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.
"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.