In the rapture of a moment where a doll collector first beholds any given doll, it is debatable as to what they see first. Is it the doll’s face, or is it the fashion which envelopes the character? A fine line can easily be drawn as to what brings the most appeal, but there is no denying that the clothing elicits a grab on the eye, drawing you in to learn more. And as I explained here and here, the costume can represent the majority of cost in a doll’s price – there are exceptions, particularly in artist-rendered dolls, and those requiring a high degree of finishing. But in most manufactured dolls, you’ll find that the time and effort poured into the design, development and manufacture of a doll outfit can easily exceed the costs incurred from the making of the doll itself.
For people who sew, this is a no-brainer. Even the most simplistic of designs requires a fair amount of planning and execution. What sets one design apart from another is the level of manipulation needed to realize the finished design, and the quality of materials used to fabricate it. The eye can easily be fooled by a number of industry tricks and illusions that imply something is perceived as more than it is. And as we explored here, perception is a two-way street, often resulting in liberties being invoked by each side in the tug-of-war between maker and collector. Trying to determine who actually wins in this struggle is an improbable calculation – but suffice it to say that the odds are stacked in the favor of most doll businesses.
In the late 1990s, an online debate sprouted regarding the term ‘haute couture’ and its application to doll clothing. Purists would argue that unless something were entirely made by hand, it was not worthy of this label. But even in the actual haute couture industry, it’s unrealistic to assume machines aren’t used, despite the core definition of ‘couture’. I believe that haute couture is in the eye of the beholder – it’s a delicate combination of design, materials, fabrication and reputation that can qualify wearing apparel under this category. And although a large amount of hand work goes into even manufactured garments, there is a clear separation between a Ralph Lauren Purple Label black evening sheath, and one that is found off-the-rack at your local department store. Dolls clothes are no different.
In the same vein as designers who don’t sew and doll makers who don’t sculpt, you will also find the critic who writes about any given subject often knows most of what they do about said subject through observation and research – but they don’t actually have an active hand in the matter. Some feel that one who writes a critical review of writing or acting does so because they couldn’t make it in the field themselves. There is some truth to this, but it does not entirely paint an accurate portrait of the critical writer. Anyone can be a critic, but what makes a good critic is one who has a comprehensive understanding of the subject in such a way that one can make observations for the purpose of edifying his/her reader, and urge them to make one’s own opinion. Criticism serves a highly useful purpose simply because of all the stupid people out there – a fool and his money are easily parted, right? Well, yes and no – what is the ulterior motive of the critic? Is it to offer commentary that one can find as truly useful in such a way that everyone is drawn closer in a community of enlightenment and appreciation? It should be – but often it creates divide – and largely because the critic lacks a fundamental understanding of the subject of which they defile with a pepper spray of acerbic (and ignorant) diatribe.
Such critical writings contribute greatly to the understanding of the way things are, and – here’s that nasty word – perceived. However, it is possible to change perception through knowledge. Would you pay more for a doll if you had a better understanding of what it cost to make? Maybe…maybe not. The doll world has its limits on what the mainstream will pay for dolls and doll accessories, notwithstanding the fractional exception of the artist community that appeals to those of affluence. Don’t hate those with money, though…without them, you’d never have haute couture – so give some credit where it’s due.
There are those who just want a bargain. Contrast them with those that want the best and can afford it. Somewhere in the middle you find those that compromise to own the most they can afford. This is where the true conundrum exists – at what point do you draw the line at what you can afford versus the top level of quality of which you seek? I hope you have a very good therapist.
Nevertheless, anyone reading this may find a hint of edification if the costume were explored more in depth. Such an understanding may change your limits – but then again, it may also sour your opinion of some. So let’s break down a doll dress and see where this leads us. Bear in mind – this is just a dress. There is obviously no doll – no added accessories or packaging – no overheads or profits – just a dress…
It all begins with an idea: an idea takes visual shape in the form of a sketch, or draping on a dress form – a design is born. There is a process a designer applies when evaluating the design in conjunction with its possible construction. Muslin is cut, folded, twisted and manipulated to make the design a three-dimensional sculpture of fabric that is held together by stitching threads, pins, staples, and even tape. A huge amount of thought is interwoven into the toile: what fabrics will work? Should it be lined, and if so, how will the lining affect the finished garment? Will there be embellishment to accentuate the design? Are there any shortcuts one can take to save time or money? What can be done machine – and what has to be done by hand? My favorite color is blue…so let’s make this in red.
