Wiscon: In Which I Acquire a New Skill


My friend Ellen thinks I can sew.  She’s not altogether wrong; I’m a self-taught seamstress, and as with many other crafts, my greatest talent is that I’m not afraid to try (see Chaz and Karen’s wedding cake).

Ellen and the Motherboard of the Tiptree Award asked if I’d be willing to make an art piece for this year’s Tiptree Award winner.  This year’s winner was Andrea Hairston, and the work in question is her novel Redwood and Wildfire. A book rich with theatre and performance; Hairston herself is a performer and playwright.  So maybe a puppet?  Or a doll?

I gulped and said, “Sure.”

With my co-conspirator, writer, teacher, fabric designer and all-round splendid human Nalo Hopkinson, we decided on a topsy-turvey doll, a sort of storytelling doll that contains two figures.  Since the book has two main characters, Redwood (the beautiful Georgia songstress with hoodoo powers) and Wildfire (Irish-Seminole banjo player) this seemed like a really good way to go.  So: to the internet, to find patterns and examples to work from!

Most of the topsy-turvey dolls I found were two girls (the pattern I based the doll on was of a waking girl on one side and a sleeping one on the other).  Girls are simpler, because the skirt for one doll flips up to reveal the other doll.  In keeping, however, with my policy of never doing anything the simple way, I had a female character and a male character, which was going to take a little jiggering.  Nalo provided the fabric for Redwood’s dress, a lovely conch-shell pattern which she re-sized to something a little closer to scale for a 12″ doll.  Wildfire is described throughout as wearing a coat of Seminole patchwork, and after some jiggering around on Spoonflower I was able to produce a Seminole patchwork fabric scaled appropriately. I was ready to start tailoring; but first, the dolls needed faces:

Following the pattern I traced the shape of the heads, then embroidered faces for the dolls–at this stage the faces look a little bit like the blow-up Auto Pilot from Airplane; I had to have faith that this would get better.

Once I had faces for my dolls, I sewed them to their backs, then stitched the heads to each other, bottom to bottom.  This makes more sense if you’re looking at it: that’s the fully assembled head(s) with one set of arms attached.  The topsy-turvey arrangement becomes clearer here.

Now I had to do some engineering.  In the classic topsy-turvey doll the skirt for the one character flips up revealing the other doll.  I was doing something different, and while I could visualize what I wanted, I couldn’t quite figure out how to achieve it.  Finally I worked out a solution: When flipped over, Redwood’s skirt becomes Aiden’s coat and lining, with his legs stitched under the top of the jacket and… Let’s just say it worked.

After some tailoring fiddling, I was ready to apply hair. For Aiden, this was simply the classic rag-doll yarn hair.  But for Redwood I wanted something more closely approximating the texture of African-American hair.  Nalo suggested trying raw wool (and found me a source on Etsy).  All I had to do was figure out how to apply it.  Fortunately the wool was forgiving, and easy to work with.  With hair in place and the niceties of costume tidied up (lace trim, notched collar for Aiden’s coat, a modified short waist for Redwood’s dress) I turned my attention to the grace notes.

For Redwood this meant her storm hand.  Redwood’s a conjure-woman, and she first gets a sense of this when she gathers and controls a storm with one hand–the hand that is thereafter referred to as her storm hand.  After sketching out and abandoning several ideas, I finally decided on a beaded spiral:

So here are the finished dolls (including, for Wildfire, a tiny banjo.  In a case.  The internet contains everything).  The doll was presented to Andrea Hairston at the Tiptree Award ceremony on Sunday night at Wiscon. 

Okay, now.  Back to writing.



Wiscon: In Which I Acquire a New Skill — 10 Comments

  1. Wow.
    You are an awesome friend, and she will cherish that award forever. I look forward to seeing your name listed as a maker of fascinating primitive 21st century dolls.
    Nalo designs fabric? Fantasy and SF writers are a fascinating bunch!

  2. Nalo designs beautiful fabric. Check out Spoonflower.

    This was an actual commission, which upped the ante: when you’re being paid to do something, you kinda want it to be a good something.

  3. Brenda, we wound up Sunday night at Wiscon standing in the hallway of the party floor riffing a bluesy song called “Doing wrong things with squid…”

    Well you might think this a little odd
    But I’ve got a thing for a cephalopod…
    I been doing wrong things with squid…

    I thought of you. Though you might not find that flattering.

  4. Ha! I knew the Internet would have documentation. Mad, you outdid yourself, it’s beautiful! Did Andrea like it?

  5. Thanks for the documentation–you’ve allowed me to appreciate it even more now. Gorgeous work all round.

  6. Pingback: The Return of the Secret Feminist Cabal: Part Three of the WisCon Recap « Culturally Disoriented

  7. BTW, they’re cowrie shells, not conch shells. Once used as money in some African and Native American nations.