By BRICE STUMP
The Daily Times of Salisbury
SNOW HILL, Md. (AP) — She is not a seamstress, Janet Carter said, yet she stays busy making clothes, lots and lots of clothes.
There are jumpers, coats, slacks, sundresses, blouses, gowns and pajamas being made by the dozens.
In the quietness of her basement studio, she works among outfit patterns and dozens of fabrics. The soothing, steady chatter of the sewing machine measures out the passing hours.
Carter makes doll clothes, but not for just any doll. Everything she makes fits the popular American Girl dolls, the rage among youngsters. They are the modern Cabbage Patch doll, Beanie Baby or a younger Barbie for a younger audience.
Making doll clothes began with a Christmas wish.
“Four years ago, my granddaughter, Gracie, asked for an American Girl doll for Christmas, but it was too late. The only store was in New York City, which was too far away, and there wasn’t enough time to order one,” Carter said. “So, the following year, she came to me and asked me again, adding, ‘I know you’ll see that I’ll get it.’
“So I got her one that Christmas. Then she asked me if I’d make some doll clothes. I hadn’t sewn in years, but told her I’d try. I was able to make her some. Then the cousins asked me to make them some. Then a lady told me, ‘You should sell these clothes.’ I didn’t know if they were good enough to sell, but when I got my first bazaar space at Asbury UM Church four years ago, I sold out. Each year since, I have made more and more and sold them at Christmas shows. Last year, I sold more than 300 outfits.”
It’s a long way from her career job.
“I used to work in the Worcester County Assessment, in the ‘hated’ tax office,” she said, laughing.
Now, it’s more fun making clothes than making people mad.
“These really are one-of-a-kind things because I may have just enough material to make one or several outfits. When people found out I was making doll clothes, people starting giving me their leftover fabric.”
The basement was converted to her sewing studio, an escape where she could enjoy sewing.
“Sometimes I’d get just half an hour to come down here, but it is so relaxing. I can get away from my husband down here,” she said, with laughter in her eyes.
With her first year of sales, Carter was able to buy a new Singer sewing machine. Carter now works in front of two sewing machines so she doesn’t have to change bobbins and spools of colored thread from project to project.
“Each year, right after Christmas, I take a two-week break, then I come down here in mid-January and get started building an inventory for the next Christmas,” she said. “I now sew all year long.”
She is finding that more and more customers don’t want to wait until the Yuletide holiday.
“People make appointments and come to my house to pick out outfits for birthdays or Easter gifts,” Carter said.
While the clothes Carter makes are distinctive, most of the dolls are cookie-cutter, commercial items made by the thousands.
It takes a bit of imagination to see the dolls as individuals, all having a set smile, empty gaze and almost identical features.
“The girls love her hair,” she said. “It is just like human hair, and girls can do all kinds of things with it. The American Girl doll is the doll to have.”
So much so, Carter explained, that a girl can instantly recognize the doll in a toy store. Problem is, the must-have doll comes with a steep price, $100 and up. And their clothing ensembles, Carter said, can run as much or more than full-size adult apparel.
Carter’s prices have customers asking, once they hear the price, “How much?”
Fresh from the sewing machine and hot off the ironing board, a new outfit is just — hold on to your knickers — $5. The lined fleece coats are $10.
The outfits Carter makes are made to fit a standard 18-inch doll. For her own fashion show, Carter has bought used, lower-priced dolls to model the outfits. When she first started, she borrowed dolls from her friends to make sure her homemade outfits fit the doll.
When youngsters come in with parents or grandparents, the atmosphere is suddenly charged.
“Their faces light right up when they see my display,” she said.
While it is the parent and grandparent carrying the purse, it’s the junior shopper calling the shots.
The first doll to be collected in the series is the “look-alike doll,” where eyes and hair can be ordered to “look” like the child recipient. Sort of like a Mr. Potato Head, the accessories can be changed, but the bottom line, it’s still a nondescript spud.
“Maybe they do look alike, but this is an expensive, a very expensive deal when you buy the doll with all the accessories,” Carter said. “American Girl dolls are the big deal right now for girls. These are not ‘drag by the hair’ dolls toddlers have. These are not ‘doll babies,’ but girl dolls.”
The look-alike doll is followed by an annual “special” doll of the year, which, of course, every little girl pushing puberty simply can’t live without. There’s even annual local bus trips just to the American Girl doll store in New York City.
“It’s so exciting, fabulous,” she said. “It’s just like going to Disneyland.”
For youngsters, just getting the doll can be a hurdle. It doesn’t matter that the clothes Carter sews are not official American Girl garments.
“The little girls just want clothes to change. The doll comes with an original outfit, and some retail stores do sell clothes for an 18-inch doll, but they look sort of cheap,” she said.
“I really never sewed much, a little bit, maybe 40 years ago. It was easier and cheaper to watch sales at clothing stores and buy what I needed for my daughter. You know why it’s easy to make doll clothes? They don’t have to fit perfectly, and they don’t complain if they are too tight or too loose,” she said.
“People who know I do this will ask me if I can do regular clothes alterations. I tell them, ‘I am not a seamstress and I don’t do alterations.’ I’m not that good.”
She works from generic patterns suitable for an 18-inch doll.
“People think because I can make doll clothes, I can make up this and that for them, and I can’t. I have to have a doll pattern. I used to do cross-stitch work, and people thought I could whip up any design, but I had to have a design to work with,” Carter explained.
“I have never learned how to do zippers. I need somebody to teach me,” she said.
So, instead of zippers, Carter uses Velcro closures. Not such a bad thing, the doll clothes maker said.
“Little girls can dress and undress a doll a whole lot easier when the outfits have Velcro instead of zippers,” she said.
Additionally, buttons are hot-glued to the clothing item, eliminating tricky and time-consuming button-hole stitching.
Coats are the most in demand, and believe it or not, when it comes to dresses, little girls want sleeveless dresses, the adults want long-sleeved decorative dresses. The coats, because they have to be made twice (because of the liner), they are the most difficult to create, she said. At $10, they are also the most expensive of her outfits.
“I don’t make anything on my time, it’s just a hobby, something I like to do and sell so I can support my habit. I shop for discounted material, or free material. I have to watch my money because this is a hobby, not a business for me. I make enough to keep my sewing machines going, supplies and things,” she said. “If there is fabric I can’t use, I pass the extra fabric onto the sewing circle at Snow Hill Mennonite Church for their quilts and comforters.”
Where does she go from here?
“I have been working with the same patterns now for four years, and when the American Girl doll thing passes, I’ll have to find something else to do. I guess I’ll have to learn how to make doll furniture next,” she said with a broad smile.
Perhaps it is the high price motivating the must-have status symbol among youngsters but, regardless of the grown-up price, it is still the doll that young girls want, so Carter is staying busy.
Then there is the aspect of the hobby that touches the heart.
“I have given some dolls away to little girls because their family doesn’t have the means to get them one,” she said.
There is love to be found behind the dolls and outfits.
“There’s a little girl I know, and her mother is ill, so she is being cared for by her grandparents. They don’t know the value of this doll to the little girl, so I had her pick out one of my American Girl dolls, along with two outfits, that she could have to keep her company while her mom is sick,” Carter said. “There are more rewards in this hobby than money.”
It has also brought Carter and her granddaughter so much closer with a shared interest.
Yet there comes a time in every little girl’s life — if she has a grandmother making doll clothes — when “enough is enough.”
“My granddaughter told me ‘Mom-mom, I can’t get the lid closed on my trunk, so I don’t need any more doll clothes,’” she said.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)