Before having children of my own, it never occurred to me that there would be a problem with little boys playing with dolls. To be honest I had never thought about it, but now that I have it is obvious that little boys should be allowed to play with dolls. They will likely find themselves looking after babies when they are older, as a father or perhaps as an uncle, even simply as an older brother. Allowing (and even encouraging) boys to play with dolls is a healthy thing - but there still seems to be stigma around when it comes to toys. This is especially apparent in the shops when there is a significant divide between girls and boys toys. Fortunately, there are companies and individuals out there that are actively working against this stigma. Laura, the creator of Under Rainbows makes beautiful Waldorf inspired dolls that can be enjoyed by both girls and boys. I had a chat with her to find out how she became involved in making dolls, promoting dolls as toys for both boys and girls, and what the future holds for Under Rainbows.
MCW: How did you get started making your dolls?
Laura: I started making dolls about 6 years ago, when my son was 2. I wanted a doll for him to play with but I really didn't like what was available to buy in the toy shops. I had become quite interested in Steiner and the Waldorf lifestyle generally and had set my heart on a Waldorf doll for him.
Just a little note about Waldorf dolls in general. They are made of natural materials; cotton interlock stuffed with sheep's' wool. There are specific reasons for this in Steiner terms but what drew me to them is that the materials themselves can be produced ethically and in a way not damaging to the planet, other people or my children. Did you know that manufacturers of some plastic dolls recommend that the doll be taken out of the packaging and set outside for 24 hours to allow some of the toxins to disperse before it is given to the child to play with?! The sheep's wool is particularly lovely as it holds warmth and smell. So the doll is never cold to the touch and holds to child's body heat. Also the more the doll is cuddled the more it will have a familiar smell, something that was always very important to my children. The face is embroidered and is very simple with only a little mouth, a small nose and simple eyes. The simplicity of the doll is the key, it allows the child to project whatever emotion might be needed in a particular game, sometimes dolls are sad or fed up, Waldorf dolls can be either of these, they are not restricted by the plastic moulded face of other dolls.
But back to my son, at the time we had a very low income and the cost of Waldorf dolls can be very high so I decided to try my hand at making him one myself and well, I fell in love. I made his doll out of an old organic cotton receiving blanket that was stuffed with an upcycled wool jumper and the little bit of wool stuffing I could afford. I just loved the whole process, the materials, the look of the doll and I loved his reaction when he found it under the Christmas tree! After that I was hooked, I saved up some money to buy proper Waldorf doll making materials and started making them for friends and family. I had some lovely feed back and was encouraged to try and sell them, so I set up my little Etsy shop online and listed my first 2 dolls, they sold very quickly and that was the beginning of my career as a doll maker.
MCW. How did you become involved in promoting dolls as a toy for boys as well as girls?
Laura: Dolls are important toys for everyone. Developmentally they provide children with the opportunity to try out skills like dressing etc. Often doll play is the first demonstration of empathy by young children and it is an opportunity to practice looking after someone else and thinking of their needs.
More importantly though I think it is vital for boys to have access to doll play because one day they too might be parents. Modern parenting falls to both sexes. We, as a society, are (finally) rethinking fatherhood and manhood in general. Men are much more free to be sensitive, caring and nurturing beings, throwing off the old stereotype of being the breadwinner outside of the home who may (or may not) kick a ball round with his son on a Saturday afternoon, but who doesn't change the nappies or wind the baby after s/he has been fed and who wouldn't read stories and give millions of kisses and cuddles. Modern women expect their partners to help in child raising and modern men are finding a side of themselves lost to our culture for centuries. So why is it fair for only little girls to practice the skills of looking after babies? Why should only little girls be allowed to demonstrate gentleness, nurturing and caring in their play? When children play things out they become normal, I want it to be normal for men to father their children, so it needs to be normal for boys to play at fatherhood as children.
However, accessing doll play is not that easy for boys or their parents because dolls are aggressively marketed towards little girls. They are to be found in the pink aisle of the toy shop, their packaging and clothing is often pink and advertising shows little girls playing with them, not boys! In our house we have a girl who does not identify with typical girl stuff and a boy who is very into beauty and delights in wearing dresses. Because my children blew my ideas of gender out of the water I have thought a lot of late about how gender is marketed and sold to us. In fact I have just finished writing a piece about this that will be in the latest edition of 'The Mother' magazine. I realised that children are taught that gender identity is about the stuff you like, the clothes you wear and the toys you play with. In actual fact this is rubbish, it is just stuff. But telling a child they are wrong in their very beings for liking the wrong stuff is damaging to them to a huge degree.
