Even in the trunk, rag dolls’ influence lingers

Dolls of various sizes and descriptions fill a trunk at my house. They have lived there for the past few years, mute testimony that a sewing interest can flower intensely, then fade away when the fickle needleworker’s heart moves on to a more alluring project. And so it was with dolls.

It started innocently enough as such things often do — I wanted a doll under the Christmas tree, something that harked back to a simpler time and would serve as a foil for the dump trucks and mini-cars Santa left for my sons in those long-ago days when they were children.

Sock dolls fashioned from pairs of white tube socks gleaned from my sons’ bureau drawers claimed my attention at first.

Next, I became charmed by doll kits that included a china head, arms and legs. My favorites was the one I dubbed “Pinkie” after the 1794 painting of the same name by Thomas Lawrence. I dressed the doll to correspond with the clothing worn by the subject of the painting — Sarah Barrett Moulton — a white gauze dress, a pink satin bonnet and a wide pink sash. Soon, I had created half a dozen dolls with china heads. Arranged in pretty groups on shelves, they sat around for years gathering dust.

Meanwhile, I discovered commercial patterns for dolls, and combed magazines and books for others. I followed the patterns as presented, but always I deviated in some way, adding a real straw hat, tacking on a froth of vintage lace, cutting pants from old blue jeans, fashioning shawls from old crocheted doilies or clipping an orphaned earring to a neckline to serve as a brooch.

One day, for no particular reason, I found myself inventing rag dolls of my own. Tea dyeing fabric was the rage then and I played around with that, mixing gallons of tea and soaking yards of unbleached muslin in it. That was all well and good, but it didn’t quite suit me. I devised another method. After I made and stuffed the doll bodies, I laid them out in shallow pans and poured strong hot tea over them. I dumped the excess tea and left the dolls, usually face down, in the sun to dry. This process, thanks to gravity, left interesting streaks, puddles and lines on the muslin that gave character to the dolls.

Instead of the tedious process of sewing on yarn for the dolls’ hair, I painted it on. In most cases, I embroidered the dolls’ features, through sometimes I used crayons. I made the dolls’ clothes using only thread and a needle, which gave a nice vintage feel. I embellished the dresses with small, ordinary buttons, a tiny patch pocket or pintucks. My aim was a folk style that bordered on the crude. These dolls, after their time lolling around on shelves, also ended up in the trunk.

But every so often I retrieve one of the dolls and let her hang around to remind of what I learned: A doll with a lopsided head is way more charming than a perfect one; dolls stuffed with fine sawdust have a better heft than those stuffed with fiberfill; making a pattern for a doll body is as easy as folding a piece of paper lengthwise and drawing a side-view of the head and torso, cutting it out and opening it up, then doing the same for arms and legs (which end up looking like u-shaped tubes); if you don’t follow doll-making rules, the result will be more about your imagination and less about the pattern. The only rule that it might be wise to heed is: Sew the bodies by machine, otherwise the seams won’t hold.

The Penobscot Marine Museum offers History Craft programs for children ages 4 to 10 accompanied by an adult 10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays, through Friday, Aug. 17. The activities are free with museum admission. For information, visit penobscotmarinemuseum.org.

The 14th annual Schoodic Arts Festival will take place July 29 through Aug. 12. It will offer 81 workshops and 26 performances in 14 days. Fifteen locations around the Schoodic Peninsula will host workshops including sailing, cooking, craft, dance, fiber, jewelry, music, sculpture, digital, theater, visual art and writing. In addition to the workshops, each day will feature a free Brown Bag Lunch event noon-1 p.m. under the tent of the Prospect Harbor Women’s Club. Buy a lunch or bring your own to eat as you enjoy the performance. Performances, including choral music, hula dance, juggling, Acadian music, native flute, African music, original music, steel pan music, a Pecha Kucha session and the Fab Five, a take off on the Fab Four, will take place each night at Hammond Hall, Main Street, in Winter Harbor.
For information, visit schoodicartsforall.org. To enroll in classes, call 963-2569 or email festival@schoodicartsforall.org.