'Idle hands are the devil's tools" was a favorite saying of my great-aunt Josephine. But as she's gotten on in years, she's become increasingly idle herself. Christmas this year may have provided a solution. Josephine was complaining about all the technological gifts that got opened in the Kelly home. "What about handmade things?" she griped. "Beautiful things. Things that you can pass down and be remembered by? You think your descendents are going to put some gadget on a mantel?" "Fine, Auntie," I replied. "Let's get you making something. Idle hands and all that!" I found something to help me get Josephine going at a local fabric store: a flyer advertising Imitation of Life Construction Company, a doll-making club. Patti Medaris Culea ( www.pmcdesigns.com ) is president of the club and also an instructor and author of four books on doll-making, covering basic doll-making, faces, couture, and beading. (Books are $24.99 each, available at Barnes & Noble; a beading book will be available in April 2007.) "We're a cloth-doll society," she explained -- as opposed to a clay-doll society. "We meet in a rec center in the Clairemont area -- we want to stay central -- on the fourth Tuesday of every month. Right now, we have 31 active members, anywhere from their 20s up to 85 years old, and they're at all different skill levels. And a lot of people who are not members come because a particular program sounds interesting. We even encourage people to come who don't make dolls, but just like to collect them. We don't have a lot of hard and fast rules; you've just got to have fun."
Like the members, the dolls vary widely. "There are Raggedy Ann--type dolls, but there are also realistic dolls. One woman did these amazing historical dolls -- very realistic. She really got into the costuming of certain time periods. But the bulk of us are more whimsical. I think the trend now is to be very free in doll-making. I travel all over and teach, and I see people who want elves and fairies, something in the fantasy line, because they want to escape realism." (Sometimes, the dolls come to her. Members often enter their dolls in the annual Dimensions in Doll Making Exhibit -- held in connection with the San Diego Quilt Show -- which also features entries from places as far flung as Australia and South Africa.)
Membership in the doll club costs $35 a year and includes a newsletter subscription and discounts on workshop prices. Workshops run the gamut from beginning to advanced techniques. (The January 11 workshop will feature Shery Goshon, a doll designer famed for her watercolor work.) "The doll club has helped so many of us grow and learn over the 16 years it's been going," said Culea. "With beginners, we give them a pattern and show them how to lay it out, cut it, and sew it. We explain stitch length -- you want a shorter-than-average stitch -- how to sew around a curve, and how to sew fingers. Cutting is key with fingers; you don't want too much fabric or it gets hard to turn them. I like to use brass tubes, the kind you can get anyplace that sells model trains. The tube goes into the finger and acts as a guide. We show people how to stuff the doll, and maybe how to wire fingers."
The dolls are fabric, but there's still plenty of room for a variety of materials. "For hair, you can use mohair, fur, fake fur, yarn, silk, torn fabric, and even birdseed. One gal went to the hardware store and got bolts, washers, and wire for the hair. It was wonderful." And of course, the variety of fabric is all but endless. "Boutique fabrics are becoming popular for making bodies; they're mottled and more realistic. Or you can dye your own. Faces can be white, brown, or peach."
Faces are one of Culea's specialties; besides having written a book about them, she teaches a class on feature placement. (Because she's a local and doesn't have travel expenses, her classes are only $25 . Classes taught by out-of-towners can run up to $100 .) "I come from a fine-arts background; I did portraits for years. It's key to get the features in the right spot. After that, everything is just circles: the eyes are three circles, the nose is three circles, and the lips are three circles and an oval. You use a regular mechanical pencil with a hard lead -- that way, if you don't like what you've drawn, it's easier to erase. For coloring, you can use anything from crayons to colored pencils to watercolors." (Not every mistake can be erased, however, and so Culea favors doll designs that feature a separate head. "If you're going to mess up, it's going to be with the head. If it's separate, you can throw it away and start with a new one.")
The doll-face book brings students along from flat, drawn-on faces to something a little more realistically bumpy. "In cloth doll-making, the seam dictates where the nose and lips are going. Instead of a two-piece hem, the sort you'd use for a flat face, you use anywhere from four to seven pieces. Then you fill and sculpt, doing things like pulling stuffing into the nose to make it bigger, wider, or narrower. It's the same with the lips; you can make them smiling, frowning, or puckering up to kiss someone."
Besides a needle and thread, Culea's favorite doll-making tool is a hemostat. "It's a surgical tool, like a forceps. You can find them at swap meets. You can use them to grab stuffing, turn things, and hold things. I use it to grab the neck of the doll so I can push it up into the head."
For more information, visit www.iolcc.com or call Sharon Goldschneider: 619-465-7730.