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On the Needles: Rag Doll Replacement

11 months ago

1649 words

A lot of ya’ll Dear Readers are curious about my crafting projects. This year, I’m committing to writing more about what I make and how I make them. I hope the exercise will inspire many of you and also help me become a better crafter! I will include links to some of my materials in these posts. They are affiliate links, giving you the opportunity to make a purchase that helps you with your own crafting, but also supports my blog at no additional cost to you. Please don’t feel any pressure to make a purchase! 


Two years ago, a friend of mine adopted a baby and didn’t tell anyone about it until after everything was finalized. I was hosting a cookout and she abruptly cancelled. “We just got back from Atlanta with our infant!”

I was like… what? Say what?

For close friends, I do my best to make a special baby gift. Every baby deserves something made just for them, you know? Well, on such short notice, I couldn’t pull off a knitted blanket. I went in search of something and came across Jess Brown’s Making of a Rag Doll. Jess Brown is a famous designer who makes beautiful dolls, often out of recovered fabrics. It was a pleasant surprise that she made her pattern available for other crafters. I jumped at the chance. I quickly learned that I needed to make the pattern work for me and my vision. The result was some of my best crafting that year. The baby wasn’t the only recipient of a doll. I ended up giving a few to my sister and some local friends.

Last Fall, misfortune befell one of the dolls by way of a mischievous dog. A sad fate. Heartbroken, my friend asked if I could repair the doll, which was impossible. I offered her a replacement, but knew I wouldn’t be able to get to it until after the holidays because of the embroidered owl and flower projects. So, finally, over the last few weekends, I’ve been working on this doll. I’m really pleased. I expanded my capabilities, making three clothing items for the doll that I’ve never done before!

It starts with sturdy fabric and embroidery thread

According to the book, Jess Brown actually embroiders the faces of her dolls after construction. When I did my first experimental dolls, I quickly learned that I didn’t like this method. It is easier for me to cut the pieces and put the little face in an embroidery hoop, giving me more freedom to design the face the way I want to. I found that when trying to embroider through the constructed doll, I had a hard time keeping control over where stitches would land. It felt like a clunky process. The risk of embroidering on a hoop instead of after the doll is constructed is you have to be very careful about eye positioning. You lose “forehead” space during the sewing process. I made quite a few funky looking dolls in the beginning because I made the eyes either too high or too low! You can choose to measure and center accordingly (like an artist would do when producing a sketch) in order to counteract this. I just eyeball it now. 🙂

While my other dolls were made of cotton (because I was searching for brown fabric specifically, and also for ease of use), I decided to make this doll out of tougher linen… just in case. I always, always recommend going to your locally owned fabric store to purchase your fabric… but if you don’t live near one, has a really lovely selection that I’ve used on occasion.

There are paper patterns in the physical book (which seems to be out of print). I don’t know if the digital version allows for a pattern download. When I decided to make a bunch of dolls over Christmas, I made myself sturdy plastic templates. At the time, it was a good idea. Now that I’ve done this for a while, I wish I hadn’t, but I will write about that in a bit.

Construction is really quite easy after cutting


The doll itself doesn’t actually take much. It’s that front piece, which is one piece (see the featured image), and then the pack of the body is made up of two pieces (see above). The open middle flap you see is for stuffing. You hand sew that closed after you have stuffed the doll. When you’re doing the sewing, there is a bit of starting and stopping as you go. There are places where you have to iron pieces flat (or open or whatever) and then you get back to sewing. You also do a bit of cutting, which helps with rounding out shapes when it’s time to start stuffing.

I am usually a hand-sewing enthusiast, but you really do need a machine to make these dolls. It is much faster anyway. I use a Brother CS6000i that I bought some… I dunno? 8 or so years ago as a completely spontaneous purchase. (I’d broken my foot, I was feeling depressed…it was a total splurg that only partially made me feel better at the time). It’s been a wonderful machine to learn and grow on. It has held up well to multiple moves, many mistakes, much frustrated growling and/or smacking… and even The Husband has used it on occasion to sew something for Boy Scouts!

The legs are sewn separately and stuffed first so that you can sew them onto the body before stuffing the rest of it. I use good old fashioned (and cheap) Poly-fil for my stuffing. I know there are plenty of other options out there, though, and I encourage you to explore!


When you are done all of your sewing and stuffing, this is the final result!


The clothing is the best part

Now here is where I come into full agreement with Jess: I highly recommend using reclaimed fabric to make ragdoll clothes. It gives them a “real” sort of charm that I think can only be achieved with a “lived in” or older sort of fabric. In the case of this doll, I made two clothing items with fabric I got at a fabric swap last spring. I was so pleased to two pieces that belong together!

First, the knickers, made out of cotton:


Two pieces of cotton sewn together. How easy is that? I’ve never made them before and it was like, duh! Took all of 5 minutes.

Next, the drawstring dress, though I never do the drawstring.


Now it’s time for hair.

The hair takes forever. But that’s my fault.

Here is the thing. I think you should be able to do a doll’s hair. I just… maybe it’s the little girl in me. I think a doll should be played with and I think her hair should be styled. Furthermore, I think that true ragdolls have fun, crazy hair made out of yarn. So, I spend a long time on the hair. I’ve come up with a way to do it that produces a full, play-worthy head of hair.


I purchase Red Heart yarn, this color is called Cornmeal, and cut it into segments. I try to be identical, but that’ sorta impossible.


Then, using embroiderer’s floss and a very small needle, I use whip stitch to sew small batches of hair to the back of the doll’s head. I don’t do this with every individual strand of hair (that would take forever), but I try to make sure the little bunches aren’t too big, either. I space them in a way that there aren’t obvious holes.

The result is a full head of luxurious doll hair!


I’ll admit that I might have added a little too much hair to this doll. But I think that the recipient will be able to do something with it. 🙂 Or cut it. Or whatever! A doll should be styled! That’s part of the joy!

Oh, and you’ll see I made her a little tote bag. I actually used a pair of old jeans that Ursa Major put a hole in a million years ago. Denim is a fun fabric to work with. I think all my dolls are going to get little totes from now on.

Start to finish, a doll takes around 6 hours… maybe a little more. The hair really does take a long time. There is a lot of fabric preparation before and during the process, too. The embroidery can take time, depending on how picky you get with the facial design. But the result is something really adorable and much appreciated! I strongly suggest you give it a try!

As for me, I think that I like the pattern found in the Jess Brown book, but I really wish the arms and legs were slightly wider (especially because you spend time with a chopstick making the arms and legs right-side-out after sewing). While doing that with cotton was relatively easy, doing it with the linen was absolutely miserable. Discussing modifications with my knitting partner, she suggested that I take the leap and try to make my own pattern. It’s… an interesting idea. I don’t really have time for it… but I’m intrigued enough to try. Later. Right now, I’m on to my next project:

knitting socks! I’ve never knitted socks before! I’m taking a class and everything! My next On the Needles post will be on what I’ve learned!

Are you a crafter, Dear Reader? Do you make dolls? I do hope you will share your tips and techniques!

Happy Crafting!


This post contained affiliate links, giving you the opportunity to make a purchase that helps you with your own crafting while also supporting my blog at no additional cost to you. Please don’t feel any pressure to make a purchase! Thank you for reading!  

5 Replies to “On the Needles: Rag Doll Replacement”

    1. Dolls are a new, very radical thing for me, I must say. I was surprised by the relative ease of it, and I will say that I do like the relative quickness of the process. Some knitting and quilting projects can take FOREVER, but this is a quick way to get the creative energy going and produce something meaningful.

      My next foray will be book making, I hope! 🙂

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