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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Nesting in the East End

The Barras sign at the entrance to the market.
The Barras sign at the entrance to the market.

I moved into my new studio at the start of the summer. It’s part of an old warehouse building in the east end of Glasgow in an area called The Barras. The Barras is a market place that’s been there for almost 100 years; a collection of warehouses and giant sheds that used to be full of stalls and shops and at the centre sits an iconic music venue called the Barrowlands Ballroom where David Bowie, Sigur Ros, Amy Winehouse, The Smiths, Iggy Pop, The Clash and too many other amazing musicians to mention have played over the last six decades.

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The Barras translates into The Barrows, as in wheel barrows that traders would sell things from at the market in the 1920s. Glasgow has a habit of naming places after one single aspect of what happens there. For example, in Glasgow a night club is called The Dancing. Not a specific venue, just any place where people go to dance – The Dancing. In Glasgow people don’t go to a watch a football game they go to The Football. A park is The Swings. Bizarrely, grocery shopping is called Going for Messages, but that’s another conversation altogether.

The Barras has always been one of my favourite parts of Glasgow. My parents used to take me there when I was a little girl and it was like a live action, bustling, human version of what Amazon is now, but, you know, with a soul.  It sold everything, although not necessarily all on the same weekend, and market traders would put on a show before selling whatever they had on that particular day. You couldn’t just go up and buy whatever was on the stall, you had to gather in a crowd and watch the stall holder work everyone up into a frenzy before finally, after ten of fifteen minutes of banter and showmanship, you’d get to buy a set of dishtowels for a bargain price, but you couldn’t choose the colour, you just had to take what you were given.

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I remember the butcher had a microphone and a whole team of guys handing out bags of sausages to people in the crowd, which at the time seemed really well organised and professional. You could buy a bag of six freshly made donuts for £1. When I went with my parents we would buy shellfish to take to my grandfather who would eat them with a pin from a paper bag. The seafood cafes would have queues out of the door and around the corner as the deliveries of shellfish would arrive from Loch Fyne on the West coast.

I could go on and on about how great it used to be, but the sad truth is that in the 1990s the market began to decline, crime took over, then Ebay took over, then Amazon, then in the last decade the place ground almost to a halt. Most Saturdays there are just a handful of stall holders and men hanging around offering to sell cigarettes and viagra to whoever walks past. The donut stall is still there, and the seafood cafes seem busy but the bustling and the banter and the life of the place seems to have ebbed.

IMG_2531It’s not completely gone though, there are still a few pockets where some new things are brewing and some old things are finding new ways to reach new people. The antique market started having early morning “Pound Sales”, (that’s pound sterling £) where the stall holders fill tables with bits and bobs, the occasional bicycle or bit of vintage furniture, and a crowd gathers just before 9am on a Saturday morning to grab a bargain. The sales have brought in a whole new group of patrons to the place who didn’t even know that the market existed a year ago.

As well as this, like a lot of big cities, artists and designers and musicians have moved into the cheap unused spaces and there’s now a sense of something else waking up in the Barras. I’m not a fan of gentrification, lets just get that straight. I don’t like rent hikes and modernisation that drives out existing communities to make room for coffee shop chains and concept bars.  What I do like are communities that can build on top of the most positive remains of their past and their heritage.  I have hope for this area simply because despite being stripped to it’s bare bones, the Barras still has the cheeky, friendly, machine gun fire wit of it’s locals. Seriously, just try being pretentious in the Barras and I give you a maximum of two minutes before a local shuts you down with one line that will make your knees buckle.

Every day on my way to work people say hello to me. Just last week I was walking around taking photos and the guy who owns the antique market smiled and said hello, then invited me into the empty (they were officially closed for the day) antiques hall to take photos. IMG_2504He asked if I worked in the area and I told him I was a doll maker. “Me too!” he replied. Andy Randall, owner of Randalls Antique Market, and a Facebook hero in Glasgow, makes his own dolls, although he tells me they are his “Babies” and that he wouldn’t sell them for the world. He just displays them around the market. So it turns out that I am not the only doll artist in the east end!

