Experimental Dollmaking

May 9, 2008 at 10:24 pm (Uncategorized) (, , )

Okay, as I may have mentioned before, I’m becoming obsessed with the idea of jointed dolls. After looking at what a lot of other artists are doing, I concluded that it was going to be extremely difficult to figure out how to do Asian-style ball-jointed dolls without actually buying one to examine for myself. Since that’s out of the question in terms of budget, I had to figure something else out. You know what they say about necessity and invention…

So I went looking through my trusty Susannah Oroyan books, and discovered that one of them (Anatomy of a Doll) had a whole page about ball jointed cloth dolls. I had already been thinking about poseable cloth dolls, and the photos of Shelley Thornton’s work in the Oroyan book really inspired me.

So pictured above and throughout this post is my first attempt at a soft doll with ball joints. I know, it’s ugly. I chose to make it from felt because I like the way felt is firm, but slightly stretchy when you stuff it. There are a lot of things I like about the way this turned out, and some things I want to improve on.

Things I like:

1. The hip joints have a very natural movement to them. I don’t know if you can tell in any of the pictures, but the thighs actually angle inwards, just like in a real skeleton. The movement is a result of the bead being attached as a ball joint on one side and a hinge joint on the other. I would present this as evidence of my apparent genius, but it happened completely on accident.

2. The beads can be ball joints or hinge joints, depending on how you sew them in. I don’t think you can read my inspiring diagram above, (dang WordPress!) but suffice it to say that you make a ball joint by anchoring the thread as close to the center of the joint as possible, while you make a hinge joint by anchoring the thread on either side. The hinge joints are very firm, firm enough to hold their positions, especially in the arms.

3. The wooden beads add so much weight that I don’t think I would need to weight the butt of this doll to make it sit. It won’t sit unassisted, but that’s because the hip joints are too loose.

4. There are three movements to the head (turning left-to-right, tilting left-to-right, and tipping up or down). My first attempt at the neck resulted in a hinge joint with only up-and-down movement. I removed it and tried again, and now it moves in any direction but is too floppy to hold its position.

Some things I want to work on:

1. I’m pleased with how the hinge joints set into the soft parts of the doll, but the way I sewed the ball joints prevents them from sitting in that tight. There must be some way to develop sockets, so the ball joints would be firmer. I had hoped the doll might sit and stand on its own, but the hip joints are too floppy.

2. My husband laughed at me because I was fretting about the doll not having a bottom to speak of, but it’s actually an engineering concern. I wonder if a sculpted behind would allow the doll to sit after all, or if it would interfere with standing movements too much. I think future versions will have more sculptural torsos.

3. I’d really like to develop a skin I could slide over the construction to hide the joints. I thought about adding two skins so I could do some needlesculpting in between, but I don’t think I’ll bother for this doll. I’m tempted to add one skin layer, though, because I really want to see how this doll will look with clothing.

4. The arms are obviously way too long. It was hard to judge the proper length for the pieces while taking the length of the beads into account. When I get this thing perfected, I may need to use (horrors!) a pattern instead of just eyeballing the sizes I need every time.

5. I wonder how the size of the bead impacts the performance of the joint. Can I get away with smaller, less conspicuous beads, or will that limit movement? I can almost imagine a ball-and-rod setup for the hip joint, similar to the way actual femurs are shaped, but that’s probably more complicated than it needs to be for my purposes.

6. And finally, I’m already picturing how I can transfer what I’ve learned to a hard-medium doll. Woo hoo!

Here’s where I want some feedback from you, dear reader. Have you ever tried this before? If not, are you interested in trying it now? I’d really like to see what some collage-type doll artists could do with this — imagine decorative beads tied into the doll with ribbons — there’s a lot you could do with it. Leave a comment and a link to some pictures of your work.

Another doll artist, Maggie Iacono, makes felt dolls with ball joints for collectors. Her site says the fingers on her dolls are “poseable” but not that they’re jointed, so I wonder if they’re just wired. I have an idea for a jointing system for fingers, but it would be impossible in this tiny scale. Can anyone think of a use for a life-sized, fully poseable hand?



  1. Eva said,

    How excellent this is! You have to post it on DMC, too, ok? (Or you did recently and I haven’t seen it yet?). I love the doll and think the idea of skin is a great one. Doesn’t Lisa Licthenfels (sp?) use nylon?

    If I did fabric, this would be very fun as a collage project–gesso the body and then collage ephemera to it. I’ve actually been playing around with that idea in my mind, thinking about using it on some stuffed doll bodies I have and adding a different head, hands, and feet to them.

