Those Old Dolls Are Much Fussier Than Humans

Several columns ago Linda Learn presented a marvelous and humorous, but true, picture of what the costumer endures to achieve authenticity and to satisfy fidgety, fussy customers. That was a natural lead in to dressing old dolls which ironically may not kick and cuss but it is thrice harder for doll dressmakers to please their owners.

In many respects dressing dolls is no different than clothing humans so what pertains to dolls in this column can also be beneficial to costumers. Many doll collectors attempting to dress their own dolls or for others are not quite sure about style and fabric. Whatever information is learned along the way, it is still a prerequisite to have good doll references for all types of garments and accessories and to understand the basic differences of doll types.


Economy at its best — head molds such as this German A.M. doll were used over a long period of time. Used on leather bodies c1890s mold number was 370; used on composition bodies cWWI years, mold number was 390 as is this doll. Before you even begin to costume you should know if doll is an original or repro, its age and size, maker if there are mold marks, type or classification, condition [repaired, needing repairs], and what is original to or replaced on doll such as body parts, eyes, wig, shoes, socks and clothes.

Often manufacturers would use the same head mold over a 20- 30-year period; sometimes the body style or manufacturer’s body stamp will help to give a more precise date. However, production longevity for such doll heads gives costumers a leeway of several decades to choose their styles. There are three classifications of doll garments: original – clothes [also wigs, eyes, shoes, socks, body parts] on doll as made by the manufacturer and sold that way; commercial – another term for original but these are additional clothes made by manufacturer or an authorized company for a particular doll, usually tagged [has label]; and contemporary – clothes made or bought [usually not tagged] for doll in the decade of its manufacture. Homemade or “replaced clothing” are buzzwords which can mean anything, usually just that and in most cases not suitable to doll.

Do not be fooled by clothes doll may be wearing as they could be throw-ons of no particular value or significance. Of vital interest to collectors are tagged clothing which can be valued many times higher than the doll as any Ginny or Barbie collector will verify Reproduction dolls can be learning experiences in dressmaking.

Doll 2

This repro boy made a good prop to get acquainted with sewing techniques for early 1900s children’s clothes, accessories and shoes. Fabric is old chambray, pique and china silk for bow; belt and shoes made from kid leather gloves. Hat and socks are from 1980 doll stock. If your doll is a repro, you have a choice in being more creative in costuming and will not have to worry about stepping out of bounds. Many patterns for these dolls are generally simplified versions and/or today’s conception of vintage costume which allow synthetics and notions substitutes [i.e., snaps for hooks and eyes].

But for beginner and advanced costumer alike such patterns do serve to provide basic pattern parts and sizes which eliminates the need to draft. As you become more acquainted with sewing for old dolls, your taste will begin to dictate authentic patterns or new patterns made to the exacting standards of the old patterns. There is little difference in dressing dolls or humans. Both require patience, exact fitting and use just about the same fabrics. Here are some guidelines to fabric selection and patterns, pitfalls and a few construction tips to make the job easier.

In the chart below you will see reference in some cases to no satins. Most satins on antique dolls were cotton backed. They are not widely available today or may not even be made anymore. If you have old silk millinery ribbon, it will have a cotton back; this will give you some idea of the appearance. The doll costume made with new satin simply doesn’t look the same and can spoil the entire effect. Gauze refers to gauzy muslin or lawn or a more open-mesh fabric called gauze.

I have omitted voile as many garments said to be made of voile are actually fine muslin or gauze. More on that in a later section. All fabrics are natural fibers unless stated otherwise. Doll Types to Accompany Fabric Chart Queen Ann type doll of wood, 1720-1789.

Beautiful Doll

Original clothes.

Beautiful Doll 2

1870s French fashion type doll – national doll convention souvenir furnished with pattern. Costumed in Italian pima; vintage French fringe, velvet trim, hat and umbrella.

Beautiful Doll 3

Late 1860s china head plain hair do redressed in vintage percale, pique, ball fringe.

Beautiful Doll 4

1880s parian [unglazed china] semi- fancy hair do; contemporary lawn homemade dress. Red hands and boots are part of body.

Beautiful Doll 5

All-original later type French bebé, early 1900s. Costume, fabric and workmanship not so elaborate as those of 1870s-90s.

Beautiful Doll 6

German dolly face, early 1900s. Coat and hat made from 1890s imitation sealskin cape, vintage fur collar, ribbon and gloves; matching muff has moveable head and limbs, old shoe buttons for eyes.

