Making Jess Brown Rag Dolls & Their Clothes

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My finished dolls, Claudia (right) and Olivia (left) got to hang out on my chair before I sent them off into the world.

For my birthday last year, my Sister got my a copy of The Making of a Rag Doll by Jess Brown. Jess Brown is an extremely talented and well regarded doll-maker whose work is sold by her own websiteLand of Nod and other high-end stores. While nominally for children, her dolls are highly sophisticated and transcend that market. (You can listen to a great interview with her from the While She Naps Podcast.)

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My original dolls on the left had no noises and their hair was craft felt that I pinned in place. Jess Brown’s book is on the right.

They are also very distinct. Once you see a Jess Brown doll, than you immediately know it is one of her pieces of work and her style has influenced a lot of other doll-makers. I feel like I see “Jess Brown-esque” work all over the handmade doll world.

When I sewed these two dolls from her pattern, I actually had to sew three bodies, because one arm tore off while I was trying to turn it. After stuffing, I did a version of Jess Brown’s distinct star shaped eyes and cut up some felt for hair. My two annoyances at Jess Brown’s book are that there are not really any instructions for hair and that the patterns are printed on green ink on brown paper. I had to take them into work to get a decent copy of them for cutting up.

Anyway, I pinned their hair on and stitching them up some bloomers and then… well, sadly, then they sat in a box for over a year.

Needless to say, I finally got my act together and started working on them in late April after I finished my baby gifts.

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All the fabrics I first selected were based on the dark grey patterned fabric in the center. I did not end up using all these fabrics.

I pulled out my fabrics, sorted through my stash, and put together a collection of fabrics I liked for a wardrobe. I based my selections off this wonderful grey floral fabric from Cloud9 that I found at Joanne’s (the only place locally that carries Cloud9, sadly). I added fabrics to the collection as I realized I didn’t have enough of some of these to make a whole dress and had to adapt to my smaller amounts. (The book said that a 1/4 yard cut was enough to make a dress, but I found it was JUST shy of the pattern if you were following grain lines.)

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The whole wardrobe of dolls was based around the grey floral fabric. Each doll also got two bags.

I don’t remember what my original plan was (it has been a year), but my “new” plan was to make the dolls three or four dresses, two or three pinafores, at least one coat, a second pair of fancier pantaloons with lace trim, and some bags. I discovered how much I loved applying ric-rac to basically everything and happily applied it to the red bag above in two stripes.

Most of the clothing patterns in the book are not hemmed, but rather use stay-stitching. I have written a poem about how I feel about exposed stay stitching:

I do not like stay stitching, Sam-I Am. 
I do not like it in a box. I do not like it on a fox.
I do not like it on my doll. I do not like it at all.
I do not like how it looks. I do not think it belongs in books.
I do not like it on a dress. I think it is a mess.

Thank you.

But all joking and poetry aside, what I respect about Jess Brown, and all my favorite dollmakers/soft toy designers, is that there is no doubt that her work is her work. From sewing her dolls with dark thread that shows when they are stuffed to visible stay stitching, Jess Brown has a distinct style. All of her choices are specific. I do not believe Jess Brown uses stay stitching, because she can’t roll a hem. I believe she uses it, because she has made an artistic choice. And I respect that, even if when I made a doll from her patterns, I am going to make a different artistic choice.

That’s the thing about patterns- they are a place to start, not a place to end.

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On the left is Olivia (the blond doll) and on the right is Claudia (the brunette).

I re-stuffed both dolls eventually and made their hair by hand stitching on squares of wool-blend felt. Originally, both dolls were gong to have pigtails, but I actually really liked the short hair look, so I left them off the brunette. Hand stitching the felt hair onto the dolls heads took all one evening while I watched TV. I used DMC floss to match the felt. I wanted the hair to be clearly handmade without looking sloppy.

Jess Brown dolls don’t have noses, but I think dolls need noses.

So, eventually, I gave both my dolls noses using thread. I actually really like the way the noses turned out and I want to try this technique again in the future.

