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Seven Hills

Boston-area exploration, travel notes, crafty things, and other Somervillainy.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Clothespin Doll Tutorial

A lot of people find this site by searching for "clothespin dolls," and I started to feel sort of bad that I didn't have more practical information for them once they got here. (As an aside, if you have a blog, do you ever find yourself influenced by the search terms that bring people to your site? I can't, or won't, do much for those searching for "transparent leotards," but I sometimes feel I should at least have included a basic recipe for all those desperately looking for the perfect "carrucho" dish.)

It's pretty easy to figure out how to make a clothespin doll on your own, and one of the neat things about them is how many different ways you can go with the same foundation materials. But there are a few tricks I've learned along the way to get the best results, so here it is: my process for making clothespin dolls, along with more musings on the art of the clothespin doll than seems reasonable for something so small and uncomplicated. Be careful what you search for!

- Round wooden slotted clothespins
- Craft glue (I am loyal to Elmer's)
- Scissors
- Yarn or embroidery floss
- Paint and fine brushes, or fine-tipped markers
- Lightweight fabric
- Felt

Clothespins: There are lots of types of clothespins out there, but unless you're making an alligator, you want the round slotted wooden kind. I prefer the shorter style, though the tall ones can yield appealing results as well.

The quality of new clothespins unfortunately just isn't that good anymore. Even those that are still made from American hardwood are now assembled in China, and you can really see the difference in the product. Compare the clothespin on the right (an old-school model) with the other two in the photo. The new clothespins are crudely carved, the wood lacks the same pleasing grain, and both styles have a weird forked notch at the end of the slot. Be forewarned. I look for vintage clothespins on eBay. If I'd known this supply, so inexpensive and readily available until quite recently, was was going to disappear, I would have stocked up.

You'll also find clothespins marketed as "doll pins" at craft supply stores. These suffer from the same poor wood quality and coarse finishing, and usually have squared-off legs, rather than the tapered "foot" of the traditional shape. This makes it easier to stand them on their own, but I think they look stumpy, kind of like the difference in effect between a nice heel vs. an orthopedic clodhopper. However, you can also buy simple wooden stands along with these craft pins, which are useful for displaying your finished doll.

Hair: I like to glue on the hair before I draw the doll's face. I find it easier to paint in the face after I can see how the hair will frame it. Yarn or embroidery floss are good materials, or you can paint it on if you want a short, sleek look. Four or five strands of yarn are enough to cover the top of the head.

Fill in the back of the head with another four or five shorter strands of yarn (more for finer fibers).

This character is getting bangs for some added personality.

Face: Once the hair has dried, it's time to paint the face (just like getting ready for work in the morning). I think paint yields a more durable and appealing finished product, but marker can be easier to control and is also fine, especially if you're doing this project with kids.

Whether you're using a brush or a pen, you want a fine-tipped point. The tiniest speck of pigment can make a world of difference to the expressions on these minimalist faces - with the slip of a pen, your saintly princess doll can become an evil-browed villainess.

Along the same lines, every girl feels better with a fresh haircut and a touch of mascara, even girls made out of laundry accessories. Whether you're using paint or marker, you want to let the eyes dry before you add anything like lashes or eyeglasses, or the black pigment will bleed.

Clothes: I find when you're working with small scraps of fabric the edges have a tendency to fray, so even though sewing seems theoretically nicer, I glue these garments together. It helps prevent the fraying and also gives the garments a bit of structure, sort of like a whalebone corset.

I prefer not to glue the clothes directly to the doll, because of course the fun of clothes is to have lots of cute outfits. My only exception is when I'm making a doll for a young child, since you know the outfit will disappear in an instant if it's not glued firmly in place (though they'll still probably rip the arms and hair off within five minutes).

If you're choosing a printed fabric, go for something in a small enough scale to translate to the size of the doll. Some fabric stores sell bundles of remnants, which can be a good source of material for multiple small items.

Dress how-to: For a basic A-line dress, you'll need a few scant inches of lightweight fabric, and about two square inches of felt for arms (anyway, that's my solution for the problem of arms). Cut out one strip about an inch wide, and long enough to wrap around the doll's body with a half inch to spare. Cut a wider, longer strip to make the skirt. To help prevent fraying, you can use the selvage of the cloth as the top and bottom edges of the dress, or fold the edge over and iron it. Or just cut out your squares and let the fringe fall where it may - this is a folk art, after all.