The studio itself still feels a bit too clean and tidy and white. For the first month I was literally sitting at a desk in the corner, not sure of how to expand out into the rest of the room. I’m slowly bringing in furniture and plants and making a bit of mess and it’s starting to feel like mine. The strangest thing about being back in a studio environment is working alongside other people again. I haven’t done that, at least with my artwork, for about fifteen years. I’ve been on my own, working on my own for so long now that it feels strange to be able to chat while I work or to be able to invite friends over.

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It’s kind of made me kind of self conscious about my work now that it’s connected daily with the rest of the world. Before I would literally lock myself in a little room listening to David Bowie or the Cocteau Twins or Kate Bush and I would lose track of time and the world around me. Now I have cups of tea brought in by my neighbour over the wall and visitors popping in to say hello. It’s made me aware of how much I need solitude but also how much I’ve missed the human race.

I’m organising life drawing classes for the studio holders in the complex, I might even bring my dog along to model for at least one. He’s very lean and muscly and basically just sleeps for most of the day so he’s very good at being a life model.

The studio manager is organising group meditation sessions. There’s an open day in September where there will be music workshops, food stalls, art exhibitions, films.

I feel like I’m part of a community for the first time in a long time. I don’t even know how long. To be honest, even at art school I felt like a misfit. Art school was the place I thought I would go to and connect with people like me but the reality was pretty much like high school except that everyone was good at art. IMG_2405With the exception of a few very special people that I was close to, art school was a time when I felt very disconnected. In fact, I usually feel disconnected in most things.

That’s why where I am now feels so unusual. I don’t feel that way when I go into work now. As I write this, it’s Sunday night and I’m looking forward to going into work in the morning. I’m looking forward to picking up a coffee at the Polish deli on the way to the studio and seeing my neighbours and asking about their weekends.

I can feel that it’s starting to feed into my work. The ideas I have and the pieces I’m working on feel less insular and more …. I don’t know, expansive. Before my dolls were almost like little companions, little votives or poppets to help connect myself with the rest of the world. Now the new work I’m making feels more sure of itself, like it has a place and a voice.

Everything’s a self portrait after all.

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Fauna

The Pale Rook - Faun dollI’ve wanted to make a faun for a while now, and this one has been in progress for about a month.  Sometimes I feel that a doll or puppet takes on a life of it’s own, this one has such an intense, coquettish stare and once I’d taken her out into the garden to photograph her, she looked like she might get up and wander off on her own.   I’d been drawing fauns for a while without much idea of when or how they would find their way into my work.  She started off as a regular doll, but as soon as I added her ears she looked like she needed horns and hooves too.

She’s a bit of a collage of fabrics and fibres, each with it’s own backstory.

Her legs are made from silk and Norwegian alpaca fleece from this farm.  The fleece is from a pure white alpaca and hasn’t been dyed or chemically treated at all.  The farmer, Anne Line, knows every one of her animals by name and considers her flock as members of her family.    I don’t usually use animal fibres in my work, unless they are antique, salvaged or from wonderful farms like this one.

I generally use calico for the bodies of my dolls and puppets but I like the way the silk worked for this one, the dye looks more liquid than on the calico.  The silk came from an Edwardian night dress that I found in a charity shop in Edinburgh about eight years ago.  It was way too long for me so I took the bottom twelve inches off and kept the silk stashed away until I decided to use it for Fauna.  When I tore the fabric the silk threads were so fine and wispy that I used them as the golden hair around her horns.

Finally, her little hooves are made from Victorian metallic fabric.  I have no idea what it would have been used for back in it’s day, but it was left over from a project I worked on in a vintage boutique in London.  I only have a small piece of it, but it’s so heavy and parts of it have tarnished to a beautiful blueish bronze colour.