Beautiful Doll 7

1920s all- original, all-felt dolls from Germany [l] and Italy. Wigs are mohair floss, used in cheaper dolls.

Beautiful Doll 8

1920s smoking boudoir doll redressed in authentic costume of dress sateen and matching ribbon from the 1920s. Shoes are original.

Beautiful Doll 9

Composition mama doll, early 1940s redressed in contemporary clothes and shoes.

Beautiful Doll 10

Hard plastic late 1940s-50s; all –original Mary Hoyer as she came out of the box. Fabric Selection Type of Doll Date Pattern Style Suitable Fabrics, Scale to Dolls Any type lady doll – usually homemade of carved wood. 18th century dolls generally called Queen Ann dolls. To 1800 Woman’s or children’s fashions according to date of doll. Requires complete understanding of clothing terms and construction; make muslin first. Silks, brocades, colorful floral and striped cottons, gauze, cambric, light cottons, fine linen, challis, light wools.

Most dolls were dressed in scrap fabrics often patched together as fabric was so expensive and scarce; dress or scraps sometimes glued on. Lady-type doll – cloth or leather bodies, commonly referred to as French fashion dolls. to late 1890s Woman’s fashions of the doll’s decade; usually ornately styled. Pattern required, understanding of clothing terms and construction; make muslin first before attempting costume.

Dress silks including paper-thin for outer garments and mediumweight taffeta for outer and under garments, [no satins], cotton sheers & semi-sheers; quality gauzes, other fine cotton; challis, light wools, fine linen; silk velvet; fine laces including val & illusion nettingBatiste, linen, cambric, lawn, taffeta for under garments, broderie anglaise [eyelet usually as on a border fabric] trim. Layers of organdy or crinoline used for bustles. China heads, plain hairdoOften homemade stuffed bodies representing the average housewife; hair plainly styled.

To early 1900s Plain everyday outfits, Sunday church best appropriate of doll’s decade.

  • Percales, dress muslins, gauzes, flannels, dimity, cambric, lawn, lightweight wool, tweedy homespun effects; feedsack.
  • Ordinary cotton and flannel for undergarments.
  • Eyelet, crochet-type lace trims; val lace for Sunday best.
  • Bustles seldom used.
  • China and parian heads, fancy hair – ornately styled hair usually with ornamentation.
  • to early 1900s Fashions of the doll’s period; similar to French fashion dolls.
  • Same as for French fashion type dolls.
  • French bebés or poupeés, bisque – exquisite child, young girl-type dolls, only for the wealthy; paper weight eyes.
  • 1870s-90s Fancy clothes imitating adult fashions.
  • Deceptively simple looking; pattern and understanding of terms required; muslin first.

Silks including foulard or surah, no satins, lightweight brocades, sateen or satinette, silk velvet or fine velveteen, sheer & semi-sheer cottons, fine linen, cambric, German dolly face, bisque – so called because of idealized child or young girl’s face; most widely collected and available. Some rival the French dolls but most churned out by the millions per month.

1880s-post-WWI; many still made into the 1930s Late Victorian smock to blousy, low-waisted Edwardian dress; probably the favorite to sew as it is simpler in construction. Usually after first dress is made and construction is familiar, you can mix and match pattern pieces or drape. Ginghams, dimity, lawn, pique, sateen, chambray, cambric, fine muslin, gauze challis, fine linen, light or fine wool; silk to some extent as these dolls were for the average household which couldn’t afford this luxury fabric. However, some bisque heads still available in the late 20s-early 30s, such as those sold by Sears, wore sleazy silk or “artificial silk” [rayon] garments as a sales ploy.

Silk fabric or ribbon for those 1930s oversize 3-part hair bows.

All felt, all cloth – Lenci, Italian felt; and American cloth doll artists WWI to 1950s Dolls are mostly children or novelty costuming.

Reference book is needed for a pattern guide.

Lenci – all wool feltCloth – all types of cotton, lawn organdy, baby wool flannel.

Composition, all types – torsos usually cloth; wig or molded hair; includes boy dolls WWI-early 20s Simple dress styles ranging from infants to children to young girls; patterns can be drafted via illustration although several patterns should be had for construction instructions.

Lawn organdy [lawn with a stiffer finishing], soft-finish organdy, dimity, batiste, cheap silk or silk/cotton blend, gingham, percale, muslin, cheap gauzy cottons; knit fabric from old sweaters. Val lace and cheap silk ribbon trims. Composition, mama dolls usually molded hair; includes boy dolls 1920s-40s Simple one piece dress or romper with bonnet; pattern can be created from illustration although patterns for several types of bonnet patterns should be bought.

