Sew, It’s Not My Family Legacy: Costume for a Flat Top China Doll

I have been working on Mary Morgan’s new dress, slowly but steadily, taking photos of work in-progress. Soon, I hope to have an article for you about this dress and the undergarments that are turning out rather well! In the mean time, I would like to tell you the story of my family legacy with sewing, and I’ll show you another doll and the costume I created for her from the inside to finishing touches.

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My mother, Marilyn, is in the center of this photo, surrounded by three of her four sisters.The youngest was not yet born at the time of this photo, circa 1938. The three older girls are wearing matching dresses. My mother remembers that Grandma Alvina made these dresses, but Aunt Darlene, the oldest, remembers that it was a neighbor who made them.

I have told you already that I love to sew, especially historic reproductions, for children, and for dolls. I am mostly self-taught because my family legacy is one of not sewing. My maternal grandmother, Alvina, was born in 1914 near Fairbury, Nebraska, and grew up with her step-mother, Lena, who was confined to a wheelchair. Great-Grandmother Lena, the story goes, had a sewing needle lodged in her leg which rendered her unable to walk. It has never been clear to me how this happened; only that she was down on the floor when the needle found her. Then, my youngest aunt had  her finger pierced with a sewing machine needle, so my mother and her sisters were not taught to sew with a machine.  My mother never used a sewing machine in her life, but she did mend by hand, with small strong stitches, when I was young.

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This is Peppy, my childhood companion (And see, he has his name which was bestowed upon him when I first received him. He was named for our real Cocker Spaniel dog, who died soon after.) You can see one of Peppy’s feet that has a sock patch mended by my mother. The baby quilt was made for my father by his grandmother when he was born in 1925.

Renegade that I am, I would not be content until I learned to sew, crochet, needlepoint, and cross stitch. When I was thirteen, I made my mother a needlepoint handbag from a kit. She then rented a sewing machine for me to make the fabric lining for the bag. Since I had the machine for a whole week, I industriously made a Holly Hobbie cloth doll from a pattern, and several dresses and a pinafore for the doll.

I learned the basic use of a sewing machine in Home-Ec in junior high, then took every sewing class I could in high school. I made several shirts for me and for my boyfriend; then I made my wedding dress, altering the pattern, in Advanced Sewing and Design in my senior year. I also made a doll coat from a remnant of corduroy with fur remnants for the collar and cuffs, for which I received class credit.

Jennie & Loren Wedding May 14, 1978

My wedding with me wearing the dress that I made. 1978, Lincoln Nebraska.

My mother bought me a classroom-grade Singer sewing machine for a wedding gift, and I’ve been sewing ever since, though I did upgrade to an antique Singer treadle machine—oh, and a Baby Lock with embroidery stitches, too. And I have been learning much more about antique sewing techniques and fabrics in the past few years.

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Irene is one of my first attempts to acquire an 1860’s china doll with original flat china shoes.  She is one of my ubiquitous cheap finds that nobody else wanted. Though she is a bit rough, I think she has great character! She does have a bit of provenance. A card tucked inside her head reads, “God bless & heal & encircle Betsy Colbert & Joel & All they hold dear.  Amen 2002, Summer.” Irene also came with a tag tied with a black velvet ribbon around the arm of the dress she came in. It says, “China Head Missy, gently restored by Susan Luna.”  The back has a gold label that reads:  Susan Minegar Luna, Dolls & Restoration, Santa Ana, CA.

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Irene’s head is a nice example of an 1860’s Kister factory flat top, though her shoulder plate is completely rebuilt, and the left side has been broken off again. Her hair has a white center part and 13 sausage curls. Her body is original and re-covered in stockinette. Her legs are original, with low heel shoes with laces; however, the right leg has been broken and repaired with a painted-on covering and the blue ribbon repainted. Her arms are replaced with some rightfully belonging to a smaller doll meant to attach at the shoulders with knobs, but proportionally, they work well for this doll, with detailed individual fingers and creased palms.