While all these questions are asked, answered and re-asked in the designer’s head, the muslin toile has been deconstructed into a series of flat shapes that will fit within the confines of a fabric’s length and width – or simply put, a pattern is created. The muslin pattern is transferred to paper, markings are added for fit and construction purposes, and the time has come to cut and sew using a sample fabric, or more muslin. When the designer’s neuroses are satisfied that the pattern works, the final fabric is cut and sewn. To complete the garment and earned a well-deserved glass of scotch, hand-finishing and/or embellishment works its magic to complete the dress.
Little thought or consideration comes into the valuation of a dress when it comes to the design. Because it isn’t directly seen or understood, no one wants to slap a price tag on it. The same is true of the actual fabrication labor. Most aren’t willing to pay even American Minimum Wage for the time it takes to make an article of clothing, so don’t be so surprised that companies seek less costly alternatives in overseas countries that pay a fraction in labor costs. When anyone claims anything is overpriced, it’s an insulting kick in the balls to any laborer whose time isn’t even considered when assessing perceived value. Pricing things like design and sample making are accounted for in overhead costs more than applying it directly to the cost ledger, and production labor is reduced to an average cost that is applied as a formula. Think about that the next time you bitch about high prices. Oh yes, in a manufacturing facility, it is almost impossible to account for the actual time associated with a single manufactured design – but that makes is no less demeaning to the worker.
When looking at design intended for reproduction via factory assembly line methods, you can achieve increased economies of scale by re-using patterns, which increases your learning curve to maximize efficiency. It also means that you may skimp on innovation in your designs, and that can easily be noticed by your customer. Some companies are much savvier at evaluating this variable than others.
Artists that rely on small production choreography or one-of-a-kind creation are greatly disadvantaged by lack of labor perception – and some reflect this in their pricing. Unfortunately, many do not – because they know that application of costs associated with direct labor will price a garment out of its market – that is – no one will pay above a given threshold because they think it’s too much money for the product based on the perception of what it ‘should cost’.
There are four elements that make a successful designer, notwithstanding talent and skill: Patience, Practice, Persistence…and Money. I never made it as a designer (which would make me one nasty critic, if I were to apply my writing skills to such a subject), and Lord knows I’ve tried pursuing design – the true question is whether or not I tried hard enough. Eh – another subject for my future therapist. Being self-taught didn’t help despite the fact that I was accepted to Parsons and FIT in 1984 – but for regrettably tragic reasons, I never attended. I launched my first wearing apparel collection at the age of 20 with only nominal success, and without a more lucrative following, creating a follow-up collection was doomed at best. But, I’ve sewn human scale clothing for years, even turning my hand to doll clothing as my appreciation of dolls increased. I’ve paraded my ideas and designs to a number of human scale companies and doll companies – I even tried out for Project Runway. But the core elements of a successful designer eluded me. I was not very patient, and as a direct result, I was lacking in practice – both of these factors contribute to confidence which facilitates persistence. Failing to assemble this consecutive path of elemental traits, it should go without saying that I was unable to attract money to achieve success. True, there are people like the Olsen Twins and Victoria Beckham that had the money to guide their visions into lucrative design ventures, and if I had had that kind of money, who’s to say you wouldn’t be watching my runways shows during fashion week? But these are all ‘could-haves’ and ‘should-haves’ – and if anything, they brew jealousy and hostility more than productivity and accomplishment. Being a successful designer also takes hard work.
Now – let’s take away the blood, sweat and tears that commonly comes with labor for our little anatomy lesson here. Let’s look purely at the materials, shall we, Puddings?
