Saturday, April 13, 2013

Doll Making

Good morning! My name is Karen Challender and I've been making dolls for over 30 years.. I first made dolls for my children way back in 1981.. Michigan was in a recession and money was a bit tight, so I made dolls for my kiddo's for Christmas. I made each doll to resemble them wearing pj's and a housecoat, then I made my children the same outfit. What started as a gift idea grew into my small doll business, but it took years to get here.

Two of my sisters were very supportive and kept telling me I needed to try selling my dolls. I started creating dolls left and right and ended up with a closet just off our kitchen full of  nothing but dolls.. But now what? Back then, there wasn't the internet, I didn't have money to open a craft shop and a few ads in the paper I ran didn't generate any business. 

So, one of my sisters and I started going to craft shows. She sold really unique purses she made and I sold my dolls.. Some of the shows were very productive, most were not.. We got a lot of great compliments, but Michigan was in a recession, and no one had money to spend on extras...We soon discovered how iffy craft shows can be and after about a year or so, we just kind of moved on... 

Eventually, we both ended up working outside our homes.. For me, I still made dolls off and on, some for my neices and nephews, some to donate at Christmas time, my youngest sister suggested I do a craft show on her airforce base, she took a couple of orders for me from time to time...I worked for an insurance salesman who knew he wasn't paying me enough (lol) so he suggested I bring some dolls into the office to display them and maybe get some sales.. I did, and they sold.. But living in a very small rural town, there just really wasn't a way to get them out there.. 

Back then, in the 80's, it was really hard to find good fabric to use for the dolls skin.. I remember going into a dime store once in Angola, Indiana to look at fabric.. They had a variety of fabric for sale, folded on a table.. I found a piece of perfect fabric, perfect skin tone, it was soft and not too stretchy.. It didn't have a name on it, but I suspect it was probably an early version of craft velour.. I bought all they had and used it for years, always looking for more, but never able to find any.. I still have one doll made from that fabric.. 

Years went by, I worked in office positions for over 20 years, all the while wishing I could make a living being creative, not sitting behind a desk doing endless paperwork and eventually staring at a computer all day long.. 

I was still making dolls here and there, selling them from time to time, but never enough to ever consider leaving a stable job to pursue a career of selling crafts.. 

In the early 1990's, I decided to rent a booth at a craft/antique shop for $15 a month, plus a commission charged on each sale..For this the owners were to take care of the booth, the sale of items, and send me a check every month for anything I sold.. It took a few months, but suddenly a check showed up in the mail.. I made a few more dolls, took them to my booth and waited for another check.. 

I never received another check and after 6 months or so, decided it wasn't worth the $15 a month, so I went to clear out my booth, only to discover all my items had been sold, the original owners had sold the craft/antique store to someone else and taken my money with them. 

Hard lesson to learn, but from then on, I knew if I was going to sell my crafts, I was going to have to figure out a way to do it myself. 

In 2000, I remarried a wonderful, kind and loving man who understands my desire to be creative.. I made the decision to leave Corporate America behind and figure out a way to do what I really love to do for a living... 

I decided to create a website.. Why I thought I could do this, I do not know.. I knew NOTHING about websites, how to create one or how to get one up and running, but somehow, I did it!

Karens Kottage was launched in the spring of 2002.. Sales were very, very slow at first (I think I made $200 the first year. lol).. To supplement my income, I cleaned houses a few days a week, which is one of the hardest jobs on earth! Many koodo's to anyone out there who cleans houses for a living..

After a year or so, I was making enough from sales that I quit the cleaning business and focused on my craft business full time.. It's been a heck of a ride since then.. I love what I do for a living and never get bored! 

I still had the problem of finding good fabric for the dolls, though, especially dolls of ethnic skin tones.. Eventually, after a lot of research, shopping and questions, I discovered craft velour and doe suede fabrics, the PERFECT fabric for my dolls... I now buy it by the bolt in a range of colors suitable for every race! 

Karens Kottage ( is now the mama website to quite a few others, including Karens KidsKarens KatsSpecial Angel DollsSweet Pea Doll ClothesSweet Pea Girls and Karens Kandles...


  1. Hi Karen...such a enspiring story...I like you feel frustrated and in the need to throw my creative arms in the air lol....I also like you have extreme difficulty finding good skin in the uk and its a nightmare to be did you find the doe suede fabrics? I may try to hunt some again, but it really has had a bad knock on effect with my creative flowing.....happy creating Karen and love your page :)

  2. Hi Sharon,
    I've had other people tell me they can't find craft velour and doe suede in the UK, too... Yikes!! I buy it from a fabric wholesaler here in the United States, but I have to buy full bolts and the shipping fees are horrible.. I pay almost as much for shipping as I do for the entire bolt.. I do sell it by the yard on my website, if you get desperate enough. lol.. but the shipping will suck to the UK ;o(
    I hope you have some luck finding it, and can get creative... Happy creating to you, too.. Take care :o)

  3. I am a doll making newbie. I just took the first class. The teacher required that we buy Ponte Knit. The store where I go (Joanns Fabrics) has it in 2 colors. I really like the way it sewed and sculpted. Since the class, I've painted it with super results, with the knit remaining supple. My teacher says she dyes the ponte knit with Rit dyes. I bought some and plan to do some experimenting tomorrow. I'm making whimsical tree sprite dolls right now and also plan to embroider vines on the fabric which I will use to fussy cut the arms and legs so it looks like the vines are growing up the body parts. I'm also going to try felting on moss for hair. I guess I don't have much to report, except a willingness to try to be creative.

    Thanks for posting the directions for making curly yarn hair. I have 30 dowels in the oven right now. I really see the possibilities for releasing my creative spirit, which hasn't happened in a long time. Soft sculpture doll making has certainly resurrected many craft skills I thought had gone by the way side. And made me try some new ones at the same time. I'm so glad I'm retired so I have time to do this!!

    1. I hope you have found much pleasure in working on your dolls since June... Have a great weekend..

  4. Nice blog and so informative thank you for sharing us.

  5. Where do you begin? Completely new at this and curious...
    Do you cut your own patterns? Do you buy the patterns from a store?

    1. Hi Camryn,
      I started by buying a book on doll making from a craft store (some 35 years ago!). I used that pattern for quite some time, but eventually started changing it to suit my idea of what my dolls should look like. My dolls today do not resemble those early dolls very much at all, but it was a good starting point. There's a site called Sew Sweet Dolls: with gobs of doll patterns for sale. The owner/creator has been around for years and sells her patterns at a very reasonable price. There's another site called Doll Net: with links to quite a few websites selling doll patterns. Pinterest also has a page on free soft doll patterns: I've never tried any of them so I don't know how good they are, but I have purchased a couple of cat doll patterns from Sew Sweet Dolls and find them easy to understand and use. Good luck. I hope you end up loving doll making as much as I do.

  6. Hi Karen,
    When you say 20" dolls, how do you measure them? Do you mean from head to toe? I know this sounds strange, but they seem so much bigger in the pictures. Thanks!

  7. Hi Madeline,
    I measure them from head to back of heel. They can differ slightly in their measurements due to the different fabric colors. Some fabrics stretch just slightly more than others, creating a slightly taller/shorter doll, but for the most part, they are basically 20" tall. Same with the 16" dolls (which actually wear the same sized clothing as Bitty Baby).