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


  1. Not only are your artistic skills beyond superb, but so too, your writing leads us deep into the heart of the mystery and magic of a beautiful secret garden! Simply wonderful!

  2. She looks stunning. The red wool is perfect for her and, of course, her boots would have been just this style. My mother was still wearing them as a child in the twenties, before modern rubber/vinyl Wellingtons were invented in the 30s.
    Mary was, and to some extent is, my heroine as I grew up on a remote farm bordering the Yorkshire Moors and played outdoors and alone for much of the time.

  3. Amazing work, as always. You even caught that saucy look of the paper doll's robin, exactly! Such a joy to read your post and see the photos you put up, Thank You. Dana