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When I received her, Irene was wearing a long-waist orange print cotton dress, a nylon net slip, and pantalettes with pleated nylon lace flounces.  I have made her a hand-sewn camisole of white cotton with vintage light blue scallop trim to cover her broken shoulder plate.  I made matching pantalettes with two rows of the light blue scallop trim at the bottom.  She now has a light blue flannel petticoat that I sewed with three tucks and a cream lace-trimmed flounce at the bottom.  I am proud of the hoop skirt I fashioned from boning and twill tape, though if I make one again, I’ll add another row of hoop for closer spacing. Her costume is a fully lined Civil War style day dress of light blue calico floral print with a high neckline to cover her replaced shoulder plate.  It has antique wide tatted lace trim in a V on the bodice, pearlized bead buttons up the front, and a sewn on silver filigree pendant on a short chain.  Tatted lace that trimmed the orange dress she came in now trims her sleeves and sash. I made a crocheted civil war style reticule, or handbag, to hang from the sash.

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When I altered the dress pattern to fit Irene’s body size and shape, I did not account for having to widen the sleeves, so I had to re-cut them. Playing around with the extra sleeve pieces, I realized I could fold them into a bonnet shape. So her bonnet, which is slightly small for her, but shows off her face well, was an afterthought made from the discarded sleeve pieces. She looks regal in her new period appropriate dress.

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In the past, many girls, such as Laura and Mary Ingalls, learned to sew at their mother’s knee, piecing quilt blocks, hemming sheets, and making garments to wear. Since I so admire the skills and handiwork of women in centuries past, I was determined to learn them, even though I could not learn from my own mother and grandmother. Creating with textiles is part of my spirit, and I was able to share this love with my paternal grandmother, Mammaw, and with my mother–in-law, Lucile. Some of the antique dolls bring their legacy of sewing with them, with antique dresses they wear. Some of the dolls will carry forth new dresses especially created under my needle for their countenance.

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My daughter Brighde, age 2, in the dress I made her for the Wheeler Family Reunion in 2000, commemorating the 150th anniversary of her father’s family home, a Greek Revival, in Warwick, New York. Brighde is sitting in the corner of the back parlor where her grandfather was born. He was the last Wheeler child born in the home in 1929. The home is now the Peach Grove Inn Bed and Breakfast. http://www.hotels.com/ho262929/peach-grove-inn-warwick-united-states/ This dress was made from a McCall’s pattern and is similar to an 1850’s style. An authentic rendition would have the wide and low neckline to expose the shoulders instead of the Peter Pan style collar. I didn’t know at that time how to make it more authentic. It still looks “period,” and we received many compliments!

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Naming Our Dolls: REAL Toys Have Names (And a Kloster Veilsdorf China Doll With Provenance)

Have you noticed that antique dolls with provenance usually bear names that were bestowed when they were newly acquired to become beloved play companions? Naming dolls is an act of creating a plaything and companion, rather than objectifying the doll as an acquisition in a collection. It is another piece of how a plaything becomes REAL. Little girls in the past, and now, usually give their dolls names. We are indeed fortunate when an antique doll that comes to us brings her name with her.

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Through my posts, you have met some of my antique doll companions, and you have become acquainted with them through their names. Some of my dolls have provenance, and many do not. I would like to share with you something of how my extraordinary dolls come by their names.

We have already established that an antique doll needs costuming or dress that is appropriate to her age—when she was created—and type, or the material she is created from. (See Ellen: From Frumpy Dowager to Southern Belle.) Another consideration is the stage of development she represents. Is the doll an infant, toddler, young girl or boy, adolescent, or grown woman? There are many antique china dolls on the market now which were made to represent children (from the 1880’s), but are dressed as women. Unless it is an original outfit, this is a disservice to the presence of the doll. Retaining the doll’s original clothing is desirable when possible, and dressing the doll in period appropriate costume with fabric contemporary to her, allows her spirit to shine with dignity, as we saw previously with Ellen in her vintage Southern Belle dress. The same principal holds true with names. If a doll brings her name with her, then by all means, preserve it! Otherwise, choose one wisely that evokes her spirit and the stage of development that she represents.

Baby name books are a good place to start for finding more information on naming trends. Beyond Jennifer and Jason was the title of the book I used in the 1980’s and 90’s when searching for names for my children, though the most common names have shifted now, more than 20 years later. The book in its’ recent edition is called Beyond Ava and Aidan. (By the way, I received my name of “Jennifer” about 15-20 years before it rose to the top of the charts in popularity. When learning of my name for the first time, Mammaw said, “Jennie! That’s a name for a mule!”And so we learn about differences in name trends in the early 1900’s versus the 1960’s.) For finding doll names, I like a baby name book a friend gave me that is from the 1950’s. Historical literature is another place to find older names, as is conversations with our parents and grandparents to discover the names of their colleagues and relations.

