Part #1 - Patterning
I’ve been creating custom-made doll clothing for more than ten years and I get asked a lot how to get started or how I do what I do. Now, let me be honest, when I started, my items were QUITE different than they are now. Time, experience and tons of trial and error are key to figuring out (for the most part) how to make great-looking clothing pieces for your dolls. They will start rough. They will look like raggedy hand-me-downs. You will have some early successes… but you will also have tons of duds. It comes with the territory. But the more you create, the better you will get. I’m here to help make that journey a little less bumpy for those looking to dress their fashion dolls with unique pieces.
Patterning is the basis for any article of clothing you plan to create. This is where you can make your idea come to life with tiny little pieces of fabric. And there are so many different ways to approach how you want to do this. You can drape and sew, use premade pattern pieces or adjust base pattern pieces to your specific needs and create something altogether yours.
Draping and sewing aren’t always the easiest to do with dolls. You can’t pin into them like you can with a standard tailor's bust that you’d use for “people clothes” since the dolls are typically hard plastic. And you always have to keep in mind that it is a bit harder to get clothing on and off a doll when their arms, legs and body don’t move like a human. Have you ever tried to get a shirt off without moving your elbow? I mean, I know most of us have been uncomfortably stuck in a shirt or dress in a changing room at one point or another in our lifetime. Not sure how to ask for help. Hoping you don’t hear a ripping sound. Sweating and wishing you were double-jointed. So keep in mind that somewhere, there has to be an opening and closure if you want the items to be removable. Because of this, I will move on to the techniques that are more helpful to someone just starting out.
In most cases, I work with play scale (11-12” Fashion dolls). Think Barbie, Monster High, etc. Barbie is the easiest one to reference and probably the most abundant doll out there. Patterns are actually available for this size doll from some companies such as Simplicity. There are also online resources specifically catered to doll patterns. You can even find free patterns out there if you have the time to search. If this is the type of doll you are working with - you can probably find almost anything you really need. But, what if it’s not? What if you are working with a doll that is atypical. One with varying waist, bust and hip sizes?
Barbie patterns can still be a great place to start! If your doll happens to be a similar size, you can adjust accordingly. If the arms are longer, make the sleeve longer, if the legs are wider, make the pant pattern wider in the leg. Play with the patterns and make them work for you. Draw a mock pattern on a piece of scrap paper to keep as a reference. If it happens to work out really well for you - then keep it for future projects! If not, throw it over your shoulder and try again. Use an inexpensive fabric for trial and error. Even sewists use what they call a “muslin”, which is basically a mockup using a fabric that doesn’t cost a lot, to try their patterns out for fit and style. Then, if all goes well - they remake the item in their final good fabric using the muslin as a pattern.
And what if you can’t find a Barbie pattern piece for an element you want? Typically, this is easy too! An example of this is one of my favourite sleeve styles - a historic mutton sleeve. Think puffy at the top down to a slim sleeve at the cuff. It is named a mutton sleeve because it looks like the shape of mutton of ham. If you know what the style of a sleeve is (ie. mutton, cap, ¾), just search the pattern for human-scale clothing and the shape is the same. Use the shape as your base and adjust accordingly. Finding the names of the element(s) you want in your piece may require a little research in the fashion genre… but really, who would mind that? Chances are if you want to create clothing for your doll, you have some idea of different necklines, sleeve types, dress fits and so on. Start with what you know and then fall into the fashion rabbit hole….
There are loads of variations out there that you can add to base patterns you can find online, in a local thrift shop or at a fabric store. A lot of the time the starting outline will be similar and changed to mimic the look you want. A mutton sleeve essentially has the same shape as a typical straight sleeve, it is just wider at the top to give you fabric to gather to create the puff. It also has a little bit of a longer length to give the puff some height.
Think of a skirt and how many ways it can be changed. The hem length, the fullness, the waistband. Does the hem have to be the same length all the way around? Can it be short at the front and long at the back? Did you want it to have a train? Do you want a high waist or a lower waist? All these changes are essentially simple but will give you a drastically different look overall. I get that I may be oversimplifying things just a bit - but I’m also just trying to give you ideas on how small adjustments can make big changes to a design. Many fashion pieces can start from the same base piece with your own twist added.
I realize many doll collectors are particular about the type of doll they want to collect or work with. But the last key I would add is to try and start with bigger dolls like an American Girl, for example. There are tons of references for clothes for them as well, but the straighter style body can give you lots of opportunity for trial and error with easier patterns to work with. If all goes well - size down to play scale dolls if that is what you want.
And, like mentioned above, Barbies are more common to find and easier to work with than some other dolls with bigger differences in proportions. So if you don’t want to start on such a large scale like the American Girl doll, Barbie is the next best place to start. Dolls like Bratz, Rainbow High and LOL are all trickier to work with because of their proportions. It takes practice to work around the larger difference between the bust, hips and waist in these styles of dolls. I also personally find it easier to work with dolls with removable hands. It gives greater flexibility with fashion choices as you don’t have to ensure the sleeves are open enough at the end to go over the hands.
All in all - patterning for dolls takes practice, trial and error and even with tons of experience, mistakes will still be made. I’ve been doing this for over a decade and still have many items that I have to restart or adjust. A lot of my pieces are custom made and one of a kind - so I guess it is a hazard of the job. I am also in the position where I have to make sure my items are removable and can be put on by the consumer easily. Sometimes, when you are working on your own project, especially a doll that will remain the same way forever (display only), you can sew items onto the doll and not even have to ponder closures, snaps, velcro, etc. That’s likely a whole other blog post!
My main point is that if you want to try making clothing for your dolls - just give it a go! In this day and age, resources are everywhere. You will get frustrated at times, you will throw items in the trash - but you will also have successes that will start you on your path to clothing your doll in unique items that you love. Start simple. The possibilities are endless once you get the hang of it. So grab some scrap fabrics, go online, find some patterns and get cutting and sewing!
Stay tuned for my next blog post on choosing fabrics for a beginner…it’s ALL in the fabric choice.