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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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. 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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