Sunday, March 18, 2012

Tutorial: How to Replace Sleep Eyes in Modern Vinyl Dolls

This week, besides the Jill doll restoration recounted in my last post, I have been working on a box of distressed 50s fashion dolls. Every one of these needed new eyes. Two, a Dollikin and a Marjorie, had been "restored" by someone in the past who oiled their eyes and then stuffed their heads with that old weird commercial stuffing you used to be able to buy. It was made of ground up bits of cloth. Then the dolls were left to become quite dirty. So, the result is that their eyes, clogged with oil and dirt and stuffing, were sticking and some eyes were not repairable. I also got a Madame Alexander Marybel in that box with all sorts of problems. Her stringing had broken and instead of restringing someone (probably some long-ago Daddy) had twisted her leg hooks together inside her body to keep the legs on! One of her eyes was stuck and someone had tried to unstick it by gouging it with a screwdriver or something. The eye was damaged and the eyelashes pulled out.

In the 1950s hard plastic dolls were made with sleep eyes that were glass and were wired together. They had a lead weight inside the head to help them open and close. That's the type of eye you see in Cissy or Sweet Sue dolls. The advent of vinyl dolls also brought a new innovation in sleep eyes, and these are the ones we still use today. These eyes are plastic and individually placed in  eyes sockets in the doll's head. They have an internal weight to help them open and close. If you can find a good match you can replace just the broken eye. I find that usually the old eyes don't match the new ones, though. You can order the new eyes from Dollspart or eBay. You can also harvest them from dolls with working eyes but which are otherwise damaged. I think I got that tip from the Prilly Charmin blog, but I can't remember. I go from blog to blog and then can't remember where I read something! Thanks to whoever it is who wrote that tip!

The materials you will need are:
New sleep eyes or old working ones from a broken doll
A tiny crochet hook
An Exacto knife
Acrylic flexible modeling paste
An artist's paint brush
Eye sizing tool (optional)

Materials: new eyes, crochet hook, flexible acrylic modeling paste

You must first determine  what size eyes you will need. The eyes are measured in millimeters. You measure the eye opening from corner to corner and convert the measurement to millimeters to find the size. I learned the hard way to order DOWN in size if you can't get the exact size. I don't know what I was thinking, but I needed 18mm eyes for the Dollikin. They didn't have them so I ordered 20mm. The 20mm eyes are too big and don't fit in the eye sockets. So now I have to return or resell the too-large eyes and wait on the new ones to arrive. You can buy plastic eye-sizing tools that you fit right into the eye or place over the eye to determine the size. I am using that from now on!

Once you have the eyes you want to use you will need to remove the old eyes. Take the head off the doll. You will see two big lumps covered in thin vinyl inside the doll's head. Use you Exacto knife cutting from the INSIDE (so you don't accidentally cut the outside of the doll's face) and cut the vinyl away. Then using your finger or a blunt object like a pen, push the old eye out of the socket. Here is a Dollikin with one eye out:

You can see the edge of the eye socket still intact inside the head. Remove only as much as you need from the original socket. The eye socket may be quite dirty, as it was in this Dollikin. Clean it out with a Q-Tip dipped in soapy water or Windex and dry it before inserting the new eyes. To insert the new eye, just hold the doll's head face down and place the eye on top of the socket. It can be a little tricky, but push hard to get the eye in. When the eye is almost in use the crochet hook to grab the corner of the eye and position it properly. Be careful not to hook the eyelid where the eyelashes are placed or you can pull them out. Once you have the eyes in position and confirm that they work brush the backs of the eyes with the modeling paste to seal them to the eye socket. Place the doll's head face down to dry:

Voila! When the paste has dried you have new sleep eyes inserted just as  the original eyes were done! Now you can replace the doll's head! Here is Marybel with her lovely new eyes:

They are just the right color, a rich root-beer brown! Marybel has the late 50s Elise face, which was used on the 15 inch Alexander Lonely Doll, and some ballerinas. All but Marybel, as far as I know, had blue eyes. So you could use a Marybel head on a Elise doll if you replaced the brown eyes with blue. I decided to leave her as Marybel, as Marybel seems rather more rare than the others, and I like to restore the dolls to their original state as much as possible.

So again, the eyes can be obtained from or from eBay. You can look for large lots of old dolls with sleep eyes and buy a lot of them for parts, but the new eyes are so cheap it hardly seems worth it unless you need lots of doll parts from various dolls. Thrift stores are a good place to find cheap sleep-eyes dolls as well. The other materials can be obtained at Michael's or other art supply stores. The modeling paste will be in the acrylic artist paints section.


  1. Thank you for this tutorial! I'm sure a lot of people will find this useful as these older dolls become more rare and fragile (and collectible)

    1. You're so welcome! It works for modern dolls, too, like ones your kids might break!


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