    BTW, your picture on sewing the joints is clickable and opens into a pic that’s large enough for me to read, so whatever you did worked.

    You could always attach the life-sized hand to the wall and hang your hat or jacket from it πŸ˜‰ I really can’t wait to see where you go with these.

  2. thessalyrose said,

    You know, robe velour is the only thing I’ve ever enjoyed making doll skin out of. I think I’m too sloppy to use any fabric that isn’t stretchy (it always gets wrinkles in it) and I just really love the fuzzy quality of it. I enjoy constructing dolls out of felt, but I like the way robe velour looks and feels a lot better.

    I think you could use this technique for non-cloth dolls, too. I’m picturing a found object for the body, with beads tied at the bottom with ribbons… I guess I’ll have to make some to show people what I’m talking about. I’m terrible at collage, but surely I have enough stuff in my stash to come up with something.

    What I’d really like to do is build a hand and wire it to move. In high school I was really fascinated by movie special effects, especially animatronics. I would love to build that stuff (I just didn’t want to live in California!). Maybe I should build a Cousin It for Halloween. πŸ™‚

  3. Susan said,

    This is very cool! I like what you discovered about the hip joints – that actually helps me with a paper clay BJD I’m working on…

    I tried a similar experiment with cotton fabric, plastic grapes, wooden beads, and stretch nylon cord. The plastic grapes were someone else’s idea – I’ll go look up the information so I can give credit – but you cut them in half, poke a hole in the middle and set them in the ends of the arm/leg/body pieces so the bead will sit into them…. if that makes any sense.

    As far as the joints being too loose – that is remedied by stringing – I believe that same book you talked about has a stringing diagram in it?

    I don’t have pics of my experiment doll on my blog, but this is about the 3rd time she has come up in conversation in the last few weeks so I’ll go take pics.

    The biggest problem I ran into:
    Cloth collapses over time – so even though I had stuffed FIRMLY, the stringing eventually caused her appendages to squish. That’s when I decided she had to be a little pixie with long sleeves – a “skin” of sorts. It prevents her from moving much, but that’s because it needed to be stiff to help her remain standing.

    Do you have any stretch nylon that you can cover with as an experiment? That might be cool… but how would you hide the seam? πŸ˜‰

    Thanks for sharing!

  4. thessalyrose said,

    I was very happy with the thigh joints. They have extremely realistic movement, even to the point of being limited in the same ways that human hips are. I wish I was so lucky in every accident.

    The grapes make perfect sense, actually. I was trying to come up with some kind of socket for the ball-jointed type beads. I think I’ll try that, if I can find some plastic grapes at the thrift store.

    The problem you mention is exactly why I don’t want to string the joints like a BJD. Any kind of tension is eventually going to break down or deform the cloth parts, unless it has a hard skeleton underneath, and at that point, you might as well make a hard media doll. The way I’ve sewn the beads in, the tension is mostly supported by the bead itself, so I’m not worried about it deforming over time. I think sockets will remedy the loose joints by providing more friction to hold them in place.

    Thanks for commenting! i’m going to have to post again later this week with all the good stuff people have been sending me!

  5. Ronalyn said,

    What a wonderful post! My focus at the moment is Reborn dolls but I have made cloth dolls in the past and really enjoyed it. I have the book you mentioned and your blog post has inspired me to once again venture into the art doll world.

  6. Susan said,

    Oh please do ! I posted that other doll on my blog:

    I’d love to hear what you think. πŸ™‚

  7. thessalyrose said,

    Ronalyn: Wow, I am honored to be the inspiration for you to get back into art dolling!

    Susan: Great post! I will probably not have time to post again until Monday, but I already have bunches of things to show people!

    I want to thank everyone who has read this post without commenting. My hits have been through the roof yesterday and today. I used to think I was shy, but I love this kind of attention. πŸ™‚

  8. Esther said,

    What a great experiment, With my current smallest sprog taking up most of my time I am only doing small projects currently both in size and time or I’d be tempted to have a go too.

