Friday, March 31, 2017

Tara Tree-tops and Craw, A Dedication to Brilliant Artist

When I was a little girl, my favorite book was The Bumper Book.  Each day I'd find a cozy spot on the sofa, open the large picture book on my lap, and lose myself in the illustrations.  I could read, but I had no interest in the written stories, just the ones that were told through Eulalie's illustrations.  It wasn't until the year 1979, when Kit Williams's book, Masquerade, came out, that I would find myself in a similar world, lost to the beauty and magic of art. 

This book, this story, this masterpiece was in short, a children's book for grown ups.  I'd been collecting beautifully illustrated children's books since 1974, and when I saw this one, I didn't hesitate to purchase it.  Behind the story of a little jack hare and a lost jewel, a golden hare, was a riddle, a treasure hunt for a real jewel buried on a hill somewhere in England.  Perhaps the description of "behind the story" is not correct.  The story was written as a riddle with the express purpose of changing the way the world viewed art, and of course, the treasure hunt for the buried jewel.  To not just see a beautifully painted picture, but to explore every corner of it in the effort to solve the riddle.  And, in by doing so, appreciate further the brilliant work of Kit Williams.

Having just finished watching a 2009 documentary on Kit, the book, and his work in the following years, I assume he would probably like nothing better than to never be reminded again of the book that brought him fame.  Not all artists gravitate towards publicity and celebrity, but that does not keep admirers, such as myself from celebrating his work.  From what I understand, Kit and his wife Eleyne live a very quiet life, where both artists immerse themselves in the thing they love best to do.  Create things of beauty.  Knowing this now, I can only imagine how surprised they must have felt when I wrote to them recently, through their website, and asked permission to create a doll from the illustration of Tara Tree-tops and Craw!

Apparently, I'd "missed" adding a return email address to my inquiry, and Eleyne, bless her heart, had looked me up on the Internet and wrote to me asking if I was the one who asked about Tara Tree-tops. I wrote back immediately, that it was I, and she and Kit granted me permission to make the doll.  I was deeply touched by her effort to find me, and since then have been putting all the love I could into costuming this doll with her accessories.

When I first received the 14" Maggie Iacono doll as a gift from my friend, Betsy, it was Tara Tree-tops who I'd wanted to make her into.  However, she spent some time on my shelf as Marguerite Magritte, if you remember her.  So what stopped me from pursuing this initially?  Craw and the seed dandelion.  Where was I going to find a crow that looked like Craw, and in the perfect size for this doll?  How on earth was I going to make a good facsimile of a miniature seed dandelion?  Well, my foray into needle felting changed all that.

The illustration of Tara Tree-tops and Craw has always been a favorite of mine from the book Masquerade.  There is something about the idea of flying, sailing in and out among the clouds on a breeze, being so high above the earth as to be able to see the world from such a view.  Free from the ties that bind.  I also love the ballet and the beautiful costumes the dancers wear.  The delicate pink satin slippers that enable their feet to dance en pointe.  I was now able to pursue the creation of this doll.  To try.  And, I really did not know where to begin. 

You'd think after all these years of studying this painting, that I'd have had an idea, but sometimes you just have to start trying things.  Which is exactly what I did.  The first thing was to draft a pattern of a body suit for the doll.  I'd made an all-in-one design for the tutu to be attached to.  I quickly learned that this costume was not going to come together in this manner, and pulled out my Robert Tonner New York City Ballet doll costumes to study their construction.  What I discovered was that the costumes were made in three parts.  The bodice, the panties (for lack of a better term), and the skirt.

As I continued to study Kit's painting, I noticed that the ruffles were adapted in a spiral and this simply wasn't going to work on a doll.  If you notice the top ruffle or petals, towards the waist, they are smaller and seem to wrap and grow wider as they move down the skirt.  This could be an illusion "in flight".  Perhaps it is a fault to see or read so much into the illustration of a costume, but also humbling not to be so interested in solving the riddle of the story. My "riddle" has been in how to bring those illustrations to life on a doll.  Her costume, to me, is the flowering dandelion.  She holds the seed dandelion in symbolism. 

