Fabric Faces: The Sculptural Beauty of Hally Levesque’s Historical Dolls

Dresser-top Duchesses

I love dolls, especially fashion dolls. I love costuming them just as much as I like costuming myself! Dolls are one of the most ancient toys and have been made in just about every material possible. Before the 20th century, fashion dolls were made of wood covered in gesso (a thick, white paint) and were used less like little girl’s playthings and more like mini mannequins that showed off the latest fashions, called “pandoras.” Other dolls were made from cloth, like this rare 16th century pandora in Stockholm’s Royal Armory with embroidered features and real human hair!

Pandora fashion doll, circa 1585-90

Today, fashion dolls have evolved. There are many types of fashion dolls made in a wide variety of hard materials like resin, thermoplastics, and porcelain. However, the fashion dolls made by Hally Levesque are made of meticulously sculpted fabric with delicately painted features, just like their antique counterparts! Hally’s dolls have such a charming, friendly elegance about them and I fell in love with her Etsy shop the moment I found it! Every doll she creates is thoroughly researched and has a personality all her own. I am especially impressed with how perfectly scaled all of the trims and accessories are. Here are some of her stunning creations:

Anne (c. 1530)

Margaret (c. 1560)

Hally doesn’t limit herself to a single era, but rather explores the costumes of many centuries and countries. For example, the cloth doll that originally piqued her interest was a medieval princess in a book on cloth dollmaking. Her own version is quite stunningly dressed in a houppelande and imposing gold escoffion:

Felice (c. 1440)

And any Georgian woman would be envious of this lovely Georgian beauty out for a springtime stroll in her lovely polonaise:

Susannah (c. 1779)

What impresses me most about all of Hally’s dolls is that she takes the time to carefully research and design their outfits and personas. According to her online bio, just as a human-sized costume looks best over proper support garments, each of Hally’s dolls are “costumed from the inside out (meaning that the undergarments are also constructed according to historical records).”

I was so dazzled by her level of skill and dedication, I asked her a few questions about her creative process and she was kind enough to oblige!

Maxine (c. 1928)

Question: What made you decide to focus on historical dolls? Do you have a favorite era of history that you like to draw from?

Hally Levesque: Well, I’ve always had a love of history – in fact, it was my favorite subject in high school. I believe it all began with reading my mother’s collection of historical fiction novels by Jean Plaidy. I quickly became fascinated with British history and particularly the medieval and renaissance periods. In fact, I still can’t get enough when it comes to reading about the romances and tragedies that plagued the royal houses of England – very few can outdo the Plantagenets and the Tudors on that score! My main passion; however, has been dolls and so it seemed perfectly natural for me to gravitate towards making dolls that represent my other interests. Besides being a history buff, I also enjoy sewing and was curious to find out how clothing from other periods was constructed and just what was going on under all that material!

Marie Claire (c. 1755)

Question: I admit that I’m a “chaotic creator”– I usually follow my latest fancy wherever (or whenever) it goes, so I often find myself getting “lost” in projects: either I have too many at once or I get frustrated, burnt out, or just can’t find the inspirational spark. How do you decide what you are going to make next and how do you stay the course?

Hally Levesque: I wish that I could say that it’s easy for me to stay focused but it’s not and I think that it comes with the territory of being a creative person. I get distracted all of the time. I am constantly inspired by other doll artists and there seems to be no end to the different types of dolls that I would like to make. Quite often ideas for other dolls will flow while I am working on a project and I have to allow that to happen. It’s all part of the creative process. At one time I would finish one doll project before starting another, but now I have no problem with setting a project aside temporarily to start on something new that really intrigues me.
However, to avoid having a bunch of unfinished dolls waiting in the wings, I do make a deal with myself to the effect that it’s okay for me to start another project providing that as soon as I get to a certain stage, I will go back and finish the other. For instance, I have started making an Elizabethan cloth doll and two mixed-media dolls (one’s a pirate and the other I am making for a doll almanac that will be published later this year), but had to set them aside to make a medieval doll for submission to a doll challenge and to make some primitive-style cloth dolls for an arts festival. In the meantime, I am just beginning to play with ideas for a new series of dolls.
Now I’ve had to make a “deal” with myself that I can’t do any more work on the new doll series until the mixed-media dolls are completed. As for the Elizabethan doll, she will probably have to wait a while longer. I’ve joked with my husband that sometimes I wish that I could clone myself so that I could bring to fruition all of the ideas for dolls that I’ve already started and the new ones that are still swimming around in my head.

