Tag Archives: making of a ragdoll

Jess Brown Dolly

Finally, the weather broke – literally, the clouds finally cracked, rain poured down, and my craftroom is now, once again, a pleasant place to be.  And,  while my Jess Brown doll might be sitting around in her skivvies, I was comfortable in my t-shirt and shorts.

How cute are her little pantaloons??  So cute.  The clothes in the book are super simple to make, and were probably the least time consuming process of making little dolly.

This is the drawstring dress that’s on the cover of the book.  In keeping with the themes of the book, I did plunder my tiny stash of vintage fabrics for this embroidered piece.  While I love it, Joe thought she looked kind of nun-ish, with the smock like shape of the dress, and the high neck.  I love the simple look of the dress, but I think my niece might agree with Joe at least as far as the fabric goes – I don’t think she’d appreciate the vintage fabric – I think she’d just think it was old.  So, I think I’m keeping this doll experiment, and that’s ok.

And now for a look at the hair.  During the week, I said a heartfelt goodbye to all of my moth riddled sweaters.  I had them stacked in a pile, while I came to terms with the fact that they were too destroyed to be fixed.   That process took a few years.  But, finally, I felt ready.   Even though they were filled with holes, it was with a heavy heart that I threw them into the washing machine to be felted beyond recognition.  So, this head of hair was born from my favorite GAP sweater.  The handmade sweaters that I felted turned out much to thick for hair, but will find their ways into other projects.

As you can see, I had no idea what I was doing. The instructions in the book tell you to cut strips and sew them to the head. Not that helpful really. So, I started with the ribbing, and sewed that on, like they were bangs, I guess. Then, I sewed on a strip across the back of the head. Then, I got the idea to cut shorter strips, and roll them up at the bottom, like curling hair, I guess. I think it would have looked better had I not sewn that strip down the middle – but that I had sewed the vertical strips to the front bang strip. I don’t know. It’s just hair, no biggie.  And it is super soft.

And here she is, finished! Well, for the most part. I think I may use a ribbon around the neckline of the dress instead of the embroidery floss that the pattern talked about. But, for the most part, done. And, I do think she’s very sweet.

So, final thoughts.  As far as the pattern goes, it’s simple, but . . .  I think the pattern was designed for the sewer who is afraid of sewing curves.  Pretty much you sew a straight line, pivot, sew.  The only true curves are around the head, hand, and the foot – sort of – the leg is folded in half, and sewn.  I think if I were to make it again, I’d definitely do the base of the doll differently – so that it doesn’t come out like a triangle with pencils sticking out of her.    And, to avoid the pencil like leg, I think I’d make them longer, with a knee bend.  And, if you sew the arms on after – whether you attach them with buttons or just sew them on (like Tilda), you don’t need the stuffing hole in the back.   We’ll see.

And, in keeping with the notion that every child deserves a “comfort” doll as Jess Brown calls them, I chatted with my niece last night about making rag dolls as part of her bat mitzvah mitzvah project.  Right now she volunteers with my nephew’s autism meet up group, The Friendship Circle.  I thought maybe I’d make a bunch of doll parts, and Danielle would help me stuff them and dress them, and then we’d give them to the kids at Hanukkah.  Danielle thought that was a great idea, but we’ll see if there’s any follow through there.  If there isn’t, it’s no biggie – she does enough work as it is with the kids.  I would like to make some dolls to donate though.  While I don’t have any problems with the pricing of Jess Brown dolls – they’re handmade, with the best material, and have a definite high end vibe to them – I disagree that they are in fact affordable.  They are affordable to a certain market, sure, but not the market I’m privvy to.  Maybe if my plot with Danielle doesn’t work out, I’ll think about donating them to a pediatric ward of a hospital or something.  Our office does a toy drive every year, but doesn’t accept handmade toys.  I”m thinking if I leave off removable parts like buttons or plastic eyes, they should be ok.  I don’t know – still plotting.

The great ragdoll experiment continues!

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My Low End High End Ragdoll – Making a Jess Brown Doll

As I mentioned, I decided that before I start winging it with my own patterns, I thought I’d make some tried and true patterns to get the hang of construction and popular aesthetic.  So, over the weekend, I downloaded Jess Brown’s Making of a Ragdoll.

Before I downloaded the book, I did check out a hard copy at Barnes & Noble.  It really is a beautiful hardback book.  The photos are lovely, and give the book a vintage, natural feel.  Much is lost in the digital copy, and if you’re at all interested in this book, I would recommend spending the extra $15 and get a paper copy.  Jess Brown intends her dolls to be “comfort dolls,” and much of the curl up with the book comfort is lost with the digital version.  Also, piecing together the patterns from the downloaded digital version was a total pain in the butt.  The digital version directs you to an online PDF.  The PDF contains instructions for printing, and which options to choose in your print menu for tile printing.  Then, the pattern prints like puzzle pieces, that have to be cut, and pieced together with small x’s as guides.  Cutting and piecing the doll pattern as well as the clothes and the accessories took well over an hour. Oy!