The best approach to creating the look of the tutu was with many, many box pleats.  I used the yellow silk I had left over from Gay Event's Walking Costume, and a green silk taffeta for the bodice and panties. There was no way I was going to be able to make as many green leaf stems on the bodice as Kit drew on the original, so I suffered the painstaking effort of creating just a few and turning those points inside out.  Fray Check was my friend in this endeavor.  Then there was the zipper.  I used a small, 2" vintage Barbie zipper for the front, and machine stitched the yellow in between the leaves.  There are some things you can do when interpreting illustrations to costumes for dolls, and some you cannot.  The yellow between the leaves would have been "flower", and could have been realized if for instance, I used wool felt to create the bodice.  But, ballet costumes should be made of silk in my mind, and so I "interpreted". 

A full yellow bodice with box pleated ruffle on top was fitted beneath the green leaf bodice.  The rows of box pleated dandelion petal were sewn to the pants, then the bodice sewn to that.  The costume closes in back with tiny hooks and thread loops.

Tara's stockings are a light green knit jersey and her slippers are pink silk on leather. 
The next task was to make her wee seed dandelion.  I was not going to go into this project blind.  I grew up with dandelions in our yard.  I would sit as a child for hours during the summer months, and blow the fairy seeds along the wind wishing for a dream to come true when they found their eventual resting place. 
When I lived in Ontario, Canada, for two years, we had a field that stretched out behind the house.  Living on the east coast of Canada was a far cry from the climate of California where I grew up and still live.  Everything felt different.  Even the bugs were bigger, and there's nothing like experiencing your first ice storm while driving a sports car at night.  Silly Californian!

We'd moved there in the dead of winter, and by spring, a little magic came my way.  One morning I was looking out the kitchen window at the field below and admiring all the pretty yellow dandelions that grew so abundantly.  When all of a sudden, they began disappearing!  It was like something beneath the earth was pulling them under, and they were out of sight, gone.  My husband came by and told me there was a ground hog out there eating them all.  Pop-pop-pop, they'd disappear into his mouth.  I've never looked at a dandelion quite the same way since.  But, I digress.

And, I will some more.  Dandelions are a hearty little weed.  I'd prefer to think of them as flowers, although gardeners would disagree.  I was studying the reason why Tara was wearing a dandelion tutu and carrying a seed dandelion.  I wanted to understand the connection and why Kit painted her this way.  Dandelions come up as a flower.  When pollinated, the pollen goes down the stem into the ground and produces the seed dandelion, which grows next to it.  The seed dandelion, in turn, spreads its seeds through physical disturbance.  The seed takes root and the cycle continues.  A gardener's nightmare.  The problem with pulling the dandelions out, is that when they come back, they come back with a shorter stem to prevent you from yanking them up again so easily.  So my theory is that Tara and her seed dandelion are closely connected through this cycle.  I won't trouble you further with this as we still have Craw to discuss. 
Tara's seed dandelion was constructed using pieces from millinery flowers.  Seed pollinator stems were attached to a floral wire then wrapped in silk ribbon.  Needle felting wool was then gently wrapped around the seeds in a bubble form and gently felted into place.  This little dandelion was hard to photograph, but I promise you it was made "anatomically correct".

Craw is Tara Tree-tops's friend crow.  Tara finds him handsome, and he answers "'Ansome, 'ansome, 'ansome", in the story.  She aids Jack Hare's progress on his journey to the sun in a riddle of her own. 
As with the dandelion, I had to do some research on crows.  Sometimes it is not enough just to have a illustration in front of you.  How does he look from behind?  What does his tongue look like?  Certainly a tongue would be present if he was cawing with his beak open.  I studied many needle felted versions of crows and none had an open beak.  Well, no wonder.  Its not an easy thing to do.  And, I once again watched an instructional Youtube on needle felting birds.  This time, I thought I'd try it will full armature.  Mary Lenox's robin was not done on armature.  Only his legs were created this way then wrapped.  I have a very difficult time following instructions, but I thought I'd try.

Craw is 2 1/4" tall and 4" long.  Most of these instructional videos are done with much larger subjects.  I use a 26 gauge, white cotton wrapped wire for the armature.  Something so thin that it doesn't hold a bend or shape when you needle felt wool to it.  About half way into making him, I was ready to give up.  But, I never do.  Its determination that drives me, and I know I entirely overthink the process at times.  He came together quite nicely, and quickly, when I gave into the joy of simply making him, and not making him to someone else's specifications.

The most magical thing happened at the end of this project.  Its one of the reasons Kit created this story.  To make us look, then look again.  I may never see everything that this painting offers, but one detail became exciting clear when I tried to position Craw on Tara's wrist.  I knew he had a gold ring around his leg, and attached to this was a chain.  But, where did the chain connect to Tara?  My eyes are not what they used to be, so I pulled the book under my magnifying lamp and discovered that the chain was attached to a ring on her finger.  I felt giddy as the first day of spring!  What a marvelous imagination this artist has!