  9. Update — Butterfly wings, ball joints « Needle and Clay said,

    […] wrists and ankles are “bead joints.” I’m not sure if bead joints are the same as the ball joints I’ve been working on,Β  but it sure looks like it. If anyone has made this pattern, can you leave us a comment about how […]

  10. needleandclay.com » Update — Butterfly wings, ball joints said,

    […] wrists and ankles are “bead joints.” I’m not sure if bead joints are the same as the ball joints I’ve been working on, but it sure looks like it. If anyone has made this pattern, can you leave us a comment about how […]

  11. Ros Fischer said,

    Hi ,
    What a facinating site ,
    I am currently making a collection of very big dolls,
    and working out how to ball joint them…..
    so far the best idea Ive come up with is ….plastic Golf balls for the joints
    and pvc piping in between …with a scoop cut at each end to accomodate the joint ….still in the prototype stage ….as I am getting ready to sell up and move back to the uk,after 35 yrs in Oz.
    needless to say the idea of a fully posable hand made my ears prick up ??any more info would be much appreciated…please πŸ™‚
    re you doll skins ….I find using streachy tubular finger bandage fabulouse for the smaller dolls,as the first skin….it gives them a bit of muscle :)….its really cheap if bought in a roll.
    also have you thought of using a soft tie wire to connect your bead joints..again it might give a bit more controle…
    I bought one of those jointed wooden artists models recently ….to see how the work
    and was amazed at the intricasy in such a small cheap item [$6.00]…
    inside the hollow of each arm and leg part is a small spring.attached to each end of the little ball joints..[I have the awfull fear some poor child in china is making these for a small bowl of rice a day….and getting very sore little fingers…oh dear,isnt it awfull]
    thankyou so much for your inspiring page ….
    I shall go back to the drawing board with renewed vigor…
    all the best ..and happy jointing πŸ™‚

  12. thessalyrose said,

    Thank you for the kind words, Ros! The place you need, though, is a forum for ball-jointed doll makers called The Joint. Here’s the address: http://www.bjdartists.com/joints/index.php

    Don’t forget to bookmark my new and improved blog at http://www.needleandclay.com.

    Good luck with your dolls, I’d love to see pictures!

  13. Tina Carter said,

    I love your jointed dolls. It is really nice and I would love to see You as your “in your zone” when u made ur doll. Cute!!!

  14. Kris Tee said,

    Hi T Rose, I’m at the stage you were at 2 yrs ago – obsessed with making a stuffed doll with realistic joints. It’s small, 10 inches. Not being able to get any pattern I’ve had to draft my own using a hit and miss technique. It’s a bit rough. Used the teddy method, disks inside the limbs to join them to the body and eachother, like buttons, but I cut them out of stiff plastic, custom sized for each joint size and punched holes in them with a big needle. Result is not great but not bad for a 1st effort. I like yours with the ‘brown’ felt one above. Had you considered using one only large ball inserted in the pelvis, this may help with shaping a bottom too, then threading the cord all the way through the pelvis from one leg to the other. Pipe cleaners may serve for moveable fingers. I’ve always found dental floss is very strong and long lasting. Coloured crochet thread or button thread is very strong but are natural fibres and subject to rot.
    This all started when I decided I wanted to replicate a New York Metropolitan Museum of Art Neapolitan Creche angel for the top of my christmas tree.
    Am I crazy??

    • thessalyrose said,

      Hi Kris,
      We’re all a little crazy or we wouldn’t be trying this in the first place. I’d love to see some pictures of your project. I’ve been toying with the idea of adding a “skin” over mine to hide the joints. I saw a dollmaker once who was doing something similar, except I’m not sure what kind of jointed armature she was using. Her dolls could stand!

      • Kris Tee said,

        I finally finished it today, 20yr old daughter very unimpressed!! “Looks weird” was her comment. It does too, naked, but it still has to be clothed. Have to say I wouldn’t do the elbow and knee joints using the ‘button’ method again – I’d use the bead method instead, much more realistic I think. I wanted to make it so I can pose it any way I wish.
        Re the idea about giving your doll a skin – what about using lycra, or thick hosiery like those reinforced flight ‘sox’, I think nurses and flight attendants wear them also. I saw some interesting fabric last week in my fabric shop – it’s like lycra but has a ‘wet’ look. Whatever you do it will be another trial and error effort. Maybe the reason patterns are not already available for this is because it’s too damn hard and everybody gives up.
        Good luck.
        Kris – Brisbane, Australia.

  15. Leann Marshall said,

    I’m so intrigued by this fabric jointed doll and each of the comments. I agree with Kris’s idea about the stringing ball in the pelvis thing.
    I’m struggling with a prototype for a jointed cat, and find it absolutely fascinating that there are so many others obsessed with this stuff. Love it!
    I know this thread is old, but I had to pitch in.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: