Robyn Maryke has always adored dolls, but after ten years working on a wide variety of creative subjects decided to focus exclusively on making her own. She makes charming characters from vintage fabric and felt, and uses appliqué and stitch to add the details that bring them to life. She favours floral motifs and flowing lines, and her dolls often depict iconic women, animals and parenthood. Bibelot caught up with her to talk vintage fabric, inspiration, and the simple joys of life.
1. What is it about dolls that interests you?
So many things! Mostly that they reflect who we are. Dolls have been around forever; archaeological evidence points to dolls as being the oldest known toy. In other words, we humans have always gotten a kick out of creating these mini versions of ourselves. Whether they are made as toys or high art, dolls say something about our culture and what is meaningful to us. Everything from the shape of a doll, to its clothes and face or lack thereof, tells us something about its maker.
2. How do you create your dolls?
I like simple silhouettes that I embellish with my favourite things: embroidery, needle-felting, and interesting textiles. I don’t like to keep track of a lot of pattern pieces; organization is not my strong point! So I just have a few templates that I resize or alter a bit for each project. I gravitate towards natural materials that I feel give my dolls a nice weight and substance. I use a sewing machine for the torso, arms and legs, then the detail work is done by hand. I like to work in small batches of three to five dolls or things tend to spiral out a bit. I have four children, including a very busy toddler, so I can’t really leave piles of unfinished projects laying out or it’s trouble. The most I’ve made at once is eight, and the house was a disaster after that!
3. How do you get ideas for characters?
The character tends to come later. I start with an idea of how I want the doll to look and what I want people to feel when they see it. Then when it’s finished I think of a name and maybe a little story, but I’ve learned not to go overboard, because really a doll’s story belongs to person who buys it and makes it theirs.
4. Do they start to take on a life of their own?
Sometimes! Like any art form, there’s your idea and there’s how it comes out. I’ll have a colour scheme and facial expression in mind but as I’m making it, it changes, and I’m not always sure why, but I go with it.
5. What inspires you?
Vintage dolls and materials, myths and folklore. Nostalgia in general is big for me. I loved dolls as a little girl, but it’s normal at that age. It’s different when you’re older. To say you love dolls as an adult often makes people think of shelves lined with creepy dolls in a spare bedroom or something. My aim is to make dolls for those of us who never stopped loving dolls, to make dolls that can be on display and part of the decor, like a painting or a piece of pottery. I hope my dolls can be conversation pieces that people like to show off, so I try to make them strange, beautiful, but somehow familiar, so they can remind us what we loved about dolls in the first place.
6. You use a lot of eclectic fabrics in your designs. Where do you source materials? Thrift shops are my biggest source. I use a lot of wool that comes from recycled wool blankets or sweaters, as well as cotton florals and vintage table linens. When enough people know you like these things, sometimes they just show up at your door, which is the best thing ever. I also love a few contemporary fabric designers who specialize in novelty (story telling) prints, such as Heather Ross. If it’s organic, that’s a plus. Then there are those gorgeous liberty of london florals when I feel like treating myself. If I buy new fabric, it’s online, as there are no shops near me that carry modern designs.
7. Tell us about your favourite childhood doll or toy.
I got my first porcelain doll on my sixth birthday. They were a pretty big deal in the 80’s. A “stone doll,” as I called it, was the only thing on my birthday list. I was obsessed with getting one. I wished, I prayed, I begged. Luckily my mom worked in gift shop so she could get one for me at a wholesale price. I was over the moon when I opened the box. I’ll never forget that feeling. She was dressed in a pink pioneer style dress with bloomers, a bonnet and real leather shoes. She had the softest curly blonde hair. I remember telling all my friends that she even had eyeshadow and blush on. I named her Melinda.
8. Describe your perfect day.
Oh fun! Sleeping in to the luxurious hour of 8am. Going out to breakfast (I love breakfast. It’s what gets me out of bed if my children don’t first). Sewing for at least three hours–sewing being a loose term meaning any time I spend making dolls, whether it be fabric hunting, cutting, using a machine or a needle and thread. Going for a family walk in our neighbourhood. We live in an older part of town where every house and yard is different and there are tons of beautiful mature trees, so walking is just so lovely. Reading for an hour in the afternoon sun. Pizza for dinner or any dinner I don’t have to cook. Watching a movie with my husband while doing some embroidery or needle felting on the sofa and probably falling asleep like that haha. Oh, and lots of chocolate almonds sprinkled throughout the day. It’s all about simple pleasures!
9. What’s been your favourite project so far, and why?
This past March I participated in a doll making project for International Women’s Day. 50 different makers from around the world each made a doll to celebrate the achievements and values of women. The results were so inspiring. I made a Joan Baez doll because I love what she’s done using her music as a form of peaceful protest. If you’re interested in seeing all the dolls in the project you can check out the @dollmakers instagram feed curated by the lovely Marlene of @filomeluna dolls.
10. What 5 things can’t you live without?
Dark chocolate almonds, my sewing machine, quiet time each day, dinner with my family, sunshine.
Finally, could you please share some tips for people who would like to make their own dolls? Make dolls that you love, not dolls you think everyone else will love. The great thing about doll making is that there are practically no rules. They don’t have to be pretty or perfect or even make much sense. If you’ve never made one before, starting with a pattern or doll making book is helpful, but once you have the basics in the medium you feel comfortable in, just make and make and make some more. And try things that scare you. I often look at someone else’s dolls and think, “Oh I could never do that,” but it’s just a matter of taking the time to learn and try new things. Youtube is great for that. And the doll making community is lovely about sharing tips and sources. So many dollmakers are self taught and develop their own unique style over time, so they are happy to help others do the same.