As I noted early on, this treasured story, and the fame that came with it, will undoubtedly haunt the quiet, gentle artist that lives and works in seclusion.  But to many like myself, its publication was a special time in our lives that will never be forgotten.    For further reading on Kit Williams, this is wonderful article I found today

And, to watch the BBC Four documentary on the 30th anniversary of Masquerade (2009), with an intimate look into Kit's life and work, please check out this link  Its in six parts, but they're connected concurrently.  Such amazing work!  If you watch it, you'll discover that Tara shows up in another one of his paintings.
Happy Spring!
Miss E. Mouse 

Marionettes from the story.

A peddler doll from the story.

Kit's second book, untitled, another quest.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Suzette and Her First Bleuette

If I could dig up the earliest of my first email correspondence, I could tell you exactly when I entered the collecting world of Bleuette.  I would know because the doll was just about all I talked about.  I recall seeing one of these reproduction dolls in a Doll Reader magazine in an advertisement for Global Doll Corporation.  At the time, they were located in Lincoln, CA, which was about a 40 minute drive from where I live. 

I'd actually phoned them to ask about this doll in their ad, and the owner was more than delighted to sell me this reproduction she'd made, as well as some clothing from the La Semaine de Suzette patterns that the company offered.  However, it was the history of Bleuette that also captured my interest, and I'd bought a copy of  Bleuette, the Doll and Her Wardrobe, by Barbara Hilliker, before I left the office.  While it was Becassine that tickled me most, and would become a passion of mine for many years, the illustrations from the publication that offered the doll, La Semaine de Suzette, would continue to enchant me. 

When I set out to delve into a new project, I do my research first.  If an expert is available to consult with, that person is my first stop on the journey.  And, in my opinion, no one loves or knows more about Bleuette than Martha Nichols, the moderator of the Bleuette Sewing Club.  And, she just happens to be one of the nicest people I've ever come in contact with.  And, accessible!

I wrote to her a couple of weeks ago and much of what I will relay is the wonderful information she shared with me.  Let's face it, there is nothing we love better than to talk about and share our passions. 

I'd recently bought another Wendy Lawton 16" wood body doll and was trying to come up with something to do with her.  I'd found her for a decent price, and loved her sweet expression.  She was once "Lucy Gray", and I have this doll in my collection, so recreating her into another was an easy decision.  I must have been browsing my books when I once again came across the image that graced the covers of the yearly journal of La Semaine de Suzette (Suzette's Weekly).  These hard bound copies would hold a year's worth of the weekly publication.  The children dancing around the teacher always touched my heart.  Especially the two children in the front; the one in the striped dress and the little girl to the right of her in red.

I had on hand, one of Nada Christian's mini Bleuettes and thought, Why not make a Suzette with her first Bleuette?  I love dolls with their dolls!  And, wouldn't it be wonderful if "Suzette" was receiving her very first Bleuette?  This is when I contacted Martha.  I wanted to know how this doll was dressed, what kind of box did she come in, what was her original hairstyle and color?  Within a day, Martha had not only given me all the information I needed, but a scan of the original advertisement for the doll, as well as a photo of the original chemise she wore.  One of the seamstresses from her group (and I think it may have been Marie Scopel), had recreated the chemise for one of her own dolls. 

The Bleuette dolls were available to pick up directly from the publisher, Gautier-Languereau, but she could also be mailed direct to the child.  She came in a plain corrugated cardboard box that would have simply been addressed to the child with a stamp for postage.  The first Bleuettes wore a little chemise with lace atop blue ribbon, and wore no shoes.  It was later, by demand from the collectors, that shoes would become available, as well as ready to wear outfits.  The doll was wigged with blonde curls.  So with this information at hand, I began my Suzette and Her First Bleuette.

I must also make note that there wasn't a real Suzette.  How they came up with that name remains to be known.  But, for me, one of these little girls dancing on the yearly journal cover just had to be "Suzette".  For all we know, the name "Suzette" could have been an endearing name for a little girl, like "Missy" (as in Miss so and so), or for that matter Chiffonette (meaning fluff). 