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I also like to have a method for choosing names for dolls as they come to me. My first china doll is not really an antique, but is a vintage reproduction that I found at the tourist rest stop of Booger Holler, Arkansas on the return trip from visiting Mammaw after I discovered she gave her china doll to my cousin’s wife, and I would indeed not receive her after all. I named this Arkansas doll Cordelia because she has an “alabaster brow” like Anne Shirley’s fantasy lady in Anne of Green Gables. Cordelia has a fancy hair style with looped braids, and was probably molded from an antique Parian style, or unglazed bisque cloth-bodied doll. Emma Clear, the famous reproduction doll artist from the mid-20th century, seems to have made a doll from this same mold, and hers was called Toinette. Cordelia is not an Emma Clear doll though, as her face painting is different, and she is not signed.

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Dorothy was my first antique china doll, as you read in a previous post, and as a Pet Name china, she brought her name with her. Aurora took her name from the place where I found her, and this seemed to indicate a trend in following the letters of the alphabet for the dolls’ names as they began coming to me. A composition baby was named Brenda for a friend I had in the past; then came Ellen, Fiona, Geordie, Hazel (for Lucile’s mother), Irene, Jemima and Josie, and so on.

By the time “X” was up for the next doll name, a most lovely brown eyed Greiner-type variation china doll came to me. Her name was to be “Alexia” (okay, so I decided “X” in the name worked without being at the beginning), but it just did not seem right for this doll. I decided to unfasten the tapes holding this doll’s head on her body to see if she had any markings inside on her china, and what did I find, but a card with her provenance rolled up in her neck! How exciting when I knew nothing about her from the seller! She brought the name Abbagale Brounell with her.  The next doll, a young girl,  was named Beatrix for “X,” and this name worked well for her.

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Abbagale Brounell was made by the Kloster Veilsdorf factory around 1860. (Reference Identifying German Chinas Page 48 top illustration for a similar doll.) She has a cloth body, possibly straw stuffed, with cloth ballerina feet and white leather arms with individually sewn fingers. Her shoulder head is 6” tall with four sew holes, and she has a deeply sloped shoulder plate. She has brown eyes with white highlights on the upper right side, well defined upper and lower lids, and lower painted brown lashes. Eyebrows are wide with black and brown strokes.  Her black hair has a wide unpainted center part with curls on her forehead, tight curls around the back of her neck, and smooth comb marks on the top of her head. She has rosy cheeks, deeply painted lips, and nostril circles. Her body is machine stitched with hand mended feet.  The main body is made in two sections with hips gathered to waist in back. Total height: 22 ½” tall. Abbagale came dressed in closed seam cotton pantalets with two tucks and eyelet lace, and a petticoat with deep hem and net lace, both closing with large hook and thread bar. Her dress is two piece brown silk (possibly originally deep red) with velvet, button, black lace and cream lace trim. She came with grey stockings and tan boots. I have made a new white cotton chemise for her with vintage lace at the neckline.

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This is what her provenance card says:

Aug. 20, 1951  This day, I Mrs. Mary Emilia Dutra 179 Hart St. Taunton, Mass. Bought this 24 inch brown eye (cloth body) mark on body 1864, we think she is much earlier then [sic] this) (Abbagale Brounell) china head doll from Mrs. Freddrick Harrington 129 Bay St. City.  $  .00

First owner Miss Abbagale Brounell from her father when she was a little girl.  He owned a Tin Shop on Main St. Taunton, Mass.  This china doll was given to Mrs. Harrington’s little daughter many years after.  Miss Brounell’s sister was Mrs. Hatty Leonard part owner of Leonard and Baker Stove Co. City Cushman St.  I am naming her after (Abbagale Brounell) (worth a lot today)

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I replaced the card into her neck so it stays safe there with her provenance.  Mrs. Mary Emilia Dutra did neglect to disclose what she paid for Abbagale in 1951.  I wonder if the unusual name spellings were actual, or Mrs. Dutra’s invented spellings?  My thought is that the shoulder head is older than 1864, and that the body was made in this year, as it is machine stitched.

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It would be fascinating to know what name Abbagale gave her china doll when she was a child. It is a common practice to name an heirloom doll after the doll’s original childhood owner, as Mrs. Dutra named Abbagale Brounell, and as I named my heirloom Bye-Lo baby, Lucile. Even when we cannot find a doll’s original name through provenance, bestowing an appropriate name on a doll allows her personality to take form, and her spirit to shine forth.