Top: Wrap the narrower strip tightly around the doll and glue down the edge, being careful not to get glue on the doll itself or let the glue bleed through the fabric. Let dry. This will be the top of the dress.

Skirt: Dab a little glue along the front of the waist, and wrap the larger piece of cloth around the waist, angling the ends to form a cone shape. Dab a little glue at the sides of the waist and where the flaps of cloth overlap. You can glue the whole piece of fabric down for a wrap-around look (very Diane von Furstenberg), or just lay a line of glue straight down the back of the skirt and trim off the excess fabric after the glue dries. Once everything is dry, trim the skirt to the length you want. An edging of decorative trim can help prevent the hem from fraying.

Arms: When I was a kid, I never bothered with clothespin doll arms. The pipe cleaner arms on clothespin dolls at craft fairs (usually Christmas tree ornaments) always bugged me - they were furry and sharp and not fooling anyone - and I didn't need the dolls to be able to hold anything, anyway. We'd just sort of use our own fingers in place of the missing arms if a given character really needed actual, functional arms. Now as an adult I'm a bit more literal, yet acknowledge that this is still just a small doll made out of a wooden peg, so stiff little "L" shapes of felt are my compromise, doing the job of signifying "arm" without slowing me down too much. Feel free to follow my innovation, or develop one of your own.

Details: Sequins and seed beads make nice buttons, narrow ribbons are good for sashes, and lace and rick rack add a flourish at the neck or hem. I don't worry too much about whether these additions are in perfect scale to the size of the doll, because in general they won't be. I am also fond of layering on lace hem tape for a lingerie look.

Shoes: I find these problematic, and as I used to with arms (and still do with noses), tend to ignore them. Occasionally I will paint on a little goes-with-anything pair of black ballerina flats, but to be honest they look more like hooves. A pair of painted brown button boots can work if your doll is Victorian, or knee-high black ones if she is a dominatrix or a New Yorker, but how comfortable will those be when she wants to hit the beach in July? I have crafted removable black boots out of electrical tape, but they were crudely shaped at best and required powerful imagination to be seen as anything other than stubby black bandages. Because of all this, I say add shoes at your own risk.

Done. And here's the finished result, shoeless, but still dressed up a bit with rick rack trim on her skirt (sewn rather than glued, since the weight of the rick rack is rather heavy) and a purse made from a scrap of Tyrolean jacquard.

Transformed from a dreary clothesline peg into a fabulous girl-about-town, all in just a few simple steps.

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At 6/08/2007 6:57 AM, Anonymous chessie said...

can we form a clothespin doll activity club? I'm inspired now!

At 6/08/2007 11:28 AM, Blogger Chrissa said...

Oh yes indeedy! Bring your paste pot; I'll supply the clothespins and Chardonnay ;)

At 8/10/2007 4:06 PM, Blogger Julie said...

I'm really grateful for this tutorial: I'm making clothespin dolls to tell Bible stories, folk tales, and myths and legends to my grandkids. I just needed a bit of instruction, and this was great.

At 8/10/2007 5:07 PM, Blogger Chrissa said...

Thank you, Julie - I'm so glad it was helpful! Sounds like a fun project.

At 10/11/2008 5:04 PM, Anonymous gia m kirby said...

thank you.im 51 and found a bag of old pins in my aunts basement,wanted to recycle them,and i did do basically what you did,BUT had no idea how to make felt ARMS,=-COOLIO,NOW i will try the yarn hair,was a bit fearful about that!Am making crafts dolls and recycling used dolls to give to charities and inner city kids.thanks ever so.

At 10/11/2008 8:59 PM, Blogger Chrissa said...

Thanks for your comment, Gia, and what a great use for the dolls you make. I'm sure you are making a lot of kids happy with your endeavors.

At 11/23/2010 10:55 PM, Anonymous generic cialis said...

Hello, I do not agree with the previous commentator - not so simple

At 11/27/2012 5:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Stumbled upon this while searching for a lobster clothespin ornament tutorial! Yup, and was once a Somervillian myself in my grad school days. Lovely little blog!


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