Shop teaches customers to create their own dolls


June 18, 1999|By Lourdes Sullivan | Lourdes Sullivan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WHERE ELSE but in an unplanned shopping row like Laurel's Main Street could you find so serendipitous a juxtaposition: an art supply store, a mirror and glass seller, a vendor of square dance outfits, an upholsterer, antique stores, coffee shops, paint-ball guns and ammo.

Not to leave out this business -- a maker of porcelain dolls.

That's Lester and Mary Weir's shop, an odd place with a Dickensian feel to it. The store is filled with every charming variation of the human form, in miniature: Babies and elves, Eskimos and Gypsies, Old Man Winter, grande dames and children of every age, race and mood.

A 2-foot-tall mermaid minds the counter, her long hair concealing an unclothed torso.

The Weirs sell the dolls and give lessons to those who would like to make their own.

On Wednesday nights, the shop hums with the quiet conversation of concentrating minds as skilled painters brush life into porcelain faces.

They are the regulars, customers who meet weekly to work on their dolls. It's a leisurely act of creation, with unlimited time to correct mistakes or begin again.

Susan Hart of Beltsville is a regular. She is working on two dolls -- a boy and a girl -- made of a plastic clay-substitute. She's molded the heads herself, with a bit of instruction from guest lecturer and doll maker Jack Johnston.

Although Hart claims to have little talent for this sort of thing, she acknowledges that the girl doll looks like her neighbor. The boy looks a bit like her father, she says, so that's how she will dress him.

These are the first that Hart has made with this material.

Her first doll was a porcelain lady for her future daughter-in-law. The doll's dress matched the bride's outfit. Hart says she was surprised to see how large the doll turned out to be.

"It's about so tall," she says, indicating about 30 inches. "They had to have a special case made for it. It's like a piece of furniture. They always have to figure out a good place to put it so I'll see it when I come to visit."

Soon after her son's wedding, Hart made another doll -- before her daughter's wedding. Again, the large size didn't bother the bride.

Mary Weir's daughter, Peggy Stone, made the dolls' bridal outfits, Hart said. And she made the outfits for the 300 or so dolls in the shop.

"It seems sewing and making the porcelain dolls aren't related skills, though you'd think they'd be," says Hart.

Bonnie Stanley of Laurel, another customer, was busy making three dolls. One was in the kiln being fired, another lay unassembled in a basket and a third was getting its first coat of paint.

Stanley says she relaxes by making modern dolls. The ones that reproduce the look of antique French dolls are harder to paint. They have more details in the eyelashes, eyebrows and mouth.

She has made more than 30 dolls, giving away most of them as birthday and shower gifts.

Stanley said she made a bridal doll for her friend Lashawn Lucas, who used it as the centerpiece of her bridal table.

Peggy Stone made that dress, too.

Customer Ruth Marek of Laurel was resewing the soft body of her doll. She plans to keep it for a year or so, then give it away to gladden another heart.

Every year since her father-in-law died, Marek has donated a doll to the raffle held by mother-in-law Pat Marek's church.

The Weirs have had their store on Main Street since 1983.

The idea for the business came when Mary, working in an insurance office, overheard a co-worker expressing dissatisfaction with ceramics classes she was taking.

That's how ceramics shops work -- patrons take classes to learn the techniques, then buy the supplies there. Kilns are expensive to purchase and run, so customers often have the items fired at the shop where they made them.

Mary mentioned to her co-worker that she had owned a ceramics shop, but sold it.

Her office mates and four friends persuaded Mary to try her hand at the business again. Harriet Frost, another nearby store, had gone out of business and was selling its ceramic molds for figurines, plates and other items.

Soon Mary found herself surrounded by 400 molds in her small house in Annapolis Junction, near U.S. 1 and Route 32.

She and Les sold the house to make way for the new Route 32 exchange. They found a new home, and Mary set up shop on Laurel's Main Street.

At first, she had only friends as customers, but the business slowly grew through advertising and its classes for children and adults.

Downtown Laurel was changing. The Christian Science Reading Room next door had become the headquarters for the developers of Patuxent Place farther west on Main Street. When the developers moved out, the Weirs bought the building Mary was using and the former reading room.

This doubled the floor space, enabling Mary to hold larger classes.

About a decade ago, the Weirs decided to concentrate on making porcelain dolls and give up the other wares. (Ceramic and porcelain are fired at different temperatures and require different molds.)

Mary says they have more than 1,000 doll molds. The number is easily believable -- there are hundreds of different dolls on display and for sale at the shop.

Classes are always being formed for making dolls or miniature teacup fairies, which are no more than 3 inches tall.

Information: Les and Mary's Dolls, 301-776-5514. The shop is at 367 Main St., Laurel.

Pub Date: 6/18/99

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