Finding a way when things gang aft agley

It was my birthday two weeks ago and looking back at it now, I could never have predicted how I’d be living and feeling and thinking now. The world, or at least the world I know, has gone into lock down and although the birds are still singing and the trees are budding and things look largely the same, it’s all suddenly different and feels very, very still.

Still in some ways and accelerated in others. No more pubs and gigs and wandering around shops for the hell of it to kill time. Also, no more financial stability and confidence in my understanding of how I make a living and how reliable that feels. And of course, all this “inconvenience” and uncertainty pales into insignificance as three members of my immediate family go into complete isolation for their own safety and I deliver donuts to their front porches hoping that they can somehow feel the hug I want to reach out and give them but can’t.

And while some parts of life are shutting down, others are speeding up as we need to shift and adapt to somehow make this new reality work. I didn’t think I would run online workshops. It wasn’t that I was completely against the idea, more that I had the luxury of not having to think about how I would teach these types of classes in a way that worked for me. As unpredictable as my income is, until about a week ago I was comfortable in my ability to make and sell my artwork and in the demand for my in-person teaching worldwide.

I am now unsure of just about everything.

If necessity is the Mother of invention, then pandemic, self-isolation, and possible impending poverty is the Mother that kicks you up the arse and forces you to make tough choices about what is right for you.

So I asked myself what I wanted and how I can make this work.

Do I want to do online video lessons?

NO.

I don’t have the confidence in my tech skills yet, and right now I’m working from a spare room piled up with boxes. Also, I have two young dogs who like to gate crash video chats.

Do I want to do live, interactive demos with real time Q&A?

NO FUCKING WAY.

First of all, see above, and on top of this, all our lives are so unpredictable at the moment that I can’t offer up any particular time slot that would include everyone, and quite frankly I’d rather talk to you all one at a time by email.

What the hell do I want?

TO WRITE.

To write the sort of lessons I wrote for my workshops here in Glasgow. I bloody loved preparing the “homework” lessons I sent out to all the students who came up here to learn. The idea behind the emailed lessons was to prepare the students to hit the ground running at the workshop rather than have to creatively “warm up” once they arrived. For a month before each workshop I sent out weekly lessons. Each one offered up the methods I use in my own work, in particular working through creative blocks, and finding out what my creative triggers and impulses are. I alternated these lessons with projects that were more practical and hands on so that the students had a balance of creative exploration and structured techniques.

Some students arrived in Glasgow with a sketchbook full of images, a collection of stitched fabric samples, and a box of “treasures” to work with. Once their doll making began in the classroom, I could see when we laid out all of their homework, a complete project from the seeds of ideas through to their finished dolls. Now that some time has passed, and those students send me images of the dolls they’ve made since completing the workshop, I can see how their ideas have moved forward and how confident their work has become.

Development artwork by @sheilaghdysonmixedmediaartist

This, for me is the most enormous bloody privilege and joy.

With this in mind, I’ve written a ten lesson creative doll making course that will focus on free form, intuitive doll making and understanding your creative process.  This is not a step by step instruction manual, and it requires an openness to working in ways that may seem a little bit odd at first…

I never wanted to write a tutorial that was about following my idea or pattern or design. First of all, my ideas, patterns and designs are mine. They are the result of my life, my experience, and to be honest, a lot of happy accidents and failures that I just could not communicate in a lesson if I tried, and what’s more, I don’t want to.

Secondly, for me, it’s just not satisfying to teach people how to do things the way I do them. When I teach, I want to see a student find their own voice and their own way of doing things, and I’ve learned over the last twelve years of teaching that my skills are best directed that way.

Dolls in progress by artist Eleanor Sloan at a workshop in Glasgow in February ’20

So what am I offering you now?

Let’s start with what this course is not.

This is not a course where you will learn how to follow a step by step doll making process. This is not a course where you will work from my (or anyone else’s) designs and patterns. This is not a course that will teach you one method of doll making. This is not a course where you will produce the same result as all the others who are taking the course. You will not be learning how to make a Pale Rook Doll and you will not be learning complex pattern cutting (seriously, pattern cutting is hard, even for those of us who have been taught it, and an online course really isn’t the way to learn it unless it’s by a really skilled pattern cutter who can describe complicated measurements and calculations in writing. I’m not one of those).

What I can teach you is how to find your way of working and to identify what makes you tick.

Which leads me to what this course is.

This is a course where you will be taught to identify your own creative triggers, ideas and impulses and to identify what works for you.  This is a course where you will learn how to design your own style of doll, and to draft and cut your own simple doll pattern that can be adapted, tweaked and developed.  Through this course you will learn how to make a doll that is entirely unique and personal to you.   In this course I will share the methods I use to work through creative blocks and design problems. This is a course where you will build a collection of creative ideas and projects, and by the end of it you’ll have the skills and confidence to develop your own doll designs.  As well as opening up your creative flow, this course will give you the practical skills and tools to create dolls with their own character, style and story.

