Thursday, September 9, 2010

Dolls, miniatures, farmers and dollpeople

Those of you who own miniature needlework made by me know that I used to have another life, in a galaxy far far away, as a miniaturist working in the needlearts, needlepoint, which I renamed minipoint, trapunto, drawn threadwork, embroidery, all in one twelfth scale, which is the standard dollhouse miniature size.

Intended for adult collectors, these were items which I designed and sold and kitted, and were covered in national magazines,when I was a juried participant in national miniature exhibits and shows. Big deal. Well tiny deal in another way. But a very happy period, among a lot of other things I was doing at the time, so what else is new.

In the course of this, a lot of people would say they loved my own work, but really really would like to learn to do it rather than buy it. So I ended up designing and assembling kits for items like pillows, bellpulls, pictures, doorstops, purses, all the sorts of accessories the well furnished dollhouse needs.

And one thing led to another and I ended up with a Minipoint Club, which people bought a year's subscription for one kit and a newsletter per month. This was long ago, when color xeroxing was a tricky affair, and very difficult to accomplish, early machines being run by technicians rather than laypeople.

So getting my charts accurately copied was a big deal, since I designed them in the exact color the kit called for, with stitches lying correctly, so that even a beginner could make these items.

Of course, since the items themselves were miniatures, the chart was a whole lot bigger so that you could see what you were doing. And I supplied the chart, the exact amount of embroidery floss in the right colors, to allow for some redoing as well as success, and a needle stuck into each piece of mesh.

This was 24 stitches to the inch if I remember correctly, not available in stores, and the needles were size 8, also not available in stores. I had to buy them directly from the manufacturers in the smallest quantities they would sell, and I still have hundreds of size 8 needles lying around somewhere, since they sold in units of thousands! you'd be surprised at how heavy a tiny package of needles is.

The newsletter I typed up and xeroxed off each month, with news of my garden and fun items in it, and jokes, and serious notes on the history of needlework and why we should protect old needlework from being thrown away by auctioneers unaware of its value or beauty.

I got wonderful responses to the newsletters, too, with people getting right back at me to share their gardens and jokes and so on! This was in the 70s when there was terrible distress in farming in the midwest and west, and quite a few of my members were farmwomen.

One in particular I remember, used to look forward to her kit as the one spark of light in her life at the time. One time she wrote to me from the cab of their pickup, parked outside the bank, where her husband was trying desperately to get his loan extended so that they would not lose the farm.

Initially I thought people would sign up for a year, then think, well, that was nice, and go on to other pursuits. Then I would be able to repeat designs without cheating anyone, rather than have to think up a new one each month and chart it and so on. But nooooooo. NOBODY dropped a subscription. In fact I ended up with about 100+ people, in the US, Canada, England, Australia, NZ and Holland. People would sign up their mothers and sisters and second cousins once removed.

So not only did I have to create a new design each month, but the short joy of creating was overtaken by the drudgery of copying, assembling, counting, labeling, stamping and shlepping, oh dear. And I didn't set a high price at all, figuring it was just a nice little hobby business, so the profit was marginal at best, not much reward for the work, if you look at it that way.

Anyway, after a few years I regretfully closed the club, thanked everyone and encouraged them to reuse old designs if they wanted to continue, and got all kinds of wonderful letters from people begging me not to stop!

Even some people who had been so baffled at the outset that I'd asked them to send back the kit, I would put in the first few stitches and leave the needle in place, so that they could follow on, and mail it back. Light dawned, they were able to finish, and were very happy with themselves.

A lot of the members were living far from towns or any place they could get help and advice, and this predated the internet by decades, so it was a kind of lifeline for women wanting some creative stuff in their lives at a minimum cost.

In fact the designs do live on, some of them being used in the summer program in our township, taught by a master embroiderer from material I distributed when I spoke to a meeting of the local embroiderers' guild chapter all those years ago!

Very very few unfriendly encounters in the course of all of this, if you don't count people who were new to miniatures, were more doll people, who angrily wrote to say, this chart won't WORK!!! it's TOO BIG!! this purse will be GIANT SIZED for my doll, etc., and had to be talked down to calm, then reminded that they were following the chart with miniature mesh, needle and thread....and eventually they came to understand the difference between a dress pattern and a needlework chart. That was one confusion that would never have occurred to me.

But that was before I met doll people! I've noticed that serious doll collectors I've met all have doll like appearances -- perfectly symmetrical faces, bright eyes, little mouths. Some of them even look as if they were dressed by a loving owner! go to a doll show and you'll see what I mean.

Nice people, but very different from miniature makers, many of whom are somewhat anxious perfectionist types! in fact this is a reason I hold down my mini making, because it caters to the neurotic side of my personality, which I don't want to encourage! you can get very worked up over getting things Just Right, and there are times when life only calls for Just Good Enough.

And working to create the Dollivers and letting it go where it will has been a lovely insight into dollmaking and how relaxed and whimsical and silly it can get.

Just don't tell them I said that.


  1. I wonder if it would be worth converting those old charts and whatnot to pdf and making them available for purchase through something like Etsy?

    I had a dollhouse when I was a child - one that my father made from a kit, and furnished with lovely little miniatures. I gave it up when I moved to Alberta, but it was passed on to a little girl in the neighbourhood who was so thrilled with it that she refused to go to school the next day. I kept the little rocking chair from the living room; it sits on my bookcase (well away from the cats!).


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