers" made of pipe cleaners. You get a pin-curled, or rag-rolled effect with this technique. Make sure the hair is damp, but not soaking wet, when you roll it and let the curlers stay in overnight. I often use regular foam rollers on my dolls, but sometimes they are too big for the shorter doll hair. The Jenny doll you see here (the dark-haired doll; the blonde is a late Mandy doll with the newer face) has had a non-professional haircut at some point. It's not bad; she just has some extra layers, so I can blend them in using a curly style. The character I'm working on has curls anyway, so it will work. I also want to mention shoes for the My Friend dolls, since I've had a lot of requests for those. You can find old My Friend shoes on Bay, although people do tend to overcharge for them. My Friend dolls can also generally wear shoes advertised as fitting the vintage Sasha or Tomy Kimberly dolls. Sometimes the Terri Lee shoes will fit as well, although not with socks. I often by lots of doll shoes on eBay, mostly new/old stock, which is to say unopened packages of vintage doll shoes. I find the Horsman shoes advertised for 15 inch dolls will fit the My Friend dolls. They are snug, so you can't use them with socks or tights. You can also find doll shoes on the Internet by searching for doll supply companies. The web site will have instructions on measuring your doll's foot to find the size.

The small doll in the last picture is a celluloid doll I am restoring to be a doll for a doll. The Jenny character I am doing has her own doll, so I am redoing the little celluloid doll to go with her. I bought the celluloid doll in the doll box lot shown. It is a lot of VERY damaged dolls from the 1930s-50s. This particular little doll will need to be cleaned and re-wigged as shown in other blog entries. I will nee to make new clothes for her. Right now I am concentrating on removing her old clothes, which were stapled right to her body, without damaging her. Originally this doll was what is sometimes called a "fancy-dress" doll. They were cheap knock-offs of the Storybook dolls, meant to just stand on a shelf for display. Cheap as they were, they still have working sleep eyes and moving arms and even mohair wigs, so they make good little restoration projects for practice, as you can get them very cheaply. I won the whole box of dolls for  a dollar. Shipping was high, but I sold the best doll, a Chinese bride doll, and still made a small profit on the lot. The main thing in doll restoration is to try to get as many dolls as you can to practice on. That way you'll learn how to work on many different types without damaging the material.

I am hoping we'll be better soon, especially by Friday when I have to cook 25 pounds of potatoes for a wedding reception at church! When we're well I'll continue my projects.