You’ll receive ten emailed lessons – two lessons each week for five weeks. Some of them are deceptively simple creative warm-ups, and some are detailed, challenging and in depth. The lessons will build up from identifying the very beginnings of your creative thinking – finding the seeds that are worth nurturing, finding the triggers that make you think and feel as an artist, to learning simple, practical doll making skills that can be adapted to your own needs.

What’s the course fee?

Well, that’s up to you. Since we’re living in completely weird times, and this is all new to all of us, I’ve decided to offer this course on a pay-what-you-can basis. You decide how much you can or want to pay. I’m suggesting a minimum of £30 and a maximum of £120. There is no need to justify or explain how much you’d like to pay. I know that for some of you, this is a time of enormous uncertainty so I hope this makes the course more accessible to those who aren’t sure if their future income is secure. Regardless of what you can afford to pay, you’ll receive the same lessons and support as anyone else.

How many places are there?

I’m going to limit the places on the course to the number of students I can comfortably connect with over the duration of the course.  I want to be able to offer one to one email support for those who would like or need it.  I don’t want this to be one of those courses where students are flying solo and the teacher has no real connection with anyone.

If you’d like to register, you can complete the contact form below (registration is currently closed, but will reopen again at 8pm (UK time) on the 26th of April), only your name and email are required, although messages are nice!.  I will email you full terms and conditions, plus a payment link within 24 hours.  The first lesson will be sent out on Monday the 11th of May, and then on every following Thursday and Monday afternoons.

Finally, THANK YOU SO MUCH for all of your interest and support.   We are living in strange and frightening times and it’s hard to not feel helpless and overwhelmed, especially when we’re all hyper aware of just how amazing our emergency services, our postal workers, cleaners, shop workers, delivery drivers and many more others are right now.  In times like this (what times have ever been like this?!) I try to find ways to be useful, and I hope that this course is useful to some of you in what ever way, whether it’s creativity and solace during a frightening time, or just something to do while you’re stuck in the house.

I am so grateful to have so much support and connection.

Keep safe and take care for now.

The course is now full, thanks to everyone for your interest. 

How I Make Hands

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I love my hands. I love hands in general, they are one of the first things I notice about people. I’m as fascinated by people’s hands as I am by their faces, because for me they can be just as expressive.

I spend a lot of time making the hands for my dolls. Sometimes a pair of hands can take as long to make as an entire torso or head for the same doll. I thought you might like to know how I make them. The best piece of advice I can give you when making these is to TAKE YOUR TIME. There’s often a tendency to rush through the smaller details, but for me it’s the time taken on the smaller details that counts.

Creating the pattern or template

I tend to draw most of my patterns free hand for each doll. I also usually make the hands of my dolls last, so their shape and size is determined by the rest of the doll.

Work out what size your hand pattern will be by placing the arm on a sheet of paper and drawing the width of the wrist opening. Draw a wrist, long enough to fit into the arm opening.

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Now look at the size of your doll’s face. Naturally, hands are about the same length as your face from the chin to the middle of your forehead. From the top of the wrist you’ve drawn, measure straight up to give you the length of your hand based on the length of the face from chin to the middle of the forehead.

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OK, so now we have the key measurements in place and you can draw the rest of the hand. The key here is to keep it simple, think of a mitten, rather than a slim elegant hand.

Make sure that there is a curve between the thumb and the rest of the hand. This will make it easier to turn the hand the right way around with the seams smoothly curving on the inside.

It may take a few tries before you get find a shape that works for you. I have a whole envelope full of random hand shapes that did or didn’t work at some point down the line. The point of learning to create your own patterns is that you get to alter and choose exactly the shape that suits your project, instead of being stuck with a pre-determined shape then having to try to adjust it to make it more your own. Drawing patterns yourself takes time to get right, but ultimately it means that you’re in control of making your own ideas come to life.

This is a pretty typical hand pattern for me.

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I have not added seam allowance because I’m now going to draw directly onto the fabric using this hand template. The drawn line will give me an exact guideline to sew along.

Choosing the fabric, and sewing the hand shape

I personally like to make my hands in two different fabrics, one firmer fabric for the outside of the hand and a softer, finer fabric for the palm. You’ll see why in a minute.

I always, always draw on the firmer fabric. This is because it’s far less likely to move around and become distorted, and when you’re working on small details like this, precision is really important. While we’re on that point, iron your fabric before you start. Seriously, it makes a difference, even if you’re planning on washing and dying and beating up the hand once it’s made. Make sure that you place your template on the straight grain of the fabric. The easiest way to tell where the grain is is to look at the edge of your fabric and place the template in line.

I use a regular, sharp pencil to lightly draw around my hand template leaving a narrow seam allowance around the drawn line. I then place this onto the softer fabric, making sure that the fabric grain is going in the same direction.