Fabric – Aside from labor, the cost associated with fabric is one of the most critical in determining the price of a garment. It’s easy to separate natural fibers with synthetics and automatically assuming one costs more than the other – but it’s not always true. Just because it’s silk or wool – or even cashmere – that doesn’t automatically mean that it’s an expensive fabric. China and India spit out silk like it were paper, and you can find all levels of pricing. A fabric begins with a fiber – the fiber can be silk, cotton, linen or polyester. The fiber, in and of itself, has varying degrees of quality. If it’s natural, value increases with its source and cultivation. If it’s synthetic, the mix of chemicals needed to create the polymer is paired with the extrusion method used to create the shape of the fiber. Microfiber is a fancy term for very, very tiny polyester fibers, and yet, the silk-like characteristics of fabric woven from microfiber are directly attributed to the shape and size of the fiber. Look at any fiber under a microscope, and you begin to understand the miraculous properties at the most basic level.
Natural fibers were the only option in textile making until the early 20th century when Rayon and Acetate were popularized, and sometimes used as silk substitutes. These are ‘man-made’ fibers because they involve a natural material foundation (cellulose) that is chemically broken down and altered into a completely new molecular structure, but it is not 100% synthetic. Nylon and Acrylic came along as pure synthetics that had apparel and industrial uses. Polyester was a bit of a game changer because its properties allowed its use in vastly diversified and inexpensive applications. Polyester gets a really bad rap from the 1970s when it was in such abundant use – the decade’s fashions are stereotypically identified with this fiber.
Think of movie costumes from the days before rayon and acetate were readily available and costume budgets were big – Adrian’s designs for Marie Antoinette and Plunkett for Gone With The Wind come to mind – again, think about it. No synthetics – everything was natural – silks, linens, furs – all real. It blows my mind with abject appreciation to ponder the magnitude!
Over the years, synthetics have undergone amazing transformations into not only viable materials, but in some cases, highly sought-after in textile production. As a stand alone fiber or in blends, these synthetics offer a plethora of options available in all cost ranges. It is generally true that natural fibers can be more expensive than synthetics, largely because synthetics are produced in such quantity that the costs are spread across a mammoth yield – but it is also true that you have natural fibers that are not only inexpensive, but they are poor quality, too.
Fibers are then spun and/or otherwise manipulated into yarns to maximize the properties and quality of the fiber going into fabric weaving. Using weaving or knitting methods (or even matting as is the case with felt), fabrics are created. I have many peeves, but one of the biggest fabric related annoyances comes from people who use silk and satin interchangeably. Silk is a FIBER – Satin is a weave method used to create a FABRIC. Satin can be made from silk, nylon, or polyester (cotton satin is referred to as sateen), BUT silk can only be made from silk. So I am very happy you love your satin sheets, but I highly doubt they are silk…so don’t call them SILK SHEETS! Those that use the term ‘silky’ to describe textiles for advertising/marketing purposes where the fabric is not made of silk deserve their own special level of hell.
The creation of fabrics is a truly glorious miracle – especially when you look at more intricate methods of weaving such as tapestries, jacquards and damasks, among others. Knit fabrics that use repetitive patterns can also be extraordinary, but when you apply random color patterns, cable knit or intarsia methods – again, you can be left in awe.
The selection of a fabric in a given design remains as the most substantive factor in the success of it. Textiles are chosen for a given design based on such factors as how it will pass through a machine, its delicateness or fragility when manipulating, functional aspects of its stretch or lack thereof, its bulkiness within seam allowances – I could go on. It can also be chosen because it can save labor costs. Many materials like tulle and knits don’t ravel on an unfinished edge, making them attractive for hemlines intended to be left raw-edged to save on finishing costs. Some synthetics can be cut with a hot knife to seal a finished edge for the same purpose. All-in-all, the designer’s use of a given fabric will tell you a great deal about the overall quality of a finished garment.