Tatiana – The Russian Ballerina
One of the hand-sculpted dolls from Hally Levesque’s mixed-media series.

Question: Where do you get your inspiration from? Are there any books, websites, or techniques you recommend?

Hally Levesque: I get my inspiration mostly from historical illustrations and movies. I was fortunate in that I worked at a university with access to a vast library. Over the years I have accumulated a pile of information on historical costuming, but the majority of it has been photocopied (this was back before copyright became such a huge issue) and so sadly I don’t have the names of the books from which they were taken. However, when it comes to making Tudor clothing there is an absolutely superb book called “The Tudor Tailor: Techniques and patterns for making historically accurate period clothing” by Ninya Makhaila and Jane Malcolm-Davies. I came across it at a library and absolutely had to have a copy of my own. I used this book in making “Anne” and “Catherine”. Another great book is “Period Costumes for Stage and Screen” by Jean Hunnisett, although the instructions can be a bit daunting as they are intended for the highly experienced sewer. I have plans to make an Elizabethan doll at some point and will be using her book as a guideline. A website that I have referred to many times in the past for information is the Costumer’s Manifesto.

Catherine (c. 1536)
“A lady of the royal court, Catherine’s high station is evident in her composure as well as the richness of her dress. This is a woman accustomed to being obeyed, but with a quiet authority and goodness of heart that earns her the love and admiration of all.”

Be sure to check out Hally Levesque’s Etsy Shop, Creative Doll Works to see more of her stunning art dolls! She is also working on a doll project for Cult of Doll (you can see a sneak peek at her entry here).

artists supporting artists

Don’t be afraid of art: share it!
If you know a deserving artist, support their craft any way you can: word of mouth, social media, donations, purchases, or even just a kind word of encouragement! Art keeps the world beautiful.

A big THANK YOU to Hally for creating such inspiring work and graciously taking the time to answer my questions!

Hat Trick: Turn a Placemat into an 18th Century Hat in Three Steps

Alternate Title:
Le Chapeau Rusé – Using Bad French to Disguise Excellent Hat Trickery

To complement my Robe pas Cher and to ensure that I was suitably dressed for an outdoor excursion, I needed a hat to wear for Georgian Picnic. In addition, I had sorely neglected the past, oh, ten or so Historical Sew Fortnightly challenges and I wanted a good stepping stone project to get back on track.

Enter Le Chapeau Rusé!

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I had plunged myself so deeply into making a suitable costume for Christopher that by the time I got around to my own costume, I was a little burnt out and very very far behind schedule. I managed to eek out a wearable muslin from my test pattern, but I always feel under-dressed without accessories, so I decided I needed a hat. I didn’t have time to order one and I had foolishly missed out on all the post-Halloween sale merchandise. However, there was no need to worry because I had long ago discovered this post about placemat hats by the Thread-Headed Snippet:

threadheaded

With a title like that, how could I resist?

Inspired by Miss Snippet’s thrifty, simple solution to my problem, I set out to make my own version.

What follows is the three basic steps to making a super-cheap 18th century “Chapeau Rusé” out of an old placemat.

1. Pick a Proper Placemat

15 inches is a good, easy-to-find placemat size, but if you can find larger rounds, they’ll work as well. Hats were rather sizable during the 18th century, so don’t be shy!

If you can find genuine straw placemats, more power to you! Mine was a completely fake polypropylene straw placemat I found for $1 at Garden Ridge (the picture is the same brand on Amazon). Fake straw placemats have the advantage of being very springy and forgiving, but they are not historically accurate in the least. Real grass or straw mats are more period appropriate, but straw can be brittle and crack, so how you plan to wear the placemat/hat dictates which material is more suitable. While a natural, tawny straw color is a safe choice for both materials, almost any color of placemat will work as long as it matches your outfit (though I’d avoid brighter colors if you want an authentic look). Also, if it has bands of decorative braiding or a little extra color woven in, that’s perfectly fine for an 18th century hat.

