Craft Book Review: Making of a Rag Doll by Jess Brown

Craft Book Review: Making of a Rag Doll by Jess Brown

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Katerina Buscemi
Oct 3, 2014
(Image credit: Katerina Buscemi)

Two months ago, I went on a plastic toy throwing rampage after receiving the news that my one-year-old daughter tested high on her lead screen (a false positive, thankfully). As a consequence, I was determined to rectify our questionable toy situation by introducing only handmade natural toys. But where to begin? When I came across an Instagram post by Jess Brown about her new book, "The Making of a Rag Doll," I was inspired to give it a try. After all, who better than I to craft my daughter's first rag doll, and who better to learn from than the ultimate dollmaker, Jess Brown?

(Image credit: Katerina Buscemi)

If you're questioning whether the artist will be forthcoming about her process, fear not. This little book is an absolute treasure, and a wonderful guide to making your own rag doll (there's an invaluable materials resource list at the back too). The author provides helpful tips and images and I really felt that no question was left unanswered. The pattern, though smaller and slightly less complicated than the original Jess Brown design, is a very close reproduction. I appreciated that it did not feature the button shoulders, since my doll was meant for a one-year-old baby with a fondness for chewing on small things.

She's a woman of mystery
(Image credit: Katerina Buscemi)

The book begins with a lovely account of the author's transition into doll-making; her writing style is fluid and thoughtful. You truly gain an understanding of the love that goes into every one of her creations. A short excerpt from the introduction:

"She was made of coarse-weave cotton muslin. You could see every thread of the fabric. She was stuffed with firm cotton fiber so her limbs kept their shape and she could sit upright. Her hair was made of wool yarn and her face was embroidered. She was wearing the most incredible dress made from a Liberty of London floral fabric that had a base of rich French blue sprinkled with red, cream and pink flowers. The dress was embellished with dark blue satin on the bodice and fine lace trim around the hemline, and she had a small satin bow in her hair.

I kept her always. Frances was just one of those things I couldn't part with. In fact, she became my daughter's doll for a while and then eventually moved into my studio. I keep her where I can see her. This doll is a constant reminder of why I create."

Excerpt from "The Making of a Rag Doll: Design & Sew Modern Heirlooms," by Jess Brown
The book features beautiful photography by Tristan Davison
(Image credit: Katerina Buscemi)
(Image credit: Katerina Buscemi)

Included in the back pocket is a full size pull-out pattern for the doll and a diverse wardrobe. I recommend you trace the patterns (I used vellum) rather than cut them out, as the pattern pages are double sided. Each piece is explained in thorough detail, with tips and illustrated techniques.

In her organic silk/ hemp charmeuse evening dress
(Image credit: Katerina Buscemi)

Though I do have some sewing experience, I am a doll making novice, and I had no trouble following along. I felt that the narrative showed a good balance between illustrating the methods and techniques to inexperienced crafters, without patronizing more accomplished sewing enthusiasts.

(Image credit: Katerina Buscemi)

What I really loved about this book was the message of using what you have; a return to basics and the age old tradition of fashioning your child a doll made out of rags. You can put this doll together with odds and ends of fabric that you have at home- recycled sweaters, shirts, clothes that your baby may have outgrown (unless you're sentimental hoarders like I am). I've also never thought about using a stay stitch to prevent fraying, or the selvedge as a decorative edge (which has the secondary advantage of not needing a hem). What's more, the focus is not on crafting a PERFECT doll; the ragdoll is perfect in its imperfection, which should make this venture a lot less intimidating for you.

I considered "Sylvia" but my son named her Aviva
(Image credit: Katerina Buscemi)
(Image credit: Katerina Buscemi)

Making the doll

This doll needed to be non-toxic in every way. With that aim, my first priority was to source only organic materials. I found the most wonderful organic fabrics and notions at online store Organic Cotton Plus (for more info on the fabrics I used, see my review).

(Image credit: Katerina Buscemi)

For the body of the doll, I chose an organic hemp muslin with a visible textured grain because I wanted a handmade (but not homemade), not-too-precious feel. I used organic cotton stuffing, which was amazing to behold in its raw, unbleached form (it's the only stuffing I'll ever use from now on). The author encourages you to experiment with changes once you're confident but I deviated only slightly from the pattern; you can read more here about how I made my rag doll.

Sun dress, apron, bloomers
(Image credit: Katerina Buscemi)

Overall, it came together really easily. My only hiccup was in trying to turn the little arms inside out but that was likely due to the thicker fabric I used for the body. I may beef up the arms a little when making this doll again, possibly sewing them on separately (because I am admittedly not very good at sewing inner corners). I made the body portion in stages with MANY interruptions but still managed to finish it in less than a day. The clothing pieces are also uncomplicated and can be cut and sewn very quickly, as there is very little hemming required.

Taking her place in Olivia's room
(Image credit: Katerina Buscemi)
I very much look forward to making more pieces from the book and creating our own outfits for her to wear once my daughter Olivia is old enough to have an opinion (soon, I fear).
The first playdate was a violent one for Aviva
(Image credit: Katerina Buscemi)
Fortunately, the book provides a welcome reprieve
(Image credit: Katerina Buscemi)
Fast friends
(Image credit: Katerina Buscemi)

Apartment Therapy Media makes every effort to test and review products fairly and transparently. The views expressed in this review are the personal views of the reviewer and this particular product review was not sponsored or paid for in any way by the manufacturer or an agent working on their behalf. However, the manufacturer did give us the product for testing and review purposes.

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