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Discover Mid-America— May 2010

Repairing dolls preserves memories

Story and Photography by Melissa Cowan

Patti Joyce, Jana Larson and Sherry Ferguson repair dolls. Most doll collectors and enthusiasts call them “doll doctors.” The women are part of a network, a specialized group of which some belong to organizations such as the Doll Doctors Association and many, like Joyce, Larson and Ferguson, operate their passion as a business.

A calling of sorts

Patti Joyce found her passion for doll repair by fate. She’s been a doll doctor since 2001.

“I always loved dolls,” Joyce said. “I answered a help wanted sign (at a doll hospital in Kansas) and found my own personal passion.”

Reborn Dolls sharing a crib in the Doll Hospital and More in Shawnee, KS.

At the time, her son, Kevin, was really sick.

“I felt helpless,” she said. “But when I was offered the job, I found that when I fixed things for people that meant something to them, it helped me. In the process I became very interested in the history of dolls and the repair of dolls.”

The reward of repairing a doll that may have been sitting in a drawer or belonged to someone who has passed are what makes Joyce love her work.

“When you can have an item, whether it be a tea cup or a doll that you can actually put your hands on, for some reason it makes us feel better,” she said. “The Japanese believe dolls actually share a spiritual sense with a human being — there’s something very strong about dolls and it should be respected.”

Joyce has been volunteering at the Toy and Miniature Museum of Kansas City as a docent and repairer almost four years, though less frequently now.

“As I repaired for the museum, I learned a lot of things that you should and shouldn’t be doing for doll repair,” Joyce said. “I felt bad because the community did not have that information.”

She decided to open her own store, the Doll Hospital and More, in June 2009 in Shawnee, KS, to give the community that knowledge.

Larson is “about fixing and repairing dolls and preserving people’s memories.”

She prefers to be called a restoration artist, rather than a doll doctor. Her business, Jana’s Doll Hospital, (out of her home) in Topeka, KS, has been open for 16 years.

Previously, the business was called Jana’s Porcelain Perfections. Larson made her own porcelain for repairs.

“Technology has made life so much easier,” she said. “There’s so many things you can do now to preserve the integrity of something without totally replacing the whole thing with a remade part.”

However, sometimes Larson will replace the entire part if the customer wants the doll repaired for “sentimental reasons,” because replacing the part makes the doll more durable for use.

“Doll collectors are purists,” Larson said. “They want everything as close to the original as they can possibly have it.”

Patti Joyce undressing a common porcelain doll that had been in a fire. She cleaned the doll and her clothes. The other dolls in her workshop also had been in a fire and were waiting to be cleaned as well.

If the doll is brought in for repair to increase its value to be sold, Larson patches the problem.

Larson was the only girl among brothers growing up so she played with her dolls most of the time.

“I still have my dolls from when I was a little girl,” she said.

Her great aunt Mary who lived in Washington was a doll collector who also made her own dolls. Every Christmas or birthday, Mary would send Larson a doll as a gift.

“It was always a very different, very unique, sometimes very ugly doll,” Larson said with a laugh.

Every time Larson got a haircut, she had her beautician save her hair so she could send it to Mary to make wigs for the dolls.

Mary passed away when Larson was in high school and Larson inherited Mary’s doll collection, including her hand written notes and books about building and fixing dolls.

Larson studied Mary’s work and anything else she could get her hands on to read until she felt like she knew how to repair dolls. She intended on fixing her own, but word of mouth brought doll dealers and others to her for help.

Joyce also relies on word of mouth within the doll community, which she said has been very supportive.

“There’s a large population of doll collectors in the area,” Joyce said. “The United Federation of Doll Collectors is based in Kansas City… however, along with that population you have a lot of underground doll repair.”

Sherry Ferguson only repairs Terri Lee dolls.

“That was my childhood doll, my favorite doll,” she said. “And I still have it.”

The hand painted, 16-inch Terri Lee dolls were first made of wood (composition) in the 1940s in Lincoln, NE. Later, the dolls were made of plastic.

She has run her business, Sherry’s Terri Lee Doll Clinic, out of her home in Shawnee, KS for 10 years.

She met the previous owner of the business, Rosa Lee, at a doll show. Ferguson was showing others how to do common repairs like restringing.

“She taught me everything she knew,” Ferguson said. “She was quite the mentor; I discovered I was able to repair (Terri’s) and I liked doing it.”

Ferguson also taught porcelain doll art for 22 years.

“Whenever it’s necessary, and when the customer wants me to, I will do cosmetic touch ups,” she said.

What a good doctor should know

The basic first dolls, Pioneer Prairie dolls, were mostly made in Germany and have a China head on muslin bodies, Joyce said. They usually need repair on their head and feet, and sometimes the muslin rots as well.

The popular doll in the 1800s to the early 1900s was the antique bisque doll; the common repair is to the porcelain, but the wooden body can also require composition repair.

“These are the dolls with the glass eyes — hollow blown glass eyes,” she said. “These dolls also need a lot of restringing and eye setting.”

Shirley Temple dolls were popular in the 1920s and were also made of wood. The 1940s through 1970s were mostly made of hard plastics, Joyce said.

The modern popular doll is the American Girl doll, made of vinyl.

“Real important is to learn proper vinyl care,” Joyce said. “A lot of money has been invested in American Girl dolls and their clothes. The young children need to know what to clean that with and what not to clean that with.”

Joyce has some pretty strong feelings about doll repair. “There’s certain criteria that leads up to a good doll repairperson,” she said.