The striped dress won out, and the look of the child in red became style I wanted.  I changed "Lucy's" eyes to a natural hazel and bought her a wig that looked most like the little girl's in red.  Her dress is a simple fare of raspberry and white striped cotton, fully lined and closed with mother of pearl buttons and thread loops in white.  A black silk dupioni sash is worn empire style with a bow in the back, and she wears a large hair bow in the same silk.  On her feet are a pair of black French-style child shoes tied with large double-faced silk ties in black. 

Her First Bleuette was the smallest of the three mini Bleuettes I had left, to work with.  I am not going to grump about "scale" here.  Certainly the Bleuette would be half this size were this a real child and her doll, but we can "interpret".  Can't we?  This one is about 4 5/8" tall.

Suzette's First Bleuette wears her white chemise trimmed with the blue silk ribbon beneath the lace.  The front of the chemise has one long box pleat creating fit around the neck, yet volume at the hem.  Each sleeve has one box pleat down the center creating fit around the arm, and volume (a tiny bit anyway) at the shoulder.  Her wigging is golden mohair.

I created her corrugated cardboard box from another one with the thinnest corrugation I could find.  The ends are "tapped" with brown paper, which felt authentic to me considering Scotch Magic Tape hadn't been invented yet.  A small copy of the advertisement has been saved for posterity.

Suzette will need to learn how to sew for her doll and the weekly patterns with Tante Jacqueline's instructions and encouragement will grow with her through the years.

If I've created the look of innocence and joy a little French girl would have experienced receiving her doll in the post, I've succeeded.

Miss E. Mouse 

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Mary Lennox Follows A Robin To the Garden Gate

"She heard a chirp and a twitter, and when she looked at the bare flower-bed at her left side there he was hopping about and pretending to peck things out of the earth to persuade her that he had not followed her.  But she knew he had followed her, and the surprise so filled her with delight that she almost trembled a little."

"You do remember me!" she cried.  "You do!  You are prettier than anything else in the world!" (Frances Hodgson Bennet)

Even before I had finished Mary's debut dress, I knew the second outfit would have to be the red coat she would wear outdoors while meeting the robin.  Another red costume.  Yet, this would be fine.  After all, I didn't illustrate her wardrobe, and Mary needed her coat while winter was still upon us.  The English countryside can be bitterly cold and damp, and skipping rope on the garden path needs proper attire.

I'd been studying this illustration for quite some time, but as usual, had no idea how difficult it would be to create it.  To be honest, I began with the robin to fulfill the desire to work on my needle felting, and provide her a unique accessory.  However, we will introduce him in a little while.  He would be my inspiration and good company while I designed the costume.

The pattern I created for the coat consisted of a collar, a cape, the sleeves, two front pieces for an overlapping closure, and the back.  It is shaped at the waist and slightly flared.  Sounds pretty straight forward, but there was nothing easy about this.  I must have gone through ten pattern renditions just to get the cape the right length and fit around the shoulders.  For one thing, which isn't obvious, the measurements from the neck, across the shoulder and down the arm are longer than that of the front and back which lie relatively flat against the doll.  Its something to consider should you ever try to make a coat like this from scratch.

I began with a beautiful Melton wool in a deep, rich red.  I was so certain that this was the correct color to match the illustration, and the weight seemed right.  It took me a session just to place each pattern piece and cut each piece out individually.  I'd sewn the shoulder seams together then did some pinning to check the fit.  It was upon doing this, and even after a mock up in a navy wool, that I discovered something terribly wrong with what I'd done.   I'd also discovered that the lining I was planning on using wasn't going to work well.  So I began digging through my stash to see if something else would work better, and discovered this lovely wool I'd purchased at Britex a few years back.  It was the perfect red, would match the original lining fabric, and was a slightly looser weave for drape.  The Melton is a tighter weave..  But, the problem of design still needed to be dealt with.

If you look closely at the illustration, the soutache diamonds that close the coat to the side aren't on the straight edge of a coat.  These are extending notches that are a part of the edge.  So I ripped the seams out, redesigned the right front of the coat and began again.  Its a good thing I'd purchased two yards of this lovely, bright red wool!  I had plenty of fabric for mistakes to be made. 

The soutache trim was extremely difficult to do.  Some of it could be sewn on by machine prior to lining the coat, but the diamond shapes and royal blue embroidered insets were all done by hand.  One of the most annoying aspects was that the doll's dimensions did not even come close to the child's in the illustration.  In order to achieve a close approximation of the illustration, adjustments in "diamond width and shape" had to be made.  The diamond notches snap to the left side of the coat, and a little button and thread loop close the side at the top under the cape.  Soutache loops trim the collar.  Little domed blue buttons are sewn at the top of the cape's soutache diamonds, and decorate the centers of the embroidered insets at the coat's center.  There are two faux pockets trimmed each with two rows of soutache at the coat's sides. The collar and cape are sewn into the neckline of the coat.  This coat was terribly demanding on my patience.

