Have you ever seen (or held) a Waldorf doll? They're soft, cuddly, beautiful toys that fuel children's imaginations for nurturing play. These dolls are often inspired by nature, donning mushroom caps or gnome-like outfits so they appear as though they've materialized from an enchanted wood, and they come in a variety of shapes and sizes to suit children of all ages. Making one of these dolls is a fun project, and they can easily be put together with materials you already have at home!
Waldorf-style dolls are inspired by the educational system created by Rudolf Steiner, and they encourage creative play and imagination. As such, the dolls tend to have suggested facial features and expressions rather than strong ones, thus allowing kids to determine their mood and personality. The dolls are made from natural materials such as cotton, wool, and silk, and can be customized in any way you can dream up.
These dolls are available for purchase all over the world, but making your own gives you the opportunity to create something that you know the recipient will adore; you can even get their input on making the doll of their dreams, if they’re old enough to describe it! Although many people purchase doll-making kits, they can be a bit expensive for limited budgets. Here’s how you can make Waldorf dolls from materials you have at home, or by using materials that require only a small investment.
What You’ll Need:
- Soft cotton or cotton flannel fabric for the body and limbs, and to cover the head
- Tubing of some sort (socks, and cotton or silk stockings actually work really well for this, though some people even use rolled cheesecloth)
- Roving to stuff the insides (I like wool roving, but you can also use bamboo, kapok, cotton, or hemp roving if you’d like to keep your doll vegan
- Long darning or tapestry needles (if you have doll-making needles, even better)
- Thread (to match the skin color fabric you’re using, as well as any sewn accessories)
- Straight pins
- Embroidery floss
- Cotton string
- Yarn for the hair
- A crochet hook
- Extra fabric or yarn to make the clothing
The Doll’s Skin
The skin is probably the most important part of your doll, as it’s the fabric that will come into contact with the child on a daily basis. It should be soft and cuddly, preferably made from a natural, organic material. For the photo examples here, I used pieces cut from an organic cotton and silk blend tee shirt, but I’ve also used organic cotton and flannel sheets/pillowcases.
Organic cotton fabric comes in a variety of different colors, so feel free to let your imagination run wild when making your doll. You can use a natural skin tone for human-looking dolls, or go for something more colorful if you decide to make a faerie, mermaid, gnome, or other magical being instead.
The fabric I used was white to begin with, but I gave it a light beige-y skin tone by dyeing it with tea and a little bit of strawberry juice, fixed with salt mordant. You can achieve a number of different pigments with plant dyes, but if you’d rather go for standard fabric dyes, try to go as non-toxic as possible, and wash the fabric thoroughly with a gentle detergent before creating a doll with it. The doll I made is only 8″ tall, and required only a tiny amount of fabric. Larger dolls will obviously require more fabric (and yarn, and roving, and tubing, etc.) so it’s better to have a bit more than you think you’ll need, and not use it, rather than need it and not have it.
The Doll’s Head
To make the doll’s head, determine the size you’d like to make it first: for babies and toddlers, aim for something that’s a bit larger than a golf ball, and don’t use too much stuffing; you want it to be firm, but not hard. For larger dolls, some people use a ball of loosely-wrapped yarn as a base and cover it with roving, while others just roll up roving itself to achieve the size and firmness they desire. Use your instincts.
Grab a handful of the roving of your choice and roll it/ball it up until it’s the size you’d like. Wrap this in a piece of stretchy tubing (such as a piece cut from a cotton, silk, or woolen sock/stocking), and sew that closed. Pull the excess fabric to the top and back of the head and sew it down as flat as possible. It’s okay if it looks a bit messy, as there will be another layer of fabric over this.
Now to define the shape of the head: tie a piece of cotton string around the head horizontally at the mid-point, as this will define the eye area. Then tie another piece of string around it vertically to define the face. You can either create a slight nub nose, or leave the lower portion of the face smooth… that’s entirely up to you.
Next, take a couple of straight pins to determine eye placement, and use a pencil to mark the indentations. You’ll use a long needle and some embroidery floss (split into 2 or 3 strands) to embroider eyes onto the doll’s face. You’ll push the needle through the back or top of the head to come out in the eye area, embroider back and forth between the eyes until you’re happy with them, and then push the needle back out through the head to tie off the string. Those knots will be covered with either hair or a hat, so no one will see the Frankenstein stitching or weird sewn bits at all.
Use the same technique to create a mouth, but try to keep the facial expression neutral: I find that a couple of stitches to create a nearly horizontal mouth-line is ideal.
The Doll’s Body
I find it helpful to create a paper pattern for body parts whenever I make a doll, and I’d recommend that technique to cut down on frustration for your own project. Place the head near a piece of paper so you can determine the size and shape of the body you’d like to make, and draw that out. You’ll cut two of those pieces and sew them wrong-side-together to create the torso, leaving a small gap open to tuck the stuffing into. Use the same technique for the arms and legs.
Once you’ve sewn these pieces together, stuff them with roving to fill them out. If you’re feeling ambitious, you can leave small gaps in the torso’s seam and then tuck the edges of the arms and legs into them to sew them closed, otherwise just sew the limbs on as best you can. Kids are pretty forgiving when it comes to seams and such, especially if their dolls will be clothed most of the time. When it comes to attaching the head to the body, it’s best to leave a gap for the neck part, and slip that into the torso. Secure with tiny hand stitches!
Wool roving is generally used to stuff the dolls’ bodies because it is soft, it absorbs and reflects body heat to make the dolls even more cuddly, and it’s bacteria-resistant. I’d recommend that vegan families use bamboo roving or kapok stuffing instead of cotton or hemp for their dolls, as these are less likely to clump together over time the way the latter do. Some people also like to scent their roving with a bit of lavender, jasmine, or chamomile essential oil before stuffing their dolls, as the scent acts as gentle aromatherapy to calm and comfort their little ones.
I like to under-stuff dolls for babies and toddlers because that keeps them very soft and cuddly, while dolls for older children should be a bit heartier so they can withstand being tossed about a bit more.
The Doll’s Hair
Remember that seam at the back of your doll’s head? Time to cover that up.
Some doll makers will cover baby dolls’ heads with caps, hoods, bonnets, or even mushroom cap tops, but hair is certainly an option (and looks far better on larger dolls as well). To create hair, you have to begin by crocheting a small cap for the doll’s head. If you’ve never crocheted before, creating a circular cap for the wig can be a bit tricky. You’ll crochet in the round to create a flat doily, which will then have varying lengths of yarn pulled through it to create the hair. If you’d like a step-by-step guide, I’d recommend checking out this photo set on Flickr.
You’ll sew the finished crocheted cap onto the doll’s head using thread of a similar hue, and a backstitch. Once it’s secured, you’ll use your crochet hook to pull strands of yarn through the cap’s loops and knot them into place. Feel free to get creative with different colors and textures to create a really unique toy.
Once the doll is finished, you get to dress it! Some people use pre-made or purchased doll clothes, while others prefer to sew their own. Try to stick with natural fabrics like cotton, wool, bamboo, silk, and such, especially if they’re organic. Since the children will be cuddling, hugging, and possibly chewing on these dolls, it’s best to aim for materials that are as non-toxic as possible.
After you’ve finished, all you need to do is hand the doll over to a child to be hugged and loved.
All photos by Lana Winter