Kathryn on Costuming


Needle and thread, cloth and scissors have been a big part of my life as long as I can remember. I was making dolls, quilts and clothes by the time I was seven and can’t really recall who taught me but I was fortunate that all the women in my family were sewists. It’s just amazing how many artists will recount the same story. How lucky we were to grow up in a time when women’s handwork was beginning to be seen as the true art it is and a time when all the “home arts” for both boys and girls had not yet been stripped from most public school curriculums. Success is success wherever you get it and for lots of kids “home arts” like sports and music, open the door to success in many other ways.


It is very interesting and worth while to look back at your work and notice that you have developed a style in your costuming. It can be hard to see this when you are in the fever of creating a new character. I’ve been making dolls a long time and looked at lots of pictures to select a few for this article. I see now that when it comes to costuming I’m kind of a minimalist even though everyone always says “I just love your details”. I got to this by taking the long way around!

When I started taking my doll making seriously most people were making reproduction dolls based on the famous doll makers of 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. When you entered your doll in a competition you were judged not only on the quality of your doll body but also the clothing you made. Since it was assumed antique dolls were play dolls, the clothing had to be fully functional i.e. working buttons and button holes, shoes etcetera. So each dress, coat, chemise, skirt, shoe and hat had to be a perfect reproduction that could be taken off and on.

 The first “art dolls” (by that I mean original sculpted dolls in either polymer clay or cloth) I entered in competition had this type of elaborately and time consumingly constructed clothing. When I came back into the show to view the exhibit of competition dolls I usually found my dolls topsy turvy from having their underwear inspected and my carefully positioned pose destroyed. Apparently I was seeing my dolls more like a 3D painting than something anyone should play with.    


Lucky for me I wasn’t alone because right about then, the late 80’s, the Art Doll movement exploded. When I took a class with Lisa Lictenfels, she said come to NIADA; no one will play with your dolls. I did just that and went to National Institute of American Doll Artists conferences for years before becoming a member.  Jack Sprat and his Wife were made for my membership vote. NIADA is where I learned to believe without doubt that dolls can be both toys and art at the same time.

I freed myself of the restrictions of the reproduction world and turned my early love of all things textile into my expression of art. Many doll artists besides me have followed this same path from early creativity through Fine Arts in college and into dolls as art. The most wonderful thing for me as a teacher has been learning that no one is ever getting a late start, now is as good a time as any to express your creativity in figurative doll art. 


I have few rules for my costuming but some things are consistent in all my characters. I use natural fibers almost exclusively and am always sorry when I use synthetics.  I just can’t get them to mold to my doll figures in a realistic way, ending up with what I call the  “ Ruffled Originals" syndrome from an old curtain catalogue.  

When I plan a figure, especially a Creative Paperclay® figure which will have to be painted, I start with a collection of textiles and trims.  I won’t end up using all of my collection but at least one fabric will dictate how I paint the hat, shoes, gloves and stockings I’ve sculpted for the doll.

I always want the elements of the costume and setting for my doll help to tell the story I want to project. I usually end up with a pile of details to use, so the Queen Bee has bee ear rings, a bee pendant and a bee hive hairdo. Her costume is all floral elements.  

I learned a long time ago that it’s better to shop for things you love, then use them to design a figure rather than designing a figure that needs a certain type of polka dot fabric and spending years searching for it.


I’ve ended up with A LOT of fabric, beads, notions, trims, fur, fiber, paper, wire, paint, dye, wood, natural material on and on. It’s a good idea to go through all of your stuff at least once a year to remember you have it and get inspired again by what you’ve already collected. 

A friend said to me once that she works on the principle that everything you need is right here, right now already. I think this is so wise especially when your urge to shop is huge and your wallet is thin. 

I choose the actual fabric type I use because I think it will express what the figure should wear.  Even though the felted wool for Santa’s coat is heavy, because it’s a natural fiber some steaming, pressing and weighting make it possible for it to look right on the figure.

It’s hard to make real doll shoes, find the right knit material for the stockings you want or drape a hat. Why not sculpt these things in Paperclay as you make the doll sculpture ?  











up on the rooftop


 Paperclay rolls out like pie crust and drapes like cloth so you can make any hat you can imagine, even for a cloth doll if you cover the head with plastic wrap and sculpt the hat in place. Remove it for drying and painting and glue to the cloth head later.


I love personifying animals, making the costumes elaborately human, simple or realistic.

My aim, for human or animal figures, is never to let the costume overwhelm the piece. I always try to make it possible for the viewer to see at a glance where costume elements change from one part to the next and distinguish the body of the doll or animal from the costume. I think this is what really draws people for a closer look at your work.


Once you get their attention they will notice all the wonderful details you’ve  added.  Sadly, it’s a necessity to consider how different fabrics and colors will photograph if you wish to share your work. Beautiful midnight blue silk velvet looks fantastic in person but is a photographic disaster.

The possibilities of computer fabric drew my attention early; finally a way to make the exact fabric I wanted.


 Leaf is dressed completely in fabrics I created myself by scanning natural materials. 

Summertime Santa has shirt fabric with snow flakes, printed on my trusty Epson printer with Durabrite ink. I recently upgraded to an Epson Artisan 50 with Claria ink which is even better!

Once I started creating my own fabrics I began to notice fabric at shops that had everything from soccer players, to flip flops on it. I was never much interested in this type of fabric until I considered the possibility that I could use my pictures of my figurative sculptures as inspiration for textile design. 

What If This Is Heaven is an example of a 3D figure wearing computer fabric made from old maps, just right for her theme. I thought this figure was the perfect one to translate into an art quilt using my photographic image in a new way.


I had tremendous fun designing a class “Art Doll to Art Quilt” which covers choosing photographic images all the way through computer fabric design and actually laying out and creating an art quilt or wall hanging. This direction has really excited me.

                  So while costuming is rightfully in the eye of the artist,  



I guess the devil makes me do exactly what I want when I design and dress a doll. Cut, pin, stitch, staple and glue the costume on and don’t make any tiny button holes unless you’ve got to have them to tell the story!


Don’t forget to have fun,



© Kathryn Walmsley 2013