But, the Wellies were just as difficult.  How many pairs of doll boots have I made in the past?  I really haven't counted, but there was nothing "usual" about these Wellies either.  Wellington's are gardening boots that pull on and provide the gardener a better protection than rain boots.   Mary's were beautifully unique with their lovely design, and I wasn't about to become intimidated by the project...just yet.  I'd started these after making the robin and it was a good thing I did.  I usually try to make the most difficult piece first when starting a new project, and I'm not sure I would have had the heart to do them after struggling with this coat. 

The Wellies pattern took several tries as well.  They would need to open at the back to fit the doll's foot into, and not have any visible seams in the front or sides.  Luckily I'm an American Girl (historical) doll collector, and had a look at a pair of boots they'd designed.  I've gotten many tips from studying the work of other designers.  But, the only workable idea I got from them (seriously!) was in the closure for the back.  I used clear, mini Velcro strips. 

How to do the boot pattern correctly, came to me when I wasn't even thinking about it, and about to give up.  It was all in the curves.  The shaping to the foot was in the curves of the boot pattern!  There are three pieces to each boot.  (The only seam is at the heel.)  The three leather pieces include the black foot base, the dark "muddy" grey of the tops, and the caramel tan of the decoration.  The tan trim was the most difficult to design, but what a lovely pair of boots it made.  All the pieces are topstitched on the machine, which in turn, sewed the boot together.  I use a "jeans" needle when sewing leather.

I would make Mary a proper skipping rope to play in the garden with.  As with Alice Illustrated's little skipping rope, I used duct tape for the handles, only green this time.  It works so beautifully for the handles with a rope of this thickness.  I made Mary a pair of stockings like she wears in the illustration, and a pair of blue mittens from light blue, both from children's socks.  Children's (and infant's), stockings and socks make beautiful accessories like this due to their weight and weave.

And, finally we meet the robin.  The thought of making a Mary Lennox without her robin in inconceivable.  Yet, another reason why it was so important for me to learn needle felting.  I loved the illustration of the little robin on the paper doll folder front.  He appeared so charming and intelligent.  And, he was also responsible for Mary finding the key to the door to the Secret Garden.  In the movie with Kate Maberly (my favorite!), Mary finds the key in a drawer of the vanity in her deceased aunt's bedroom.  In the original story, the robin shows Mary to a patch of earth where the key was lost or buried.  Rusted with age, it still unlocked the door to the secret garden.

Having never really studied birds for making one, I went online to research robins.  I'm not going to pretend to even know how many robin varieties there are out there (nor do I feel like looking it up presently), but the images were vast as well as the varieties of coloring.  Our robins here, in California, do not have white bellies or red on their faces.  What I discovered was that the robin in the illustration was an English robin.  Well, that certainly makes sense, doesn't it?  A cheeky little bird with a cocked head.  How adorable!  It is in the research and learning a bit about my subject matter that makes every project come alive to me.

Mary's little robin friend is about 1 1/2" tall from his feet to the top of his head.  I don't believe I could have made him any smaller and gotten the detail that I did, but size is also something inexplicable when needle felting.  A tiny shape can grow by leaps and bounds as you continue to add wool in coloring and shape. 

I added a novelty key to Mary accessories, that I had on hand.  Interesting that both Alice has a key that plays a prominent role in her story, as well as Mary.  Could it be that the English have a fascination with keys that unlock secret places?

Below are some detailed photos of the little robin from different angles. 

And, lastly, I made Mary's wool tam to keep her head warm.  I used a royal blue wool felt sheet from The Felt Pod to create it, then steam shaped it, smoothing out the seams.

I've attached a couple of photos from a precious copy of The Secret Garden that I acquired while doing some research on the subject.  This is a gorgeous and generously illustrated book by artist, Inga Moore.  Even her robin is the English Robin!

I hope you'll enjoy the photos I've taken of this project.  Spring is nearing us, but who's in a hurry when there are secret places to discover?  Maybe there's even one in your own backyard.  The first green to burst forth from the earth creates a magic all on its own.

Miss E. Mouse