Before cutting, piecing and taping, I did read Jess Brown’s narrative about the birth of the dolls and her love for all natural materials like corn fiber stuffing, bamboo embroidery thread, and non-plastic buttons.  I envied her that her job requires her to haunt flea markets for vintage fabrics and other textiles (as opposed to my job which requires weekly prison trips).  While the story of the dolls served as a nice introduction to the why of the organic materials, I had actually already heard the story told by Jess Brown on the While She Naps podcast, and the podast interview is really so much more interesting than the book.  For instance, in the book, she talks about how the first doll she made for her daughter was sewn from cashmere sweaters that had been destroyed in the wash.  In the actual telling of the story in chit chat way, without the formality of a book, it’s her husband who decided to do the wash that day, and destroyed the sweaters – this teeny tiny detail makes for a better story.  And, in the podcast, she goes into the effects of having Martha Stewart feature her dolls, working on a fashion week installation with life size ragdolls, and how she runs her business, including producing the dolls, pricing the dolls, and her thoughts on actually writing the book.

In this doll quest of mine, I’ve perused Etsy, looking at all sorts of dolls – art dolls, clay dolls, rag dolls, Tilda dolls, etc., and it’s was no surprise that there are a lot of Jess Brown knock-offs out there.  So, it was understandable when she talked in the podcast about how ambivalent she was about writing a book after being approached by Chronicle.  Why should she write a book, reveal her secret sauce to her pattern, and hand the keys to the kingdom over to these copycats when this is how she makes a living?  And, I’m really glad that I listened to this analysis of coming to the decision to write the book, and coming to a compromise of creating a new doll for the book that’s not THE doll.

Yes, the pattern in the book is not THE Jess Brown doll, but a Jess Brown doll.  The doll has all of the elements that make a lovely comfort doll – the simple body, instructions for her signature star eyes and felt heart shaped mouth, and cute patterns for a sun dress, a long sleeve dress, a coat, a hat, a duffle bag, and pantaloons.  But, if you were hoping for instructions on how to make her 22′ inch doll, with arms that are attached with buttons, this is not that pattern.  And, after listening to the podcast, I was totally ok with that.  It’s still a Jess Brown doll.

The pattern itself is pretty easy to sew.  I decided to transfer the 1/4′ seam lines to the backside of my fabric.  To do this, as you can see above, I used chaco paper, which is basically carbon paper.  The photo above shows the back of the doll.  I won’t go exactly into how this works – you’ll have to buy the book, but after sewing the two halves of the back together you have a more rounded head, and an opening for stuffing up the back.   This, apparently, is another departure from THE doll.  From what I can tell from online photos, THE doll has a pretty basic body – and if there’s any shaping of the head, I can’t tell.

Anyway, this chaco paper transfer was particularly helpful on the front of the doll, which does require you to transfer pivot points at the under arm pits of the doll.  If I had one qualm with the pattern it’s definitely these arms.  While the button shoulder arms may be one of the signature features of THE doll, it’s not original, not like the star eyes or the felt heart mouth.  I think she was giving away more secrets describing the eyes, than having separate arms.  But, in any event, having the arms attached to the body leads to a little kink where it joins the body.  Eh, so she has a wrinkle.  But, if you want to create a really simple, accessible pattern, I think it’s much much more simple to sew the arms separately and attach them to the body then sew around this really narrow area, and turn it seemlessly.

And, just in case you’re looking to make a doll like this, or any doll with skinny arms, here’s a good way to flip them rightside out.

1. First, stick a straw in the limb:

2. Then, turn it upside down, and stick a chopstick, or as I’ve used here, the stick that comes with polyfiberfil, into the tip of the outside of the limb, shoving the stick into the straw.

3. Then slowly, you don’t want to poke a hole in the end of your limb, roll the fabric down over your chopstick/stick and voila!

Limbs succesfully turned! Ownward. The next step in the book is to stuff and sew up the body, and do the face after it’s stuffed.  She gives you instructions to do the signature star, pulling the thread out through the back of the head, I guess to be covered with hair.

I opted not to do the star eye.  Confession time – I think the star eye is creepy.  So, what kind of an eye then?  I thought about buttons, but if this doll turns out ok, it’ll eventually be gifted to a 2 year old – buttons not so good.  While thinking about it, I happened to listen to another While She Naps podcast with Christina Platt of Bamboletta, and she talked about the theory behind Waldorf style dolls.  Apparently, the idea is that a doll should be fairly expressionless because this allows for the child to fully access their imagination when playing with the doll – they can imagine the doll to be happy or sad, and they’re not limited by a constantly smiling, happy faced doll.  So, while I didn’t love the star eye, I did want a neutral face, but a pleasant face.  So, after looking at a lot of doll eyes, I used this one, which I embroidered in a hoop before sewing the doll together:

I did go for the heartshaped mouth, because I think it’s sweet. THE Jess Brown doll’s heartshaped mouth is not red, it’s more of a dull yellow.

Anyway, so here she is so far.

Ready for stuffing!  The instructions in the book have you just sew across the front of the doll while attaching the legs, leaving a raw edge.  Since I’m not using any kind of special organic fabric, but kind of crappy but soft cotton from Michael’s, I think I’m going to turn a hem under.

The two year old I mentioned is one of my niece’s on Joe’s side, and she’s just learning to walk.  THE doll, the 22″‘er, came into being because Jess Brown’s daughter was learning to walk at the time she was creating the doll – so she measured from her arm to her feet, so that the doll would be a walking companion.  I like that idea.  So, if this all works out, I think I may make another one that’s more like Tilda – make the body bigger, get rid of the seam in the back, sew the arms separately, make them longer, attach them with a button, make longer longs, with maybe jointed knees.  We’ll see.

First, I have to figure out how to attach hair – because that’s not explained so well in the book.  Stingy on the secret sauce there. Eh, who can blame her?  Not me.

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