Companies will use many cost-saving applications to help with the bottomline selling price. Still others just get lazy. Instead of being challenged to operate within budgets, some companies claim they don’t want to stifle their designers by imposing such parameters, and then reduce the available extras and accessories of which collectors crave. The result is gross negligence in design quality because someone’s ego can’t find a happy medium between being a talented designer, and having to make that excessive ruffling work without finishing the edges. After a while, the designs all start looking the same due to lack of creative design.
So scrutinize those fabrics – all synthetics are not bad and should not be perceived as cheap. It’s when they are so overused – such as Gene Marshall’s millions of yards of solid synthetic taffeta (more commonly known as ‘shower curtain fabric’), Tonner’s frequent use of mesh fabrics in unfinished edge ruffles and skirts, or Mattel’s printed synthetic fabrics to mimic more complex woven materials – that the term ‘cheap’ becomes warranted. Understand that these companies may have been named for these practices – but they all do it to reduce costs – because YOU, the customer, have a perceived value of what you will pay for it. So who’s really at fault here? Chicken and the egg, baby…
One of the most criminal aspects of fabric use in doll design comes from substituting a prototype fabric with a lesser quality production material. Yes, we’ve all read the disclaimers that substitutions of equal quality fabric may occur during fabrication, but then don’t show me a lovely silk shantung and swap it out for polyester during manufacture. This is not equal in any sense. Silk and polyester differ in so many ways that intentional substitution of one for another is blatantly wrong. Do us all a favor and get a few yards of that craptastic shit used in production to make your prototypes, and we’ll at least have a better sense of what to expect when it arrives in our hands. The truth hurts, but then again, so does loss of customer loyalty. I understand that sometimes there is an honest intent to produce something in the same fabric – but the road to hell is paved with silk intentions.
Notions – Thread, hooks/eyes, snaps, buttons, zippers, etc. I’ve unfairly grouped these into a single category even though they are not the same. Notions are better split into two categories: Construction-related notions and decorative notions (see below). Those notions used in construction serve mostly a functional role in the creation of a design, whereas the latter exists to make it pretty.
Thread is basically a tiny yarn composed of fibers. Everyone wants silk, silk, silk…but in thread…I want strength, and synthetics/blends offer more durability. Threads can also be a distinctive contributor to staining.
Of all the functional notions, quality is also key, and not always as visually apparent until there is a malfunction. The Zipper is probably the most notorious because if you have a zipper break, it’s not likely it can be fixed, and a garment must be scrapped. I’ve seen many people just gush over zippers…and their use is desirable because of the clean finish to a closure – but in doll clothes, you are dealing with miniature, and just because it’s wanted by the customer doesn’t make it the most suitable of options.
One other important consideration with most functional notions – they usually need to be installed by hand, or even using specialized machines, this is only a marginal time saver because of the hand work required to position, install and finish. Having such equipment is a luxury to smaller operations or artists, so factor in the added handwork.
Buttons in miniature are damnable at best if they are functional. Whether it needs a working buttonhole or an even more infuriating thread loop (more of a pain to actually use rather than install), buttons are a quality touch if done well, and in miniature, they can often invoke a decent into madness.
Snaps and Hooks/Eyes are also pains in the ass to use in miniature, but they sure beat a zipper when it comes to replacement due to wear or breakage.
Decorative Notions – Little bits and bobs that embellish a design to add character and/or value. Beading, decorative trims, embroidery, appliqué – all the shit that doesn’t serve a single utilitarian purpose other than that it brings pleasure to the eye.
Deceptive little buggers, these decorative notions. They can be used to add a sense (or perceived) level of quality to a finished product, but if the item is manufactured, you really need to look a little more closely. Years ago, I bought a manufactured doll from the British artists, Crees and Coe (makers of stunning wax dolls in extraordinary costuming) – when Lucretia arrived, the porcelain version was grand, and a fraction in price of her highly limited wax sisters, but I was horrified that the sequin/embroidered appliqué had been glued on the dress fabric. Fail. But then, many mass makers will employ such techniques to add visual value to their product.