So this is why I started promoting dolls as gender neutral, because I think they are and should be for everyone regardless whether they are a boy or a girl.
MCW: Have the dolls been successful in changing others opinions of dolls for boys?
Laura: Yes they have. I think that when people think of 'dolls' they think of babydolls swaddled in pink, in little pink plastic buggies or long haired blond beauties in frilly dresses having their hair styled over and over again. My dolls shatter this image of a doll. My dolls look like children, in fact I mostly do custom work, so my dolls look like the child it is meant for. I match hair colour and style, eye colour, skin tone and I make the clothing to look like what the child wears so that the child has in essence a 'mini me'.
So my dolls are very accessible to everyone, and when people see my dolls are not all pink and frilly (unless this is what the child wants) then they often feel more comfortable with boys loving and playing with them. I have written a good deal about this topic for a number of natural parenting and mainstream parenting magazines and the feedback has been really good, with lots of people voicing that they now have the 'justification' to get their child a doll, something their instinct was telling them to do, but societal pressure had been stopping them.
MCW: What is your most popular doll?
Laura: My most popular dolls are the ones I mentioned above, the 'mini me'. These dolls are 16" tall, the perfect size I think: they are a good armful for cuddling but small enough to carry around on adventures. They are made of cotton interlock stuffed with sheeps wool, they have simple hands and feet, soft wool hair and are dressable, coming with a full outfit of clothing including hand knitted cardi, hat and socks. I have a long waiting list for these dolls, sometimes 6 months long.
Each doll takes me a long time to make because I work very closely with the child's parents/ care giver. I make these dolls in the image of the child so I very often work from photographs and I ask the parents for a description of the child. This is the most lovely part of my job; reading emails from parents describing their child: the love in these emails is so tangible. So we email backwards and forwards, sometimes I make suggestions how the doll should look, sometimes the parents have a clear idea themselves. Then I start work thinking of the child the doll is for, transferring, I hope and try, a little of the love their parents have described to me into the doll itself as I work.
I do make other sizes and styles of doll as well. My baby doll, for example has detailed toes and fingers and comes with a little cloth nappy. These are a lovely alternative to the sometimes scary looking plastic monstrosities on the mainstream market. I also love making tiny dolls, fairies for example, 4 inches tall with little felt winds and pointed caps.
MCW: Where do you get your inspiration?
Laura: My inspiration are the children the dolls are for. I feel very strongly that each and every child in this world is as special as the next. That is why I love making dolls in the image of (and in celebration of) that child. I have made some amazing dolls for children who would otherwise never have had anything to play with that looked like them. I have made dolls of all skin tones. I have made dolls with scars. And the last doll I made was a beautiful bald princess for a little girl who has alopecia. I am so lucky that I get to be part of making children feel not only normal but so special and celebrated that there is even a doll who looks like them!
MCW: What are your future plans for Under Rainbows?
Laura: Well, my future plan is to start work again! At the moment I am on 'maternity leave'. I am currently pregnant with my 5th child due at the end of October and my youngest child is only 15 months, so I have absolutely no time for any crafting let alone the time needed for me to put the love and care into the dolls that make them so special. So I am having a break until the family is a little older and I have an hour or so uninterrupted peace in my day again.
I will certainly go back to custom work, it is very satisfying and a lot of fun and I have made lots of lovely friends that way too (and I still have quite a long waiting list of people who are being very patient).
I would also like to help more people make their own dolls. I currently sell clothing patterns for the 16" dolls and doll making tutorials in my etsy shop https://www.etsy.com/ie/shop/UnderRainbows?ref=hdr_shop_menu But I would love to run more workshops and teach people how to make dolls face to face. There is nothing more special than making a doll for your own child and I would really love to help and encourage more people to try their hand at it.
In talking to Laura I learnt a lot about the benefits of allowing boys to play with dolls, and it goes way beyond teaching parenting skills. A doll that shows a child how special they are is a very special gift to give and I am sure that Bobby will be enjoying his own little Under Rainbows doll in the future, I would to try my hand at making one from one of Laura's patterns. I wish Laura and her new little one all the best, and hope that Under Rainbows continues to grow an flourish in the future.
If you would like the find out more about Under Rainbows, there are links below to where you can find Laura and her dolls:
Under Rainbows on Etsy: https://www.etsy.com/uk/shop/UnderRainbows?ref=pr_shop_more
Under Rainbows on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Under-Rainbows-171652652869706/
Under Rainbows Blog: http://nestledunderrainbows.blogspot.co.uk/