Dresses — lawn organdy, soft-finish organdy, dimity, nainsook, gauze, cheap rayon or cheap silk – Halloween costume type during Depression years; knit fabric from old sweaters; val lace trim.Romper suits or dresses – tiny checked percales with brim or banded bonnet most popular; muslin, gingham, chambray. Rick rack, piping trim. Composition—girl/fashion teens such as Alexander, Effanbee, Arranbee/R&B, Horsmann, Hoyer, etc.Boudoir dolls 1920-40s Simple and basic lines; patterns for each decade should be bought to learn techniques.

Styles ranged from young girl to fashion teen around 1940. A great period for formals, fur wraps, skating and other sports outfits. Comical novelty costumes for boudoirs. Percales, muslins, ginghams, gauze, broadcloth, lawn, dimity; limited silk and taffeta, netting, wool felt; old sweaters; rayon and acetate, especially taffeta and satin, and blends beginning in the 1930s. Val lace, rick rack, sequins, applique trims.Boudoir dolls – sateen, satin, rayon, novelty and gaudy.

Black lace, val lace trims. Hard plastics, all types – pre-Barbie post-WII to mid-1950s Same as composition above. Teen fashions and glamour clothes very prominent. Same fabrics as above with the introduction of nylon late in the 1940s. Making Clothes Fabric Selection – Familiarize yourself with old fabrics to be used for dolls just as you would if you were sewing your own clothes Vintage glossaries and catalogs are of immense value to color, style and fabrics popular during each fashion period.

Use only natural fibers; rayon, acetate and nylon as they appeared on the market. Then assess your doll and decide just how authentic you want to be. A biased opinion is if doll is not a repro, then dress accordingly in every aspect to its place in time. The patina and expression on old dolls seem to clash with new styles and modern synthetics.Aside from outer garment fabrics and trim, you will need to consider fabric and trim for underlining, lining, underclothes, padding, bustles and crinolines.

Fine cotton such as lawn, batiste, nainsook; cambric, fine muslin and percale, cotton flannel, especially red, and taffeta are ideal for period drawers, petticoats, chemises; rayon beginning in the 1930s and nylon in the late 1940s.

Beautiful Doll 11

Small bustle of lightweight crinoline on a mid-1870s wax over wood doll. Bustles began to recede during this period. Underskirt and over petticoat are yet to be made.

Beautiful Doll 12

Bustle and under garments are made before outer garment so that skirt and jacket will hang properly. Pinned hem not straightened at this stage; bustle was reshaped for better appearance. Batiste, fine nainsook and a reproduction fine muslin open mesh are suitable for underlinings. Linings will vary with type of garment but an opaque lawn or nainsook is workable.

Crinoline, lightweight buckram, layers of stiff organdy and boning are ideal where managed fullness and padding are required. Avoid satin before 1930s, heavy and bulky fabrics in general and fabrics not available in the decade for which you are dressing. Also avoid voile unless you have the old, fine type or buy today’s finest English voile. Most stores, especially chains, sell a voile very different from yesteryear’s. Voile is a very difficult fabric to sew as it is weighty and hard to manage.

Beautiful Doll12

Drawers are made first; then doll put on stand to make fitting and draping easier. Holder is slightly above waistline and secures drawers. Fabric and lace are from an early 1900s lawn petticoat. German doll early 1900s-1915.

Beautiful Doll 13

Coordinating slip is long- waisted to accommodate lines of low, blousy Edwardian style young girl’s dress. Notice slip has been put over stand holder so it will not interfere with costuming. Sewing Construction: As with humans, no two dolls have the same body, even though they may be identical. This holds especially true for the antique cloth, leather and composition bodies. Most bodies have been repaired or restored at some time and so they will not be symmetrical.

This emphasizes the first rule of sewing — fit, fit, fit as you go along. And it’s especially important with the complicated French fashion and bebé styles, indeed any where precise fit is required. Do not overlook making undergarments first; totally vital when bustle or padding is involved. To get a correct hang of overskirt and precise fit of the snug tops and jackets, you need to place garment over bustle or padding. Usually padding and bustles were placed over a petticoat, then topped by a very thin petticoat or separate skirt lining.

If you choose this option, remember to hold back on making that particular undergarment until padding is in place. It is wise to make drawers first, then put doll on stand and continue fitting and sewing from there. This helps you to adjust waist seam so that stand holder will not be in the way. For cloth dolls and leather bodies, especially the French fashion type, try to get saddle stands so you can avoid fitting bodices.

