Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Making your own toys: an unrecognised feminist education

I told my mom that I’m going to make dolls of intersectional women of all times as perks for the Problem Daughters’ fundraiser. So, when we meet, she hands me a large bag full of odd scraps of fabrics. “I thought I’d contribute” she says, making it seem like she just wanted to get rid of useless stuff. But I know that she actually likes the idea. I open the bag and empty its content on the table. “Look!” my mom says, “this is a piece of the lace of your first communion dress”. I grin. I really hope I will use it for the dress of some influential courtesan. I also spot some fur. Awesome! Fur coats were all the rage among rioters in the 70s. And I’m pretty sure a Mata Hari doll would require some luxurious accessory...
“I don’t know if you can have any use for it?” my mom asks, and casually singles out a piece of soft brown fabric. I recognise it immediately. It is a leftover from a teddy bear she made me when I was maybe four. It had buttons for eyes.

I smile and I remember.

I see myself desperate because my favourite doll has broken. A cheap plastic incarnation of Candy Candy in her nurse outfit. It’s cut in half at the waistline, like the old stage magician sawing trick went horribly wrong. I am in tears and I give the pieces to my mom asking to please, please fix it. “I don’t think I can” she says after a quick assessment. “Can’t you stick it back together?” I try to suggest. “No, you can’t just glue plastic together” The notion is lost on me. What is wrong with the idea of gluing plastic? Then my mom starts looking all around the house. She doesn’t have a solution, but she’s looking for inspiration. Suddenly a “Eureka!” expression appears on her face when she opens the cutlery drawer. She takes a bunch of toothpicks and fills one of the hollow halves of my doll with them. Then it slides it into the other half. Last, she adds a little tape around it. I am in awe. It’s not perfect, but I can play with it again.

Like many other women, I have spent my adult life thinking that I was nothing like my mother. Because while the world was on fire with political activism she chose a quiet life. She got married, had four children. She never explicitly challenged the patriarchy. She never sprayed anarchist slogans on a wall. She never listened to Janis Joplin. My sisters and I had to discover feminism by ourselves. Sometimes I had to struggle to have my life choices accepted by her. Because our society teaches us to be unforgiving to our mothers and overly critical to our daughters. And yet, here I am, with my own bag of scraps of fabric and yarn, accumulated over the years, making dolls and toys for the people I love. To amuse them, to show them that they are worth my time, and my patience. You need a lot of both, as a toymaker.

I see myself bored on a summer afternoon. I bet was getting extremely annoying. Out of the blue my mom says “today we make a rag doll”. We didn’t do a lot of things together, I am curious… She takes an old cloth and folds it into half. “You first draw your doll on paper” she explains “it’s easier than drawing on the fabric. Then you cut it out and place it on the cloth. Like this. Now we pin the paper to the fabric, so it doesn’t move while we’re tracing it. Done. Give me the scissors. That’s where you cut, not on the line. You want to leave some room. You’ll see why. Now that we have the two halves, we sew them together. Not completely though! We leave a little hole for stuffing the doll”. When she’s done sewing, she takes some plastic bags, cut them in pieces and uses them as filling. Then, she draws a cute face on it. Big eyes, long eyelashes, freckles. Last she makes the hair with yarn leftovers. She always had leftovers and scraps.

I take all the new pieces that my mom has brought me, and I realise, clearer than ever, that you don’t need to be a rebel to be a feminist. It works for some of us, but it is not the only way. I now understand better that raising three girls teaching them to be strong and smart before pretty is more important and impactful than all my talking. To teach them to be serious and competent about what you do, but do it with love. That perfect things are way less interesting than those that you’ve done by yourself. My mom’s take on feminism took subtler routes than those I was ready to recognise. They sometimes passed through knitted stitches.

That’s one of the reasons I decided to offer my dolls for the Problem Daughters fundraiser. First, I was very excited at the idea of making dolls with the features of inspiring women. Women that faced different kind of marginalizations, often at the same time, and nonetheless were strong enough to became an example to others. Reproducing their look in the highest detail, finding the right fabric and accessories for their outfit is my way to express my love and admiration for what they achieved. Second, I really look forward to reading the stories that will be published in Problem Daughters and I wanted to help raising enough money to pay pro rates to the authors and artists. But, it’s also my way to honour the women in my family, and what they taught me.

So, if you’ve always wanted your personal doll of Phillis Wheatley, or Carrie Fisher, or Josephine Baker, or whichever great woman inspired you… I will make it for you! We’ll decide together how to dress her and how she will look like. I promise, it will be funny and adorable! If you actually make me use my first communion dress lace for the doll of a kick ass feminist, you also get my eternal gratitude.

“Why don’t we make another doll?!”
“No, this time you make one”
“I don’t know how to do it…”
“Yes you do. What do you need?”
“A cloth. Some paper. A pen. Pins. Scissors. Plastic bags…”
“Do you see? You know it! Show me how you make it”
And I do. With her help, of course. But I do know all the steps.
At the end, the most difficult part is to draw the doll’s face. I bite my lips in concentration, trying very hard to copy the pretty face that my mom drew on the first one.
When I finish I’m delighted. I have done it! I can make my own toys! It is the first very strong feeling of empowerment that I remember.
The face of my doll is not even near my mom’s one. The nose is just a large “L” and the mouth is not a cute pouting one but a big, smiling “U”. I show it to my mom.
“It’s not very beautiful…”
“No” she agrees. “But it’s your first one. If you make more, you’ll get better”.
I grab both my dolls and go to play.
Yes. I’ll make more.


You can buy your custom crocheted doll of an intersectional feminist of your choice on the Problem Daughtersfundraising page. There are only two left, so hurry up! You can also just preorder your copy of the upcoming anthology and help make it happen.

* The crocheted and knitted toys in the pictures are my executions and customisations of patterns by: Beth Doherty, Marjorie Jones and Alan Dart

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