Finding patterns for Susan, my 16″ little black girl doll from the early 1960s, isn’t all that easy. She’s too small for the 18″ patterns for American Girl and the like, and her body shape is different. But Simplicity have reissued some of their patterns from the 50s and 60s, and so I was able to find and buy Simplicity 2454, which has a complete wardrobe for 16″ and 18″ dolls. The pattern comprises a short-sleeved dress, a little waistcoat, a pinafore, undies, pyjamas, and a hooded coat. After experimenting with the simple flared pinafore, and finding that the 16″ size fit Susan perfectly, I decided to make up the dress and waistcoat, as they seemed the most attractive garments in the pattern.
Susan’s colour season is Autumn, so I chose a sprigged print in fawn and russet on a honey-toned base for the dress, and a matching plain fawn for the little waistcoat. I had some pretty broderie anglaise-type lace and some tiny fawn star-shaped buttons in my stash, so had everything I needed to get started.
I was shocked at how much more fiddly it was sewing for a 16″ doll compared with an 18″ one. The dress wasn’t too bad, apart from top-stitching the neckline which was a bit of a nightmare. The curve of the neck was so extreme, it was difficult to stay on track. At this time I didn’t have anything to help me with top-stitching, I was doing it by eye and using the edge of the presser foot. This proved tricky on the curves and so the top-stitching around the neck is not at all as I would wish to see it. I followed the pattern and used poppers to fasten the back of the bodice, and added little buttons to make it look as if it was a button-back.
Then I started work on the waistcoat. I’d thought the dress neckline was fiddly, but compared with constructing the waistcoat it was a doddle. The actual sewing was fine, it was turning the garment the right way out that was so tricky, as the shoulders are only 3/8″ wide. I had to coax the fronts through this tiny channel with a safety pin, all the time worried that I would tear the seams or indeed the fabric itself. But after a bit of a struggle I managed it and once ironed, the little garment looked quite good. I felt there was something missing, though, and realised it needed decoration around the neck edge to balance the (only slightly wobbly) top-stitching along the lower edge. More top-stitching? No, too plain. Braid? No, any braid I had would swamp this tiny garment. What it needed was some embroidery.
My Singer Talent 3321 machine is quite simple, but it does have a few embroidery stitches. I found one that looked like cross-stitch, practised it a bit, and then with a slight sense of anxiety – would I spoil the waistcoat at this late stage? – I lined up the fabric and started stitching. The result was almost better than I’d hoped. True, it’s not a perfect cross-stitch effect but the stitching looks quite regular and really does set off the edge of the garment as I’d hoped. Two tiny buttons and popper fastenings completed the waistcoat.
I eased Susan’s arms into the waistcoat and pulled the dress’s puff sleeves through the armholes, fastened the poppers, and the effect was all I could wish for. With her cream-coloured German shoes and an orange bow to match her eyes in her hair, Susan looks sweetly pretty and in quite the smartest outfit she’s possessed since the 1960s!
I made this outfit much earlier this year. Then in the spring I acquired Jamila, my Paola Reina Soy Tu girl. Jamila and Susan seemed to be drawn to each other immediately: both black, both a similar height (Jamila’s just a touch taller) and a similar shape. I tried Susan’s outfit on Jamila and it fit her quite well, but the colour was all wrong for my new Winter girl. She would need her own outfit.
As a Winter, Jamila is flattered by cool jewel colours or pale ice shades. I had in my stash a fat quarter that had made me a little nervous up to now. It was so bright, I just couldn’t see how I could use it. But I realised that this red, white, yellow and green floral print on black would be perfect for my new Winter girl. The same white broderie anglaise lace would work beautifully with it, and I had a plain red fabric for the waistcoat. And the top-stitching and embroidery could be black, which would make a real stand-out feature of it.
The dress came together well, and this time the top-stitching around the neck and along the bodice edge and hem was less of an issue, as I’d acquired a blind hem foot which kept me well on track – even though that neck curve was still challenging. As with Susan’s dress I managed to find some tiny red buttons to sit over the poppers fastening the back of the bodice.
Then I tackled that waistcoat again. Yes, turning it inside out was just as fiddly second time around! The top-stitching and embroidery went well, although the black on red was unforgiving and showed every wobble. But it was ok, more than ok actually, so I eased it onto Jamila… and found to my horror that it wouldn’t overlap at all. Jamila is slightly bigger in the chest that Susan, and this waistcoat would only meet edge-to-edge.
Back to the drawing board. I considered making another waistcoat, slightly bigger, but could I bear to do this? I could not. It struck me that the answer was to insert eyelets and lace up the waistcoat. End of problem. Except that I had no eyelets, no eyeleter, and no idea how to use one.
Let’s draw a veil over the mistakes I made in equipping myself with the right equipment and finding out how to use it. Not much money was wasted, really… but much frustration and irritation ensued, before I discovered the Prym Vario pliers and learned from YouTube how to use them. Armed with black eyelets I punched my first hole, pressed in the eyelet – and wow! it was in the right place and looked great! Five more were fitted, and a length of black cord laced through, and the waistcoat was complete. I was really really pleased with the result, and I’d acquired a new skill in the process. Jamila then borrowed a pair of shoes from the Kidz – a bit long for her feet, but just the right red – and these with her own socks finished off the outfit to perfection.
These two matching outfits illustrate how far I’ve come in the last few months, acquiring new bits of equipment which really help keep me on track (the blind hem foot) and being able to add new design features. My sewing skills had really improved. But even though Jamila’s outfit is so much better constructed that Susan’s, I do like them both very much. It was fun swapping the outfits over, putting Susan in the Winter colours and Jamila in the Autumn ones, and seeing just how unflattering they were to their different colourings. And then redressing them in the right colours again, and seeing their complexions – vinyl though they are – come alive in the colours of their own season.