I have a feeling there will be another faun on the way, perhaps a male next time….

If you’re interested in seeing my work in progress, updates about exhibitions as well as how I make and use my vegetable and herbal dyes you can follow me on Facebook here.

Fauna
Fauna

The Pale Rook - Faun  The Pale Rook - Fauna

The Pale Rook - Faun

Ruby

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I really wasn’t sure about this doll until she was completely finished.  Every so often I’ll make something that feels too close to a self portrait and it’s always a bit unsettling.  I’ve been making variations on this doll for years now.  She’s been in drawings, paintings, she’s been collaged, crocheted, knitted and sewn, and every time she says something about where and who I am at the time.   This is never intentional.  Maybe that’s why it’s uncomfortable to work on her.  I never intend to make portraits of anyone but once in a while portraits happen.

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In this incarnation, she’s been made with coffee, boiled acorns and indigo dyed calico, linen threads, black silk, and her hair is made of felted Icelandic wool.

The Pale Rook - Dolls, art and oddities

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Birthday Blue Rabbit…

Birthday Blue Rabbit

 

This is the second of my rabbit dolls and the first one to wear clothing!  Her skirt is made from a tiny piece of silk organza that was left over from a ballerina’s tutu I made for a show at Glastonbury ages ago.  It’s so fine and stiff that it creases like paper.   When I first dyed her with a nettle infusion, she was so green that she looked like a little frog, but the colour faded to a much softer shade once she’d dried.

The Pale Rook - Dolls, art and oddities

The Pale Rook - Dolls, art and oddities

The Pale Rook - Dolls, art and oddities

Just like the original Blue Rabbit doll, the ears were a bit of a last minute addition, she was going to stay bald, her little face is so delicate that I didn’t think she’d need anything else on her head, but on a whim, I’d decided to cut the legs off of a pair of jeans to make them into shorts and the left over denim was so pretty that it made sense to make her some little ears with it.

Oh, and the “Birthday” bit.  Something about the pale blue stripes and the layers of silk reminded me of something, somewhere in the back of my mind that I can only identify as a very distant memory of a birthday party.

Rosehip

 

Rosehip

I’d gathered a basket of rose hips last autumn to make syrup, left them in the fridge and forgot about them.  After a while I decided to make them into dye instead.  Like the nettles,  you just boil up the rose hips for an hour or so, leave them to steep and then use the dye directly on the fabric.  The colour is a warm, soft peachy pink, I love how it looks with the nettle dye on this doll.

The Pale Rook                                   The Pale Rook - Rosehip art doll                                  The Pale Rook - Art doll

Brennesle

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This was my first nettle dyed doll.  The green wasn’t supposed to be so intense but it turned out to be a bit of a happy accident.  I prefer working with plant dyes, firstly because there isn’t the same toxic stench, or need for rubber gloves that you have with synthetic dye, and the colour is so much softer and it seems to reflect light differently.  These nettles were picked from my garden, dried then left to steep in boiling water for a few hours before dipping the doll into the dye bath.

 

Nettle calico sketchbook

Cloth doll partsNettle dyed cloth doll

 

 

 

 

Blue Rabbit

 

Blue rabbit
Blue rabbit

I finished this girl last night.  I’ve been carrying her around with me for a few days and now I think she’s finally done.  I’m designing my dolls as I make them, rather than drawing or planning them out first.  The dyes and the threads and the unexpected shapes made by the grain and the folds of the fabric make most of the design decisions for me.  I’m not sure where her rabbit ears came from, they just seemed to make sense.   She’s been dyed with indigo and acorns then sewn up with linen.  Her ears are made from a tiny scrap of 1940s fabric that I found in an antique suitcase in Ayr in the south west of Scotland.  She doesn’t have a name yet, but I’m sure she’ll tell me at some point.

Blue Bunny's feet