Volume V, No. 4, Summer 1978
Story and photography by Vickie Massey
Though most girls never lose their love for dolls, they put them away. Alma Bates also put her dolls away many years ago only to gain a new love for them in the last twenty years. Though she fits the description of a grandmother, she is a child at heart and in turn delights young and old alike with her magic with dolls.
Being the eighth of ten children, she had few dolls as a child. "We'd roll up a towel or something and tie a ribbon around it." As she grew up, becoming a mother and then a grandmother, her love for dolls and her imagination never left her but stimulated an interest in collecting.
She has been collecting dolls since the winter of 1957 when she was caring for her mother. Finding quite a bit of spare time on her hands, she began repairing and dressing old dolls. Her collection began with two of her granddaughter's old character dolls, Little Bo Peep and Red Riding Hood which she soon had looking like new.
Collecting dolls is becoming harder and more expensive because there are more collectors who keep many dolls out of circulation, increasing the value of those restored and sold. Alma got most of her dolls from friends. Many were acquired in a trade where she repaired two dolls, keeping one, for she usually doesn't repair dolls for others unless there is a trade involved. Others she bought only the head and rebuilt the entire body. The process is rather complicated taking many hours, even for a pro like Alma who never times herself in her work, mainly because she has too many projects going on at once to time a single project.
Alma refinishes different types of dolls in different ways. The china doll she cleans and, if necessary, touches up the paint. For old bisque dolls with hair she usually removes their hair for cleaning. Using the original wig, if it is at all possible, she washes it out well with rain water and then sets it if it is in good enough condition. For some dolls she orders manufactured wigs, or occasionally she will make her own wigs from human hair. Many old wigs were made of flax as well as human hair.
If the body needs rebuilding, she uses linen or occasionally leather. She likes sawdust for stuffing since it is easy to obtain and many dolls were originally stuffed with sawdust.
She pays attention to every detail, carving missing hands and feet from a soft wood. If only one finger is missing, or just a small piece chipped, she will try to repair the original with a paste. Over this she paints a good grade of oil base. She also paints the entire body if it is chipped or worn badly. However, she usually doesn't paint over carved pieces because she feels people would often doubt that they are carved if painted over.
When the doll is repaired, she selects an appropriate dress style for the time period in which the doll was made. She gets her models from a book of old bound Peterson's magazines, which date from the mid-1800's until the early 1900's. From these pictures she designs her own patterns to fit her dolls.In any way she can, she tries to keep as close to the original fashion as possible in design and materials. She buys antique fabrics and trimmings at sales. Friends give her their old family clothes such as wedding veils and dresses, baby clothes, evening wraps and other old materials they have saved. After she washes, irons and repairs them, she transforms these old scraps into beautiful authentic costumes for her dolls.
For finishing touches she also makes many little accessories for her dolls. Some dolls have earrings for their cleverly pierced ears. Others sport handmade kid leather shoes or a beaded purse acquired at a sale. Alma has learned to be aware of tiny details, always looking for these little accents for her costumes. Her patience pays off in perfectly matched costumes.
Not all the dolls in Alma's collection were toys. One type of doll, the French costume doll, was used to advertise women's clothes. In the 1800's salesmen carried these dolls in a trunk filled with the dolls' personal clothes of the latest fashion. As the men went their rounds of merchants, they would take orders. Made to scale to the last detail, these were the fashion models of the last century and collectors' items today.
Alma's collection of over 500 dolls also include bisque babies and dolls of celluloid, composition and modern plastic. But perhaps the most beloved of these are china head dolls.
These are only a few of the 500 dolls in Alma Bates' collection. Her attention to perfection and detail are quite evident in each of their authentic handmade costumes.
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.