Consider beading, for example. Beading can be hand-applied using needle and thread, weaving techniques or tambour hook methods. Anyone who has pulled a thread and seen a whole string of beads dance off a dress is familiar with tambor hook beading. It doesn’t mean it’s lesser quality, though – it simply means care must be used when employing such an embellishment, and taking into consideration its long-term endurance.
With embroidery, whether it be by machine or hand, this embellishment will be expensive to add to any garment. The design of the embroidery pattern, and the pre-application to pattern pieces before primary construction occurs is a demanding process. Anything can be done cheaply, but when you see embroidery – rest-assured that it has added a fair amount to the final cost.
Finally, think about how the final embellishment will affect the construction of the dress. If it’s added before construction, will you still be able to pass the decorated fabric through a machine, or will you have to piece it by hand? If added after the garment is finished, are attaching threads hidden within a lining (should there be one)? All signs that extra steps have been taken above and beyond ordinary construction.
Linings/Interfacings/Structural Support Garments – These elements bring architectural support to a garment. Whether it work like an interfacing, which adds stability to a given part of the dress – or lining the garment to turn unfinished edges and smooth the outer fabric, these techniques add a great deal of work. Linings may be partial, but they can also be an entire duplicate of the garment simply to create a clean interior. Structural support garments are often independent items such as petticoats or other undergarments that maintain the weight of the outer garment, thereby creating a silhouette that need not have to work against gravity to be fabulous. It’s always impressive (if not excessive) to see such hidden elements of a dress where decorative measures have been applied to add flair, despite the fact that it isn’t visible to the eye.
Pattern Pieces – The number and complexity of pattern pieces in any finished design must be respected beyond all else to make it truly successful. A straight skirt is the easiest thing to make if constructed from a simple fabric. A strapless dress elevates complexity slightly to add a simple bodice to the skirt. Raise the line a little further for a sleeveless sheath (although, in my opinion, a well-finished sleeveless sheath isn’t ‘easy’ to accomplish cleanly in miniature). Expand this beyond the shoulders to create sleeves, which are a royal pain in the ass given the scale of curve in miniature. And then go blind by adding collar and cuffs. Variations on all of these abound plenty, and with each addition, you exponentially increased the amount of work (and the things that can go wrong) for even the most seasoned sewer.
Also understand that with the increased complexity, you have increased bulk. A waistband is often omitted because of the bulk it adds to a miniature waist. Think of why Barbie has the proportions she has – or any doll for that matter. I just can’t wait to see that moron’s doll, Lammily, when he tries to attractively dress her in something other than Sears activewear.
Now let’s summarize it all with a little visual journey. Sometime around 2000, I developed a strapless mermaid-style gown for Tyler Wentworth. It was a princess seam gown of relatively simple construction, and one that would be incredibly versatile going forward. Flash forward to 2014 – I was inspired to get off my ass and sew something (thanks, Ginny!). So I went up to the attic and brought down Tommy’s old box of dress patterns – lo and behold, I found the old pattern. Since Integrity’s 16inch Poppy Parker is my new muse (still love Tyler though – and always will) – I adapted the pattern to fit Miss Parker. Her measurements were markedly different from Tyler’s in vertical and horizontal proportions. Using flat pattern adjustments, I created a new pattern and proceeded to my first muslin.
Three muslins were created. In the first, I used a larger-than-normal seam allowance by mistake, and I was happy with the initial results because it allowed me to see how the pattern worked with her body in an extreme fit. The second was at a proper seam allowance, and it required adjustments to the fit at the bust. With the second incorporating fit fixes, I transferred these to the pattern, cut a third, and used this as the shell with the second version serving as the lining. Installing a human-scale practice zipper finished the muslin as a whole, and allowed me to see the whole dress with lining installed.
At this point, I noticed a couple of glaring things. The muslin was too heavy, and the zipper wasn’t going to work for the finished miniature. Switching to the actual dress fabric, a silk shantung, I was able to sew two more half-versions. Good thing I did…the reduced bulk from switching to the silk showed me my bust fit was off – so with one last adjustment to the pattern, I sewed versions #6 and #7, using one to test a newly acquired miniature zipper (from zipperthatdoll.com), the other to line it – and then made a few practice beading samples. This seems like a large amount of work for one doll dress, right? Accomplished sewers know this as reality. Seasoned makers of unbelievable couture artistry see this as novice work at best. But you can drop the attitude sweetie – this is a doll dress – that, and it’s been a while since I’ve sewn anything. But, it’s like riding a bike or sex standing up…you never forget, though it takes a little getting re-accustomed to it.
