Saturday, December 12, 2015

An Interview with Paula Walton, doll collector and creator of cloth Izannah Walker Dolls

When did you start collecting?

My mother bought me my very first vintage doll when I was 5 years old.  She purchased it at Goodwill for a quarter.  I still have her!

When did you start making dolls?

I started making dolls when my oldest sons were babies and began selling my work a few years later, in 1986.

#1 –Two early wooden dolls. One waiting for me to make her appropriate clothing and the other for me to restore her.

Have your tastes changed over the years?

Yes.  I’ve always loved dolls, and as soon as I knew that antique dolls existed, I wanted one!  When I was very little, once a year on our annual family vacation, my mother would take me to a doll museum in Hot Springs, Arkansas.  The first antique dolls I was aware of were china head dolls, so they were what I longed for.  Later, when I was in my 20’s, my husband bought me what I would consider my first real antique doll, a bisque Armand Marseille.  I collected a few bisque dolls and then started collecting older dolls. 

Now I prefer early papier-mache, painted cloth and wooden dolls from the late 1700s to the 1860’s. And yes, I do finally have a few china dolls like the ones I wanted as a child!

#2 – Three of my antique Izannah Walker dolls, playing outdoors on a warm autumn day.

What are your favorite types of dolls and why?

This probably is not going to be a surprise; my favorite dolls are early Izannah Walker dolls! Because I’m a doll maker, my favorites are always influenced by the way the doll is made, how skillfully the materials that went into the doll were used, and the workmanship of the maker.

Obviously, Izannah Walker’s dolls are outstanding in all of these areas.  I like that I can see the hand of their maker in the dolls, and that they clearly changed and evolved over her long doll making career. They are also highly evocative of their period in time.  The look and feel of her dolls captures the look of children seen in na├»ve, itinerant style paintings from the middle of the 19th century, as well as daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and other forms of early photography. When I see one of her dolls, these children are immediately brought to mind.

Izannah’s dolls were clearly beloved playmates which did not just sit on a shelf. If you have ever held one of her dolls, you will know that they were made in just the right sizes to fit in the crook of a tiny girl’s arms.  They have a comfortably solid weight that feels just right. I think this is the true magic of Izannah Walker’s dolls.

Running a very close second in my affections are early English wooden dolls.  I have a soft spot in my heart for wood carving, which these dolls touch.  The other reason that I am so very fond of early wooden dolls is their clothing!  In addition to being a doll maker, I’m also a dressmaker. I make historically accurate reproduction 18th century women’s clothing, and given my druthers, I would spend vast amounts of time making hand sewn gowns, petticoats, stomachers, chemises and stays!  18th century clothing is amazing, and on a side note, much more comfortable to wear than you would think.

#3 – Works in progress. These are the dolls I’m working on in my studio today.

What are your favorite dolls to make?

At the current time I would have to say reproduction Izannah Walker dolls. Because of the way pressed cloth heads are made, I find them endlessly fascinating and never tire of discovering the slight differences that the pressed cloth process creates. It makes each doll an adventure! 

I have made many other types of dolls and I enjoy making all of them. It’s always exciting to bring my own original designs to life, and poured wax dolls are simply great, glorious, messy fun to create, but there is just something about Izannah Walker dolls that makes me happy!

For me the intriguing thing about pressed cloth doll heads is the fact that you can actually get cloth to hold the shape of the head!  It is amazing! As soon as I saw my first Izannah Walker doll I wanted to know “How did she do that???” It took me about ten years of trial, error and research to teach myself the pressed cloth process. If you are wondering whether I could make other types of pressed cloth dolls, the answer is yes.  I chose to make reproductions of Izannah’s dolls because I love them!  It’s very rewarding to be able to make reproductions for people who also love Izannah’s dolls, but can’t own a real one. Plus, it allows me to spend extraordinary amounts of time “playing” with my collection of antique Izannah Walker dolls!  My antique Izannahs come out to my studio with me to model as I paint the faces on my reproductions.   They are working girls and together we create my tributes to Izannah Walker’s iconic cloth dolls.

#4 – The antique Izannah Walker doll on the left is modeling for me as I paint the face of my reproduction on the right.  I’m part way through the painting process and still need to finish her hair, add a bit more definition to her lips and apply the final glaze that will darken her paint color.

Do you sew for your dolls?

Yes! I’ve been really sewing since I was 11, but even before I actually knew what I was doing, I would try to make doll clothes.  My mother made me a reproduction china doll and I would save up several weeks’ worth of allowance money, then walk to the store and purchase ¼ yard of fabric so that  I could sew for that doll.

These days I spend more time sewing clothes for the dolls I make, and also making custom clothing for other people’s dolls, than I do sewing for the dolls in my collection.  Currently, I am much better at hoarding fabric for my dolls, with the thought that someday I’ll find time to turn it into new wardrobes. Maybe eventually… in between doll making, teaching, drafting patterns, restorations and all the other things that fill up my days, I will return to sewing for my dolls.

#5 - Four of my antique Izannah Walker dolls wearing dresses that I have made for them.  The rest of my antique Izannahs didn’t get to be in the photo because I’ve only made four dresses!

What are the characteristics that attract you to a certain doll? 

Ahhhh…  A tricky question.  I don’t know if there is a particular characteristic that I consciously try to look for, other than original components.  Replaced hair and bad reproduction or inappropriate clothing are pet peeves of mine.  I’d rather have original clothing in bad condition.

I do know that I am drawn to the types of dolls that are made from the same materials, or made using the same techniques, that I employ in my own doll making. That means cloth, painted cloth, papier-mache, wax, and wood.
I also have a tendency to buy dolls just for study purposes, or dolls that need some help and tender loving care.  What I generally don’t like is perfect dolls.  If a doll looks untouched, then that means it was never played with, which I think is sad and depressing.  Dolls are toys, they should show that someone loved them! 

#6 – This wonderful mid-19th century painted cloth doll with hand rooted human hair and a Rhode Island provenance is right at home in my collection and with my Izannah Walker dolls.

 Are you looking for anything in particular, etc. ?

I am always looking for Izannah Walker dolls and little 18th century woodens that are not too terribly expensive.  Other types of dolls tend to take me by surprise on an individual basis, when they stridently insist that they too MUST be taken home to join my doll family!

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