Beautiful Doll 14

Replaced cloth body made and stamped by Emma Clear Hospital on a late 1880s china head. Notice saddle stand which leaves waistline free for precise fitting.

Beautiful Doll 15

Typical German composition ball-jointed composition body cWWI. Shape is natural; opposite of French A-shaped child/girl bodies.

Beautiful Doll 16

One common type of leather body. Out of proportion shapes like this are best dressed with blousy tops to hide body lines. On dress bodices gathered at neckline or waistline or both, firmly handpress gathers when finished to achieve a flat gathered look. Don’t iron although you can hold iron over bodice to release steam which makes handpressing easier. Seams should be french or hand overcast with slant or buttonhole stitch.

Pattern Shapes: When you first attempt vintage sewing, you will be both amazed and confused by certain pattern pieces, especially sleeves.


Two-piece curved sleeve from an mid-1870s fitted jacket.

Dolls 3

Asymmetrical sleeve from girl’s dress cWWI. Gathers will be more to the back. Vintage sleeves are not the fast-making symmetrical shapes of today; rather they are two-pieced and curved as in 1850s-80s styles, two-piece gathered as in mutton leg top and mutton leg to elbow styles of the 1890s-early 1900s, two-piece straight with asymmetrical top cWWI where undersleeve seam lines up with bodice side seam and one-piece asymmetrical top with seam to the back of bodice.

Where tops are to be gathered, gathering is more toward the back which is why tops are shaped asymmetrically. In other words, no matching center of shoulder seam to center of sleeve top.

Other strange first encounters will be split-crotch drawers in which each leg is made separately, then joined at top only with a drawstring; the art of cartridge gathering and learning to stroke plain gathers into place. Placement and arrangement of darts on fitted jackets will also be tricky in the way they fan out in multiples from waist toward side seam. Actually fitted jackets of any vintage period are a challenge due to assembling so many pieces which require trial fittings.

Dolls 2

1860 drawers.

Each leg is sewn separately, then two fronts are joined. Resources If you cannot find the vintage fabric you need, there are specialty stores which carry fabrics, lace, ribbon and trim manufactured just like the old to serve both costumers and dolldressers needs.

Fabric sources: The following all stock a tremendous selection of English voile; Swiss lawn, dimity, dotted swiss, batiste, flannel; Italian and French silks; French lace, silk ribbon and trim and other accessories.

Most cottons are now being made in wider widths up to 60″ so while price per yard may seem steep, you will not need that much. www.farmhousefabrics.com and www.mini-magic.com Vintage Fabrics: www.juliennes.com, www.revivalfabrics.com and www.classactfabrics.com Patterns and supplies: there are many excellent patternmakers, pattern books and supplies which serve both dolldresser and adult costumer and are available at stores, doll shows, internet search and Ebay: Patterns– look for Lynn Alexander, Eleanor Carter [advanced], Franki [difficult instructions, not for beginners], Ledgewood Studios, Petite Patterns, Ulseth and Shannon, Yesteryear’s Patterns.

Many are out of print but available; www.addall.com is a comprehensive book search site. Doll Costumers Guild, a quarterly publication, featuring patterns and articles 1850s-1920. www.dollcostumersguild.com Pattern Books – Collectors Book of Doll Clothes by the Colemans has become a collector’s prize in itself and is now pricey but essential history for any costumer; My Favorite Patterns – 1865-1925, Evelyn Ackerman, from original doll clothes; Paris Collection, Sylvia MacNeil, from original French fashion doll costumes; Wish Booklets, Susan Sirkis, covers all eras.

Repair Books – Doll Repair and Restoration, Vol.

I and II, Marty Westfall.

The doll repairers’ bible.

Suppliers – Paris Papers, a division of Doll Costumers Guild, carries patterns, reproduction fine muslin gauze for underlining, books, doll-related and sewing and other supplies. www.parispapers.com Global Dolls has a comprehensive line of fine English mohair wigs, fine leather shoes and socks and other supplies available at www.globaldolls.com     The arbitrary cut-off date for this Vintage Fabric column is 1960.

To stay within the scope of this timeframe, reference materials published up to that date are the prime source of information to more accurately capture actual thoughts of the time. Joan Kiplinger is an antique doll costumer and vintage fabric addict who learned to sew on her grandmother’s treadle and has been peddling fabrications ever since.

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