The beloved folk-art cloth dolls known generally as “Izannah Walker Dolls” were made in the mid-1800s in New England. Izannah Walker received a patent for her doll making process in 1873. By then, Izannah and her sister had already been producing dolls for decades. Others made similar dolls, but since most of the dolls are unsigned, all dolls of this style and era are characterized as “Izannah Walker” dolls. Some experts estimate that Izannah and her family may have made as many as 3,000 dolls, yet there are few surviving records of the woman or her business. The charming dolls must speak for themselves.
An Izannah Walker doll has a cloth body and a rigid head made from cloth, stuffing, and glues that are pressed into an iron mold and hardened. Shell-like ears are attached afterwards and the hairstyle and facial features are painted with oil paints. The cloth body is painted to match. Many dolls also had the boots painted right onto the legs. They have distinctive hands with a separate thumb which makes the hand more realistic and elegant than the mitten-like hand that most cloth dolls have.
There are excellent photos of the doll’s unique body construction on The Izannah Walker Chronicles website: http://www.izannahwalkerchronicles.com/2012/03/more-pictures-of-izannah-walker-doll-at.html These detailed images are especially helpful for recreating an Izannah doll.
The dolls were modelled and dressed like middle class girls of the day and were meant for play. They were more durable and relatable than the imported bisque dolls and resembled a real playmate for real girls. You can find many vintage images of little girls and their Izannah dolls. This lovingly restored photograph is especially wonderful.
The look of the dolls can vary quite a bit because they were made over several decades in different versions of molds, they were hand-painted, and much of the crafting was done by Izannah’s family and pieceworkers in the community. They range in size from 16” – 26”. They are highly coveted by collectors of Americana, folk art, and women’s history items, as well as by doll collectors. Most show the ravages of time and play, but collectors generally appreciate the “patina” of age and wear.
Izannah Walker dolls are very rare. Despite their durability, they were easily destroyed by moisture or pests. Subsequent generations often didn’t recognize the value in a tattered cloth doll with a crackled face, so many of the dolls were probably discarded. Some may have just been loved until they fell apart.
Authentic Izannah walker dolls can sell for several thousand dollars so they are out of the reach of most collectors.
For decades, contemporary doll artists have enjoyed making modern versions of an Izannah Walker doll. Some make faithful reproductions and others are just inspired by the Izannah Walker style. Most artists make one-of-a-kind dolls by sculpting the head out of air dry clay instead of using a mold like Izannah. Dixie Redmond is one such doll artist. She has exhaustively researched authentic Izannah Walker dolls and formulated methods and patterns that you can follow to make your own Izannah Walker reproduction doll. I used Dixie’s excellent patterns and tutorials to make my doll and I highly recommend this resource to others.
You will also love her comprehensive website called “The Izannah Walker Chronicles.” There is a wealth of information and inspiration compiled there: http://www.izannahwalkerchronicles.com/
It is a veritable encyclopedia if you want to learn about the dolls or make one yourself. She links to other resources all over the web so it is your home base for All Things Izannah.
I bought most of my supplies from Gail Wilson Designs. Gail has everything for the cloth doll maker (from inspiration to stuffing) and her customer service is top notch. She also has beautiful kits and patterns.
In my next post, I will share the doll I made. I hope my doll experience will be an inspiration to others who love these dolls and want to make an Izannah style doll. Here is a sneak peak at “Jubilee,” my interpretation of an Izannah Walker doll.
A note of Thanks to Ann Hemmerich of Center City Doll Club of Philadelphia for introducing me to these special dolls.