P1100238I start sewing around the hand at this point and work my way back to the wrist opening where I do a couple of stitches in the same place to secure the thread, then sew small, close stitches along the pencil edge. Make sure that the stitches are as small and neat as possible. The closer together the better and if you really want to be on the safe side, double back over the curve on the inside of the thumb. Personally, I find that if the stitches are small and neat, there are rarely any problems with the neatness of the hand once it’s turned the right way out. Once you get to the other side of the wrist opening, work a couple of stitches in the same place then double back and finish opposite the place where you started.

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Double backing like this avoids the need for knots and reduces the risk of the stitches coming undone when you turn the hand the right way out. Knots tend to show through and ruin the look of small, detailed pieces of work.

If you like you can paint some Fray Stop, or PVA glue along the outside edge of the seam to make it a bit more stable, then let it dry. I usually miss out this step, but find what works best for you.

Trimming and turning

Now carefully snip away the excess fabric on the outside edge of your seams. Now very, very carefully snip down to the edge of the inner curve of the thumb. If you go too close the fabric will fray when you turn the hand out the right way, so leave a couple of millimetres ( a sixteenth of an inch).

This is the bit that loads of people ask me about – turning your hand shape right side out. My best advice is be very patient, take your time and get yourself some of these very useful, and very inexpensive tools.

I use;
– tweezers (not too sharp or they’ll damage your fabric).

– orange sticks (easy to find in the hand and nail section of a pharmacy or supermarket),   today I’m using a small wooden knitting needle instead.

– and nail art tools. I use the ones designed for “dotting”. They have small rounded tips that are perfect for pushing through thumbs without splitting the fabric. I bought a large set of nail art tools for a few pounds online.

First of all, push your tweezers up through the wrist opening of the hand. With your tweezers open, gently push the tip of the hand with the nail tool (knitting needle or orange stick) until you’re able to grasp it with the tweezers on the inside. Gently, and I can’t stress this enough, GENTLY pull it through.

 

Find the tip of the thumb on the inside of the hand, and start to push it through with the tweezers. It probably won’t go all the way through, and that’s fine. This is where your nail art tools, knitting needles or orange stick come in.

Again, GENTLY push the thumb through to the right side. This can take a while. Be patient. A lot of people give up half way through and end up with stumpy thumbs. If you find that it gets stuck half way, take out your orange stick or nail art tool, and try pushing from a different angle. It will come through eventually, but if you push too hard you risk breaking the stitches or punching a hole in the fabric or seam. If the last bit is stuck, try using a needle from the outside of the thumb to guid the last bit out.

Once it’s through, again, use your orange stick to smooth out the seam on the inside. You should now have what looks like a little mitten. Take extra care to smooth out the curve between the thumb and the rest of the hand.

Stuffing

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Take a small amount of stuffing, less than you think and push it into the tips of the fingers using your tweezers. There should be just enough to give the hand some shape. In my experience less stuffing creates a more natural shape. To stuff the thumb, take a small amount and give it a bit of a twist before using your tweezers to push it into the base of the thumb. Use your orange stick or nail tool to then push the stuffing all the way to the tip of the thumb. Again, take your time. Too much stuffing and too much pushing can split the seams.

Sewing the finger details

I don’t draw the finger positions on the cloth, but if you want to I suggest using a vanishing pen, the ones you use for quilting, to mark the position of the fingers.
For the purposes of this tutorial, I’m using dark, contrasting thread so you can see the stitches, but matching your thread to the colour of your fabric can create a lovely subtle effect.

Push your needle in on the palm of the hand, close to the wrist and bring it up at the point where you want to begin your first line of stitching. Leave a “tail” ( a loose, dangly bit of thread that you can deal with later). Work a tiny stitch a couple of times in the same spot. Push the needle through to the other side, and very carefully work your way up to the top of the hand. Remember, we’re effectively sewing the gaps between the fingers, not the fingers themselves. Once you get to the top, work a stitch a couple of times in the same place, then move your needle along to the top of the next finger gap, and continue in exactly the same way.

At the beginning and end of each finger gap, work a tiny stitch a couple of times in the same place to secure the row before moving on to the next one. All together you’ll sew three lines per hand to create the shape of four fingers. Once you’ve finished the fingers,

Can you see why we didn’t put too much stuffing in now?

Sometimes I add hands to arms by inserting the wrist into the arm and sometimes I sew the wrist over the arm. It just depends on the doll.

To insert the wrist into the arm, add a little more stuffing, but not too much to the wrist – not the palm. Using the tweezers, fold this and push it into the arm opening. Secure it with a pin, the stitch it into place.

To add the wrist over the arm, don’t add any more stuffing, grasp the bottom edge of the arm with your tweezers, then push it into the wrist opening.

If you want to give the hand a bit of a curve, simply shape it with your hands before joining it to the arm. It really is that simple. Just manipulating it a little bit with your fingers can create a more realistic curve, the trick is to avoid to much stuffing or it’ll end up misshapen.

 

So that’s it! It takes time and practice and a lot of patience, but quite straight forward after a few tries.

I would love to hear how you get on with this, please send me photos or tag them on Instagram with #palerooktutorial .

If you have any questions, or if any of you have your own tricks and tips on making hands, please let us all know about them in the comments section.

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