EASTHAM — Dolls are a special holiday gift many children hope for. But dolls really had their heyday about 150 years ago. Those who are intrigued by antique dolls know how precious they were, because many have survived in remarkable condition. That’s because the dolls were so special that children were allowed to play with them only for short periods of time.
Even though I am a doll maker and a collector, I never much liked dolls as a child. It was art that led me to doll making. I come from a family of artists on my mother’s side, but my father was smart enough to urge me toward the technical. I have a degree in math, with a minor in engineering, and had a career at an Army research and development agency.
Growing up in the Berkshires, I used to walk to an auction gallery near my school during lunch to watch antiques get catalogued. One day, I was disappointed to see the antiques on view were dolls. But a lady who was cataloguing them showed me one with long, slanted eyelashes and a beautiful pale complexion, painted on white bisque.
That’s certainly not art, I muttered. The lady said, “Go home and see if you can paint eyelashes like this on a ping pong ball. Try to achieve that pale complexion, then come back and tell me that this isn’t art!” Of course, I failed dismally. So began my love of antique dolls as works of art.
The steps involved in reproducing antique dolls are fairly technical — it took me years to learn them. During that time, I made teddy bears and sold them to fund my obsession. And I would go to museums to study dolls I wanted to try to duplicate.
The porcelain work for a doll spans more than a week. Liquid porcelain slip is stirred and run through a micro-fine sieve to remove imperfections, then allowed to rest for at least 12 hours, so air bubbles settle out.
The slip is then poured into a plaster mold cast from the original doll. The plaster pulls moisture from the slip, and as it dries the new doll takes shape. When this new casting is 1/16-inch to 1/8-inch thick, the remaining liquid slip is poured out, and the doll is allowed to dry until it can be removed from the mold. This is tricky: if the casting is too wet, it loses its shape; too dry and it breaks.
Then the casting is air dried enough so that the seams where the two halves of the mold meet can be cleaned, eyes beveled, and any imperfections removed. At this point, I always incise my name in the porcelain so it is not mistaken for an antique.
When it is completely dry, the doll is fired in a kiln to bisque (2,165 degrees). Coats of glazing and painting with more firing at each step follow. Then details such as mohair wigs, blown glass eyes, and handmade costumes will finish the doll.
When my husband and I retired to Eastham in 2008, I gave up my studio and teaching, though I still love to study and write about dolls and am a regional director for the United Federation of Doll Clubs. I do still make some dolls, too. Athough, lately, I’ve been making pottery.
I don’t sell my work. I give it away to friends, barter it, or donate it to support local charities. The reward is the great joy I get from creating each piece.