rags for Penguin

August 07, 2021

Like so many others, I can remember the first time I discovered Jess Brown and her rag dolls. It was the February 2012 Martha Stewart Living magazine. They caught my eye and I even remember talking with other maker friends in my community about them. It was love at sight with this amazing hand crafted toy. That year I had a milestone birthday as well. Turning 40 made me realize that I always wanted to approach aging and growing through the memory lens of my childhood.

I grew up with a maker mama and family in a very loving and imaginative environment. My parents raised me and my sisters in the country in rural Missouri in an amazing old two story farmhouse that they rehabbed and brought to life. Sometimes I am a broken record but it really was a great way to grow up. I had relatively few toys; but always just enough and a whole world at my fingertips between the house, barns, woods, etc . . .

I don't remember being given my first doll, I think I was pretty young. I just remember her being there. The texture of the fabric on her body, the colors, the weight, and how she felt. You see she was a Raggedy Ann bean bag doll. When I researched her, she was introduced in 1972. Makes sense, that was my birth year and pretty logical that she was given to me as a wee one. I think there is even a story about her getting lost and how we were somehow reunited.

I grew up reading her stories with my older sister. Yes, my childhood nickname was Christi and obviously I was not a good speller and had a tendency to write inside my books! Maybe it was that love of my first rag doll that bloomed again when I saw Jess Brown's modern takes on this traditionally hand crafted doll, and I was smitten. When I also discovered the sweet book Kiki and Coco in Paris it sealed the deal. That year I purchased a birthday gift to myself of a sweet little pixie Jess Brown rag doll. I think I found her at Land of Nod at the time. Since then she has lived on a shelf in my bedroom and I continued to watch Jess Brown through social media channels as I raised my boys into the teen and young adult world. Days became years and it is still such a joy to see her creations on Instagram.

Here I am 9 years later and already starting to think about how I want to celebrate another big milestone birthday next year and found myself once again thinking about the dolls. My 16 and almost 20 year old are not too interested in toys any longer but my youngest niece is about to start kindergarten and I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to finally make a rag doll myself. 

I started a few weeks back by checking out her book from my local library. It really is a gem and I wish I had bought it when it first came out. I relished reading it in bed at night while I worked on tracking my own copy down. It is a little hard to get, guessing the hardback is out of print. Seems like you can get an e-version but I am not sure if the patterns come with the e-version, and I am old school with my books. In the end I found a used copy online for close to the original retail, which I thought was pretty good considered some of the prices I was seeing out there. I do love a good bargain hunt!

Next, I hit up the thrifts stores, flea markets, etc . . . on the hunt for a wool sweater to felt for hair, and textiles for clothes. I ended up finding this beautiful shirt made in India at the flea market that I thought would make the perfect dress. I also picked up some wool yarn that I could knit up in case I could not find a sweater to felt. In the end I did find a sweater and love the look of it for the hair. I understand why she uses it on her dolls.

With the materials all on hand, I dove in last weekend and was surprised that I was able to make her in just a few hours. I used tracing paper to copy the patterns and will confess that I had to make another body. Truth be told I am not a greater sewer, and in all honesty my sewing machine sucks. Somehow the super beginner, super cheap machine I bought back in my college days is on its last legs! Any case I digress. So, with the first body I actually struggled to get the arms turned out correctly so on the second body I did the arms as separate pieces and that worked better for my skill set. 

I used wool stuffing and for the body and then created the dress from that thrifted shirt and made her bloomers from a beautiful embroidered material from my stash. I might need to make my rag doll some bloomers. 

I was actually quite thrilled with her and could not wait to present her to my niece that happen to be sleeping over at our house a couple days later. My niece and I made her a blanket together, it of course had some unicorns from my Heather Ross fabric stash! So I am pleased to present to you Penguin, named and loved by my sweet niece.

I feel like I need to make another soon, you know just to keep those sewing skills fresh. I think I will tuck the next one away for the new grand niece that will be coming into the family later this year!

In the meantime I am thinking about that approaching next milestone birthday next year and am definitely planning on gifting myself another incredible Jess Brown doll. For me, staying young at heart is always keeping my inner child at play. 

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