Proper Fabrics for Dolls’ Clothes: Dressed in Only the Best
This coat and bonnet set, circa 1920, was made from the antique winter white wool fabric, adorned with embroidery and silk ribbons. The bonnet and the coat are fully lined, and the coat closes with five tiny pearly glass buttons.
One of the many tragedies of modern life is the switchover from natural fibers to those composed of synthetic substances. Although synthetics are less costly than the animal or plant by-products, they are not as durable, practical or as attractive as the “real thing.” In the past, all clothing was made from cotton, wool, linen, silk and hair, and when a garment was no longer of use to the adult, it was handed down and re-made into clothing for children, and subsequently, apparel for dolls. In fact, dolls were often more fortunate than the child, because the new doll was usually outfitted by a skilled modiste—a female maker of or dealer in women’s fashionable attire—in strong, brightly hued new fabrics and in the latest fashion. Hence, doll clothing made of these fabrics have endured the centuries intact.
This German bisque doll with open mouth, named "Lissy," circa 1890, is wearing vintage clothing.
When costuming an antique or old doll, strive to duplicate the fabrics of her era (cotton, wool, and silk fabrics are still being made). Better yet, scrounge flea markets, thrift shops, yard sales, and the like (or advertise) for authentic old materials. (Years ago, elderly ladies would gladly give their old clothes, fabrics, laces, trim, etc., just for the asking.)
The 1870s was considered the golden age of dolls in that more attention was focused on their manufacture and wardrobes—especially in France. Berlin also had its share of expert doll modistes, since early German dolls made expressly for the French trade (and to be sold and exported from Paris) were costumed in the French manner or sold nude and dressed in Paris. These modistes always used the finest materials possible—silk, satin, wool, cotton, and these fabrics were given fancy names, i.e. poplin (ribbed material made of silk/wool, cotton/wool, or cotton); pongee (natural colored silk); and cashmere (soft goat wool). These combinations of substances always stemmed from the basic source. Satin was a derivative of silk and, in later years, of rayon (rayon was made from cellulose treated with chemicals).
In the innovative 1880s, the following materials were used for dolls’ clothing: tulle (fine silk net), ottoman velvet, brocaded faille, cashmere, Scotch tartan, pongee, sateen, nainsook, linen lawn, embroidered muslin, flannel, turkey red twill, cambric, gingham, foulard, crepe, plush, Bengaline, peau de soie, and moiré. Trims included: wax beads, braiding, applique, narrow ribbon and galloon, etc.
Popular and fashionable fabrics were utilized in the 1890s in an even more flamboyant mode. They included velvet, grosgrain, silk, broadcloth, taffeta/taffeta chine, chenille, point d’espirit tulle, stet cloth, pique, muslin, chiffon, serge, brocade, flannel/flannelette, twill suiting, French Henrietta, wool, fond crepe de chine, and satin.
The period of 1900-1920 witnessed not only shorter skirts but a more “tailored” look in feminine fashion, and dolls mirrored the trends of the times. These new styles took advantage of the standard fabrics and introduced new combinations, such as satin/sateen, fine taffeta silk, silk peau de soie, wool/serge, nainsook, lawn, cambric, china silk/Japonika silk, muslin, cotton poplin, calico/printed calico, flannel/flannelette, percale, gingham, madras cloth, velvet/velveteen, chambray, dimity, cashmere, worsted, cheviot, chiffon, corduroy, pongee, point d’espirit net, galatea, Silcilian cloth, French serge, messaline, cotton voile (1919), silk, and Georgette crepe (1919).
You can find lots of vintage doll clothes, but you’ll often find mixed lots, with some that are factory-made, such as the pink dress with blue vest on the right, while the others are hand made.
The Roaring Twenties eschewed old customs and styles and introduced an era of carefree abandon with daring lightweight, see-through fabrics. It was the decade of flappers and boudoir dolls. Cotton voile was a popular fabric used for dolls’ dresses, cushions, bedspreads, doilies, and aprons; usually brightly embroidered. Other notable materials used for dolls’ wear were white cotton “linene” (for suits), percale, white lawn, felt, black silk, real silk/artificial silk, silk/cotton mull, sateen, cotton/printed cotton, gingham, flannel/flannelette, cretonne, cotton crepe, dotted Swiss/organdy trim, organdy, silk taffeta, rayon (1927+), and Valenciennes lace/silk ribbon trim.
The decade of the Great Depression (1930-1940) demanded lower prices for dolls, hence cheaper materials were utilized; nevertheless dolls remained their glamorous selves thanks to Shirley Temple and the movies. Often used fabrics included: plain cotton/cotton prints, rayon, organdy, dimity, wool/felt, dotted Swiss and Celanese.
I have costumed hundreds of dolls over the years, and I have been fortunate to find vintage materials and laces via mail order, antiques shops, flea markets, etc. Dolls can likewise be costumed in combinations of old and new fabrics for the desired effect. All it requires is a dash of imagination and forethought.
—by R. Lane Herron
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