The fabric I chose for this gown was a lovely medium-quality silk shantung. It is not remarkable in and of itself; but it presses well, doesn’t creep around, and will shape well when lined. I won’t have to interface it to support the beading, and the sheen is better than a lower quality dupioni – it also has minimal slubs in the textile as opposed to a typical dupioni. It’s also Whore Red…and I like Whore Red. I have boxes of couture-quality fabric from Paris, Lyon, London, Milan, Hangzhou, Hong Kong, Barcelona and New York – but I will be damned in Almira Gultch’s bike basket before I use any of them to test a doll dress pattern, thank you very much.
Cutting, sewing and pressing the shell only took about an hour; another half hour or so to install the zipper. The beading was spread across three days (about 18 hours total). Making the lining – another hour – went quickly. Matching lining to shell, turning, and hand-finishing the neckline and zipper closure took about 3 hours.
Let’s do the math, shall we?
Materials– this includes everything used in development and final gown, but does not include any time or consideration to the development of my original pattern from years ago.
Fabric: $35.00 (one yard of silk and one yard of muslin)
Notions (thread, hook/eye and zipper): $ 5.50
Beads: $3.00 (over one thousand rocaille beads were used – yes, I counted)
Patterns adjustments and muslin mock-ups: 6 hours
Final dress sewing, including beading and finishing: 23.5 hours
Total: 29.5 @ $7.25/hour (American National Minimum Wage) = $213.87
Add cost of materials: +$43.50 = $257.37
If I were to sell this dress (and I probably will one day), I think I’d be pretty honored to get this amount, but the sad reality is because it’s priced over $100 and includes no accessories, it’s already unattractive to many potential buyers because of what they are willing to pay for a custom-made doll dress. Also consider that few appreciate anyone’s time enough to actually pay for it, even when it is priced as low as morally feasible (except in China, of course), or unless it were made by some doll world known designer with a following…maybe.
Oh yes, there are all kinds of factors at play here: A second dress from this pattern wouldn’t cost as much because the cost of pattern development is partially figured into this version (but doesn’t take into account any time from the original pattern developed years ago). Materials can be purchased for wholesale or otherwise discounted prices to better my savings. There are also factors such as taxes and overhead attributed to electrical expenses used to operate the sewing machine, iron and lighting. Sure…I hear ya…
The most obvious and disturbing illustration made here is one that directly relates to the value one places on time. I am not China – and for someone who used to earn $70K+ a year, I would think my time is a little more valuable than minimum wage. Moreover, applying one hourly rate is a little demeaning considering hand work usually comes at a premium in time and hourly wage. It took more time to bead this dress than it did to make the entire gown! So what message does that send to a doll maker? There can be no confusion – reduce extras to keep the cost in line with what customers think it’s worth. And by that perception, they obviously don’t think it’s worth very much. And I flat ass dare you to use the ‘made in China’ argument here in regards to cheap labor, because we all know that clearly works in favor of the customer – just ask Walmart.
If you want to see doll makers offering up more, you have to pay more. Even though some manufacturers suffer from antiquated pricing formulas, the truth is pretty clear. The customer will have to change his/her perception of what over-priced v. quality means. The customer is going to have to stop running to deep discounters for cost savings – because this is not an economy-class hobby, people. Even if you collect Pink Box Barbie, collecting dolls is a luxury, plain and simple. You get what you pay for – or in this case, what you think it should cost. So stop your belly-aching, and pony up to your next great doll that comes with no jewelry, doll stand or pantyhose – unless you are willing to pay for them.
Hey…does anyone want to buy a custom-made, hand-beaded silk doll dress? The price is negotiable…