One of the most satisfying hobbies I have ever spent time on is the making of Native American dolls in traditional clothing. My dolls are 9″ cloth dolls with painted faces. Since I do not use a pattern for the face, each doll has her own personality. Each of my dolls has long black hair made from embroidery floss, which is easy to style or just leave hanging down.
For the dress, I designed a template representing the two hide pattern that traditional women made from animal hide. Each dress I make is beaded with colors and designs that are unique to a particular tribe. The moccasins I make are from a simple pattern I designed which can be made in any size needed. I just place the doll’s foot on paper and mark the length and width, then draw my pattern to fit. You can read my article on how to make these moccasins which is at the related link below.
The body of the doll is a very complicated pattern I adapted from an 1860’s period doll and shrunk to 9″. There are several pieces and it takes quite some time to sew and stuff them, so I make six to ten at a time and set them aside till I am ready to paint the faces and attach the hair. Then they wait till I have made a dress and the moccasins and choose the doll that seems to go with the outfit. A simple two piece pattern for the entire doll, front and back, could be used for a quicker project, but my dolls are sculpted so they have a woman’s figure and the dress hangs well on them. Since the dolls are already made, I can relax and take my time with the beading on the dresses, which is a pleasurable and relaxing experience.
In doing research for my doll dresses, I have learned so much about culture, beading design and color, traditions and techniques of several different tribes throughout the nation. I search for pictures of dresses from times past and adapt those designs to my own creations. Making the dolls as much like the traditional women did not only teaches me about cultural dress, but how the different peoples lived, what the men hunted and how the women tanned the hides, used bone and teeth for decoration and developed their own unique designs and the type of environment they lived in. With the coming of trade beads, the women were able to develop even more intricate and unique designs which became works of art.
The history of doll making by Native Americans goes way back in time to the ancients. Dolls were made for spiritual reasons to be used in ceremonies, such as the Hopi Katsina dolls, as well as for toys for children. Some traditional dolls were made without faces and given to young girls for play. Without a face, this encouraged the girl to develop her own character for the doll by the face she chose to make herself. The faceless doll also taught the girl not to focus on vanity. This taught creativity through imagination.
Dolls were made from just about anything that could be dressed. Simple materials and scraps of fabric were always available for the girls to practice with and this was a valuable teaching tool. Studying antique dolls and even dolls made today by Native Americans teaches a lot about cultural diversity and gives us clues on the changes from prior to European contact through to the modern day.
Authentically made Native American dolls represent the way of life from the past, for they draw on cultural knowledge, traditional skill, and available materials. This is an excellent and rewarding way of keeping alive and preserving the way the ancestors lived.