Zero-Waste Sewing : Made with Love and Total Domination (Part 2)

If someone were to ask about the purpose of my sewing room, I might say that it moonlights as a noble and fierce Toy Factory, churning out gifts for worldwide domination over the sinister toy industry empire. And then I’d laugh. It’s a loser’s game and complete hubris, but I’ll take it.

As a new mother, I was swept up in baby toy fads and child development gimmicks until the force-feeding of those trinkets became insufferable. I jumped off the plastic hamster wheel and decided to face off with the toy industry: our toys would either be thrifted or handmade.

For 10 years, my son and I managed to make birthday presents for every single party he attended until the tween phase forced us to pivot to gift cards. It was an impressive run – at times, exhausting. But while I enjoy the respite of those harried days, I also miss repurposing scraps into cute things. 

Ever since I saw the Jess Brown rag dolls, I knew I had to make one. They are exquisite works of art. But could a beautiful handmade rag doll hold up against Disney and American Girl? Given a choice, would a child prefer an art rag doll over its corporate plastic counterpart? I crafted a hypothesis: if a child is gifted a handmade art rag doll, over time they will build a greater attachment to it than their Disney or American Girl doll. This is a bold statement; the ultimate smackdown of home sewing machine vs. factory. I decided to run a test.


There are nine young children in our extended family and seven young children on our neighborhood street. I winnowed the test group into 1) children who were old enough to play with dolls, and 2) children who already owned plastic dolls. This left me with eight dependent variables (fear not – the remaining kids received other gifts). 

All dolls were made with similar skin and hair coloring as their future owners. These independent variables were crafted from scrap fabric and trim. Wool scraps were used for the hair, and underwear was made with seam binding found at SCRAP. They were all stuffed with small pieces of scrap fabric.

Test Groups

Test Group 1:  The first group of dependent variables is three sisters, ages two, four and five (our nieces). This was my first try at rag dolls. I selected retired white pillowcases to build the bodies and a silk/linen blend scrap for the dresses. 

A hand holds a rag doll by it's arm. The doll has a white cloth body, grey hair, and is dressed in a pale blue dress.

“Do these look too creepy?” I asked my 16-year old son while I eyeballed the independent variables. The faces came out a little wonky, and perhaps the skin too pale.

“No, they look cool in a vintage sort of way,” he replied.

Approved. I wrapped the dolls in shoe boxes and planted them on the girls’ front porch. 

Three rag dolls wearing pale blue dolls sit together.

Handmade subterfuge for Test Group 1

Test Subject 2:  The second dependent variable is our three-year old neighbor. I selected a green silk scrap to make the dress and antique trim for the crown. At the last-minute, I threw in a twist: glitter. The glitter might have leveled up the independent variable, but I wanted to try the fabric glue I had just purchased. I applied a small amount of gold glitter to the independent variable’s feet.  

A hand holds a rag doll by it's arm. The doll has a white cloth body, is wearing a green patterned dress, a tiara made from gold trim, and has glitter painted feet.

I wrapped the doll in a shoe box and was mid hand-off when the dependent variable announced, “You must put all presents by our front door! We will collect them later!”

Done. I slunk away.

The rag doll with the green dress sits facing the camera.

The plant for Test Subject 2

Test Group 3:  The third set of dependent variables is two sisters, ages three and five (our nieces). I selected antique embroidered handkerchiefs to make the dresses. The handkerchiefs were given by a friend who didn’t want her grandmother’s embroidery projects thrown away. Red socks and red vintage trim headbands completed the look.

A hand holds a rag doll by it's arm.  The rag doll has a brown fabric body, black wool hair, a white embroidered dress and red check feet.

I handed the wrapped packages to their mother who planted them in her daughters’ bedrooms. I suspect the mother will become an influential extraneous variable and insert her bias into the test – she dislikes plastic dolls and calls them “hard heads.”

Three rag dolls as per the previous image sit together.

Soft and huggable for Test Group 3

Test Group 4:  The final set of dependent variables is two sisters, ages four and six (our nieces). I selected silk dupioni scraps for the dresses and used the remainder of the antique trim for crowns. The dolls didn’t look complete until I grabbed a roll of glitter ribbon from my stash and wrapped it around their legs. The ribbon is firm and scratchy which might adversely affect the dependent variable’s impulse to hug or sleep with their independent variable, however the glitter might level it up.

A hand holds a rag doll by it's arm. The doll has a white cloth body, a pink silk dress, gold trim tiara and gold straps on the feet to suggest ballet shoes.

I handed the wrapped packages to their father who planted them in the living room. Of all the dependent variables, I have my bet on his six-year old – she has an eye for design. During one pre-quarantine family dinner when all the test subjects jumped in excitement and ate the candy I had brought to the table, this one stood aside and collected its wrappers. When I asked what she was doing, she smoothed out the papers and replied in a quiet voice, “I’m keeping them. They are so pretty.”

Three dolls as described in the previous image sit together.

Will scratchy ribbon and wild fraying scraps undermine Test Group 4’s love?

Initial Response

Test Group 1:  The four-year old was vocal about the independent variables and stated, “They’re just okay.” The five-year old gave no comment. This lukewarm response might be due to the introduction of a life-sized Mulan doll for Christmas. It was the first match to surface:  rag doll vs. Disney’s Mulan. However, when the dependent variables went to sleep that evening, the two-year old took all three independent variables to bed with her. The location of the life-sized Mulan during the night remains in question.

A close-up of the first doll, showing embroidered eyes,  small felt mouth and blue silk headscarf.

The contender against Mulan.

Test Subject 2:  The three-year old neighbor exclaimed “WOOOOW!” after she pulled the independent variable from the shoe box and promptly named her Queen-Queen. Later that day when the dependent variable was put down for her nap, Queen-Queen was granted premier status to nap alongside her. 

The doll with green dress is lying down, to suggest it is sleeping.

In under an hour, Queen-Queen was named and made it into the bed.

Test Group 3:  The five-year old needed to become acquainted with the independent variable before they could play together. Her solution: the independent variable first needed to sleep in her bed for the night. The three-year old stated that she liked the independent variable’s red socks. After a week of ownership, both independent variables have ping-ponged from the bedrooms to the shopping cart in the play room, however they have yet to be named.

A close-up of one of the brown cloth dolls, showing embroidered facial features, black wool hair and red headscarf.

The dolls are in active play; their next step is to be given names.

Test Group 4:  The four and six-year old positioned their independent variables in the living room where the family spends most time of their time. The four-year old gave no comment, however the six-year old candy wrapper collector stated, “I love the sparkle shoes.” 

Three dolls sit together, without their dresses, showing the lace trim underwear details.

Special underwear details might incentivize attachment.

The test subjects will be revisited in six months before a conclusion is reached. As for myself, this was a fun project – and difficult, because, to be very frank, the dolls were a pain in the ass to make (I have a new appreciation for Jess Brown). However, I used a bunch of scraps, repurposed some amazing items stashed for far too long, and improved my doll making skills. Also, the end result was very satisfying. In fact, I made one extra doll out of each batch to keep for future reference. They’re trophies for my accomplishment. But not to play with… No, not at all… I would never play with dolls…

Denise Archer has joined the Sewcialist team as a Temporary Editor. Her personal garments and projects can be found @h.o.m.u.n.c.u.l.u.s