Making Dolls With Many Faces

March 31, 1995|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,Sun Staff Writer

Polly Watson makes two-faced dolls. And sometimes they have three or four.

There's Little Red Riding Hood, with the fairy tale character on one end and Grandma hiding under her skirt on the other. Pull Grandma's hat over her face and she turns into the Big Bad Wolf.

Then there are what Ms. Watson calls "mood dolls" that have four faces each -- happy, grumpy, sad and sleepy.

Ms. Watson, one of the newest artists at the Historic Savage Mill, calls them "upside-down dolls" -- a type of folk art that doll makers say dates back to the days of slavery when black girls were forced to disguise white dolls.

Upside-down dolls like the ones Ms. Watson makes and other types of cloth dolls are showing a surge of popularity in the craft industry.

"It's become accepted as a real form of art," said Judy Beswick, editor and publisher of The Cloth Doll magazine, a Lake Oswego, Ore., publication that has seen its circulation increase from 500 in 1983 to more than 5,000 today. "Women can say, 'I make dolls,' and not feel bad about it."

Ms. Watson, 50, a Columbia resident and owner of the Polly Dolls shop at the Savage Mill, has been making cloth dolls for 17 years. She makes 20 different styles in her studio -- some with cotton-stuffed, round bodies and some like the popular upside-down dolls.

"Everybody likes the upside-down dolls," Ms. Watson said. "In this Maryland area, there's a real appreciation for craftspeople."

Originally from Exton, Pa., a town of about 2,500 west of Philadelphia, Ms. Watson lived in various cities on the East Coast before settling in Columbia with her husband, William, last October.

She learned to sew by watching her mother as she grew up and then through a seamstress she met when she was 19. One day, while experimenting, she made a cloth doll. "I put it up for sale on a craft table, and it sold the first day," she said. "People loved the cloth dolls."

Ms. Watson turned her hobby into a business, mostly working from home until she found a space in the Savage Mill last fall. Her dolls, which range in price from about $20 up to $75, drew immediate attention. The dolls' faces sparkle with glitter. Some have curly yarn for hair, others straight. Ms. Watson dresses them in elegant floral patterns and sequins.

"Polly's dolls are definitely unique," said Savage resident Jane Cruz, who bought her 6-year-old daughter Dresden an upside-down Cinderella doll. "There's so much love put into it. You're drawn to her because of her detail."

The Cinderella doll has the fairy tale character dressed in rags at one end. When the doll is turned upside down, the skirt flips over and Cinderella appears in a pink ballroom gown.

Marilyn McPheron, a doll maker in Port Matilda, Pa., said that the upside-down doll -- also known as a topsy-turvy doll -- has been traced back to slave plantations where black girls were not allowed to play with white dolls. To get around that, their mothers would make dolls with black faces on one end and white faces on the other. When the plantation owner came around, the girls would flip the skirt over the white face so only the black face would show, she said.

In the 1930s, cloth doll makers in the mountains of North Carolina produced upside-down dolls with fairy tale themes, such as Ms. Watson's. The dolls seem to amaze children, Ms. McPheron said. "It takes a while for them to figure out where the first doll disappeared to," she said. "Kids just love them."

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