improvisational doll making – part 1

Its good to experiment – but not easy to let yourself,  there is a powerful force that wants you to stay on the well lit path.  Experimenting generates ideas and makes you ask new questions. It can shift your perspective, reveal connections and intersections.  And maybe most importantly true experimentation helps you work with uncertainty and build a tolerance for trying stuff that might not work. There is no creativity without failure.

One way to make yourself experiment is to create conditions that force you to improvise. I’m going to show you one of the techniques I use.  I’m making dolls – from the inside out. It’s a method that is imprecise and difficult to control – in a good way – there is lots of opportunity for happy accidents. It’s a spontaneous process – each action builds on the previous – you work with what shows up.

If you would like to try you will need:

  • cotton batting
  • wire
  • basic hand sewing tools
  • fabric, lace and trim scraps
  • a glue stick

* you can click on any of the images for a larger view

wire doll forms

I start by making a simple wire form for the torso and head – I made three.  Next  cut strips of cotton batting and begin to build a shape by winding it around the wire form.  A little bit of glue stick will help when adding or ending a strip.

Keep winding until you are happy with the shape – you can also add bits of batting in some areas for rounder shapes – like in the center image above – I’ve given her a substantial bosom by adding a scrap of folded batting and winding over it. I stitch through the shape here and there to adjust it and help it all stay together and finally I cut pieces of batting to stitch over the shape.

Next I begin to add fabric – I’m using a very light cotton to cover her face and the front of her chest. I pull the fabric around – stitch it in place and trim away the extra.

I covered the edge of the face fabric with strips of cotton for hair – I’ll come back to that later – I want to make the top of her dress first.  Also – you may notice another doll has appeared – I’ll be working on her as well.

Her face and chest  are covered in a light ivory silk, I used black cotton for her hair and stitched super simple features. Now I’m adding a scrap of lace because it’s lovely and will also cover some edges and seams I’d like to conceal. 

Back to mrs. brown hair – I wound the long strip of cotton for the hair around her head and pinned it – just to get out out of my way for now – but I think I like it and might stitch it in place- happy accident.  For the beginning of her dress I’m  stitching a little piece of lace over her neck and chest – just the front.  I’ll trim off the extra.

I did something similar for the other doll – a bit of lace at her neck and now I’m experimenting with folded strips to make a dress – just playing and pinning – to see what might work.

improvisational doll making

She’s fancy. I’ll be back next week with part 2 – making arms and legs, finishing the clothes and details.

Update : find part 2 here!


  1. Patricia Cusumano

    I really love these handmade things you make. your ideas are so amazing, I love the mice and other animals hand sewing has never been one of my better things I’ve been able to do. I love your small dolls I have a dollhouse not completed yet but that would add to all the other handmade items I have made for my house. I love your patterns hope to purchase some real soon.

  2. Genevieve C

    Thank you, thank you, Ann. You’ve awakened the improv girl in me. As soon as I finish the quilt I am working on I will try to start making some dolls. I will give them to my granddaughters, after they get a little older. Then I will teach them to make some
    Can’t wait to see the girls next week. 🙂

  3. Ruth Hoefert

    May have to try this one after a while. It looks fun and creative. In the meanwhile, working on decopauge, off and on. Look forward to seeing the next step.

  4. Nancy Rabatin

    Great idea. I must try this method. Interesting to see you are working on 2 at a time. I also like to have several going at a time. So far have made 5 little dolls, 10 trees various sizes and 5 mice, but can only find 4 1 escaped hope he comes home soon the others all miss him.

  5. Wonderful! Thanks for sharing and reminding me of the fun I had making mine at Squam 🙂 Need to try it again.

  6. This is so great – I’m an artist who mostly paints and draws and the idea of creating in 3-d is intimidating. Your tutorial really demystifies the process, and I love how “freeform” it is. Thank you!

  7. Thanks for sharing your talent. I love looking at your work and cannot wait for the next news letter !! Even though I don’t have the time to make these I love being inspired by them !! Sending you warm hugs from South Africa .

  8. I’m so inspired! I love your “lets see what comes of it” philosophy. I’m learning to approach my projects in that way, too. I would have never thought of creating a form on the inside- will have to try it. Can’t wait for part 2;-)

  9. Great demo love the curled up hair
    I’m exactly the same about letting go I need that control
    My degree was in ceramics and print and ceramics drove me nuts because I couldn’t control the colours of the glazes. They were hand mixed not ready mixed and anything from kiln temp to what else was in the kiln could alter the results. But as you say you get very creative ( accidental ) results; )

  10. Carole Kokinis

    It’s the May Day bank holiday in UK, a three day weekend and now your lovely gift to us all. I can’t resist collecting scraps of nice fabric, ribbons and lace, which will be good for the doll.
    My owl Strix from your pattern sits on my table and also inspires me. Thank you.

  11. annabell

    I’m so HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY to get these instructions & pictures of how to make a doll, & I LOVE LOVE LOVE what you have done, I’m going to to work on getting the supplies together & cant wait to get started. Its always been on my mind to make a doll & I’m sure I can do it now! Thank you so so much!

  12. This is a wonderful photo tutorial of the creative process; easy to follow and unique in result. Thank you for sharing!



  13. I love reading about your process, Ann! Thank you so much for sharing. It’s so interesting to see how other artists work, think, play and make mistakes…..
    I look forward to your newsletter each week. Thanks again for sharing!

  14. I love this.. I have saved some bits and pieces and would love to make dolls along with you . You always inspire me.. thank you

  15. Judy Dragon

    Thank you!
    You have inspired me more than you can imagine. I started sewing at age 4. My Mother saved my first project for me…a heart-shaped potholder sewn by hand. I have been sewing ever since. At age 81 I still love hand sewing best! Needless to say, I’m making mice! I may try the dolls next.
    Again, thank you!

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