A good doll doctor requires an interest in dolls, not necessarily knowledge or history of them, a respect for dolls, people and their property and a good eye for color, Joyce said.

“It would be helpful if you have muscles because that sanding and whatnot can get pretty hard on you,” she said with a laugh.

Dolls and Teddy Bears occupy every nook and shelf at the Doll Hospital

To be a good restoration artist, you need to be innovative and creative, Larson said.

“You can’t always figure it out by looking at it,” she said. “I’ve done so many things I would have never dreamed of, yet there’s got to be a way to make it work… without damaging the integrity of the doll. (And) if one thing doesn’t work, you’ve got to try something else.”

On a good week, Joyce has roughly 20 customers seeking doll repair including clothes (which Joyce can also create, sometimes with nothing but the customer’s description and even with vintage material), or to purchase or sell their own dolls and collectables.

Sometimes Ferguson repairs several dolls a week; some weeks she doesn’t repair any.

“Most of my business is through the Internet,” she said. “Probably over a year’s time, I may get 50-60 dolls.”

Joyce advises those seeking doll repair to ask, “Who is working on my doll?” and, “What are you going to use?” before leaving the doll; if those questions aren’t answered satisfactorily, do not leave the doll.

She also said to get a second opinion from a different doll doctor.

“As you pass that doll down, it will go to the next generation with your handiwork on it,” Joyce said.

Plenty of repair challenges

Larson sees five people on average per week except in November and December; more people bring in their dolls for repair to pass on as a Christmas gift, like Larson’s great aunt did for her.

“Part of the reason I still do it is because I get to see some unique things,” Larson said.

The most unique doll she’s repaired was a doll with a bisque head and composition body that stood 46 inches tall — about the size of a 5 year old.”

“I have never worked on one that big,” she said.

But the most challenging repair was to a “little bitty Bi-Lo baby missing its eyes. Its bisque head was solid, and there was no way to get into it except from the neck opening.”

“I couldn’t count on both hands the number of times I had to start over,” Larson said.

Wax dolls are also trying because the material is difficult to match, she said.

The most difficult repair Joyce has done in her store was on a celluloid doll, a “painted plastic.”

“They mirror the higher priced bisque antique dolls except that as they age, they thin,” she said.

One celluloid doll she received from Chicago took four months to repair, “piece by piece” because it takes 24 hours for the glue to dry.

The doll was in nearly 100 pieces.

Glazed China head repair is also challenging because there is no “real good repair for China faces,” she said.

The amount of time required for repairs depends on the type of doll and repair, and how many dolls are ahead of it, Joyce said. Generally, repairs take 2-3 weeks.

Her most common repairs are on composition dolls, leather repair, eye setting, cleaning and restringing.

One of the most “sensitive” doll repairs is on stuffed animals, she said.

“I find what the (doll) people are most sensitive about dropping off and picking up and being that happy with is not the $2,000 doll you’ve strung or done porcelain repair on, it’s the teddy bear,” she said.

Clothing is also a delicate repair or creation for the same reason: the two are what people are attached to most.

And Joyce is very careful to make sure what she is doing is what the customer asked.

Repair costs start at $10 for vinyl cleaning and range depending on how much time the repair will require.

For Larson, the time it takes for repairs depends on how quickly she can get the parts or pieces. A repair can take as little as ten minutes to as long as 8-9 months (in rare cases), she said.

Prices are determined by cost for parts, how much time the repair will take and the level of difficulty of the repair. The price for antique clothing is also higher because the material is more difficult to find.

The most common repair for Larson, restringing dolls, costs between $8-$28 depending on the size of the doll.

The state of the repair business

Larson believes the doll community is growing because of the current economy.

“We are all having to revert back to things from the past,” she said. “Unfortunately, it’s not flourishing the way it used to — the value is not what it used to be.”

But this is an excellent time to start collecting because the prices are low, and you can still find items at flea markets, antique malls and garage sales, Larson said.

But Joyce believes otherwise.

“The older community of people didn’t share with the younger generation as much as they should have,” she said. “They hoarded their collections; it created a void in age. There’s a bit of a population in my generation but the next generation, my daughter’s age, there’s no market.”

Joyce said her daughter’s generation would find antique dolls appealing if they knew the history behind them like where and when they were made, and why they look a certain way.

With her lease up and not enough time to work on her doll repair, Joyce has decided to close The Doll Hospital and More.

“The consignments eat up so much of my time that I don’t get the time to do my doll repair like I would like to,” she said. “That’s the most important thing to me… and you should never rush doll repair.”

Joyce looks down at her workstation, neatly covered in dolls waiting for repair.

“You dream of having this opportunity and you work on it,” she said. “It’s a loss. The public won’t have an obvious choice — it’s not a building, and that bothers me, that I’m leaving the public wide open for disrespectful repair.”

She will still be doing doll repair out of her home and buying dolls. She will also be taking care of her six grandchildren and working at the Toy and Miniature Museum of Kansas City once a week.

“It fulfills me, that museum does,” Joyce said. “It satisfies my heart because it is a beautiful collection. It’s just wonderful there.”

Larson has no plans to leave her home-based business.

“I enjoy working with people and helping people that are trying to achieve something they otherwise would not be able to,” Larson said.

If she wasn’t a restoration artist, she would still be doing something creative that would also keep her hands busy, she said.

Melissa Cowan is a Kansas City-based freelance writer.


Pattie Joyce, Shawnee, KS,,

Jana Larson, Topeka, KS,

Sherry Ferguson, Shawnee, KS,

Barbara Pirrong, Oklahoma City, OK, 405-842-1522

Doll Doctors Association,

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