Sewing up the doll clothes was totally addictive. Nearly everything was three pieces or less. No tiny sleeves to set in. No waist bands to attach. Everything was simple and I found, to my surprise, that I loved the simplicity. This surprised me. In paper dolls, I like complexity. I really thrive on tiny details, but while working on these dolls, I found I enjoyed the simple shapes that really let wonderful textile patterns shine.

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Process photos working on the doll’s clothing.

Since the dress pattern was that it was just three pieces, it became a canvas for pockets (on the grey dress), lace trim (the flowed grey dress) and a pleat in the front. The only dress I was frustrated by was the pleated front dress. I struggled to get the bottom curved him to lay flat an the pleat should have been deeper than I made it. Oh well.. You live and you learn.

Each doll got two coats and two pairs of bloomers. The bloomers were a little hard to make, because of the dolls very wide and long hips. The body is triangular and that makes the proportions for pants a trifle odd. Still, my mother taught me all dolls need underwear.

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On the left, you can see some of Jack the Seam Ripper’s handy work. On the right is a button covering a snap.

I didn’t end up using Jack the Seam Ripper a lot, but the curved hems on some of the clothes did give me some trouble. You can see some of my work in the picture above.

One of my favorite tricks is to cover snaps (which I think always look messy when I sew them on) with a button. I bought a big pack of these thin cheap shell buttons. Some were really warped, so I had to shift through them. I tried to pick out buttons that were “old fashioned” without feeling too old fashioned, if that makes any sense.

Part of this process wasn’t just about making two dolls for two people I love. It was also about trying out new things and doing something out of my comfort zone. I wanted to see what would happen if I made a Jess Brown doll, even though I am not a huge Jess Brown doll fan. I wanted to see if I could adapt this style into something I loved.

And I needed to figure out what I loved. What did I like in a cloth doll?

I’m beginning to learn it is very different than what I like in a paper doll. That’s okay though- it is part of the process.

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Claudia with her entire wardrobe was sent off to my Sister.

In the end, each doll ended up with two pairs of bloomers, two coats, four dresses, two bags and three pinafores/aprons. I also made two little necklaces out of some chain and charms. Nothing really fancy, but I thought they needed some extra accessories.

Claudia’s blue dress ( I think of as her “fancy” dress) has an interior facing pleat. She has blue, pink and cream pinafores, along with a red bag with ric-rac and a pink bag trimmed in lace. Otherwise, her wardrobe is identical to her sister, Olivia.

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Olivia with her wardrobe. She was sent to my Mom.

Olivia’s “fancy dress” has an exterior pleat. She has a grey, a pink and a cream pinafore. Her bags are also pink and red, but the red one is made from a different fabric. Otherwise, her wardrobe is identical to Claudia’s wardrobe.

My mother’s reaction to her was to remark that her feet looked very cold without any shoes. So, I recommended she knit her some socks. I don’t knit, but my mother does.

I have to confess, I sort of had to stop myself. I was completely ready to make them even more dresses and even more bags and other things. Still, at some point one has to declare a project “done” and I think 36 outfit combinations is enough. 🙂

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Playing dress up with them before I sent them off to their new homes.

I thought I would close with a few photos of me playing dress up with the girls.

Next doll project is going to be one I can share IN PROGRESS and then I won’t end up with a post this long at the end. So, no surprises for anyone anymore.

Things I still need to work on include being able to backstitch without ending up with a nest of thread (though this stopped somewhat when I sorted out my tension), doll hair attachment and stuffing. Stuffing is something I need to get better at.

Thoughts on my latest creations?

10 comments

  1. These are really beautiful. I’m in awe of sewing. I’ve tried some very basic projects and this is well beyond my capabilities. Your fabric choices are just perfect and I hope your recipients love these. They are amazing!

    1. These were made from the book, “Making of a Rag Doll” by Jess Brown. Most of the clothing comes from that book, but I altered a lot of it myself.

  2. I just sent away for Jess Brown’s book. I found your interpretation of her dolls to be very inspiring and helpful. Thank you.

    1. It is from the book, The Making of a Rag Doll by Jess Brown. However, not all the clothing I made is in the book, because some of it I designed myself. And the hairstyles and noses were my own adaption as well.

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