2. Settle on a Shape

18th century hats for ladies come in many shapes and sizes, but the quintessential mid-century hat is the bergère, a wide brimmed hat with a low crown:

“Portrait of Eleanor Frances Dixie” by Henry Pickering, circa 1753

This is the type of hat the Thread Headed Snippet made her placemat into; it is also the shape I chose for Becky’s hat. Originally, I was planning on making another bergère hat for myself, but I was horrendously jealous of Christopher’s tricorne, so I decided to make a folded straw hat which, while more uncommon, was not unheard of:

“Portrait of a Lady in a Straw Hat” by by Christian Wilhelm Ernst Dietrich, mid-18th century

Another option is a giant D-shaped hat, like these:

“Portrait of Lady Elizabeth Foster” by Angelika Kauffmann, circa 1785

D shaped Hat

D-Shaped Dutch Straw Hat, 18th century

If you can find a big enough straw mat or if you want to make a smaller version, just carefully cut off one edge of your placemat and finish it with glue, or when you decorate your hat, place the “crown” closer to one edge.

If you were lucky enough to find a real straw mat, you can even reshape it to have a crown. My fake straw placemat, however, wasn’t malleable in the manner traditional straw is, but it folded beautifully. To figure out the shape I wanted, I held the folds in place with pins so I could adjust the placement and size as needed before I tacked everything into place with sturdy stitches. You will find that pliers are exceptionally helpful to get a needle through all that plastic!

Once you settled on a shape, add ties so your hat won’t fall off. Most 18th century straw hats had ribbon ties that were secured to the underside of hat near the place where the brim and the crown connect:

Hat Ribbons

Bergère Hat, 18th century

I used 48 inches of 7/8″ grosgrain ribbon for mine, but most ribbon between 1/2″ and 3″ wide will work:

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 For flat hats, the farther from the center of the hat you sew your ribbon, the more bowed downward and bonnet-shaped your hat will become. If you want the hat to lie fairly flat on your head, I recommend tacking the ribbon down 3-4 inches from the center on each side. Use pins to hold the ribbon in place before you sew it on so you can fiddle with how the hat will sit on your head.

3. Decorate!

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Real straw placemats pretty much become suitable hats the instant you apply the ribbon in Step 2, but without decorations, a synthetic straw placemat hat will look like you’re wearing..well..a placemat, so don’t be too miserly when it comes to trimming.  There are infinite ways to decorate your hat. Popular trims include:

Poufs of fabric or ribbon
Bows
Flowers and wheat
Feathers and plumes
Embroidery/appliques
Fabric and Coverings

I chose to use fabric scraps left over from my dress to create ruffled white trim and two types of bows from pinked purple fabric (I love saying “pinked purple” out loud, no matter how many weird looks it earns me!).

I used a large bow called a Double Ruffle to trim the back:

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I found the free tutorial on the wonderful Ribbon Retreat website which has plenty of other tutorials for different styles of bows. I was also inspired by the Flower Loop bow because it reminded me of 18th century cockades, so I made two for each side of my hat and put a silvery button in the center of each for a little textural contrast (all the fabric and ruffles gets a little too fluffy for me sometimes and I need to balance it out with a harder edge).

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To turn a placemat into a bergère, add a small circle of puffed ribbon to create the illusion of a minute crown. Otherwise, trim, trim, trim until you can’t see the straw anymore or leave it fairly plain with only a bit of ribbon or a light net veil— it’s up to you!

More 18th Century Lady’s Hat Resources

18th Century Women’s Hats” research collection at Larsdatter – Great for inspiring your creativity. This site is downright amazing!
How to make an 18th century hat. A tutorial in pictures.” by Dressed in Time – Sew your own hat from scratch.
An 18th Century Hat” by The Fashionable Past – How to cover a straw hat with pleated silk.
Tutorial: How to turn a straw sunhat into an 18th century bergére” by The Dreamstress – Exactly what the title says!
The Amazing Crafthat Pt. Deux : Finishing!” by American Duchess – How add a stylish, floppy fabric crown to a straw hat.

..and this.

HSF Stats

“Le Chapeau Rusé” – 18th Century Folded Straw Hat

The Challenge: #23 Gratitude
Fabric: White cotton and purple polysatin scraps
Pattern: None
Year: 1760-1780
Notions: Poly cotton thread, buttons, grosgrain ribbon, and I guess the placemat would count as a notion???
How historically accurate is it? 40% It is entirely handsewn and trimmed with appropriate trimmings inspired by extant examples, but it’s made from a faux straw (read: plastic) placemat.

I am grateful to: The Thread Headed Snippet for sharing her placemat hat (http://threadheaded.blogspot.com/2012/08/so-you-want-hat-but-you-have-will-power.html) and Ribbon Retreat for their free bow tutorials (http://www.theribbonretreat.com/Catalog/free-hairbow-instructions.aspx)

Hours to complete: 3 hours
First worn: In my bathroom for fitting, but officially at Georgian Picnic in the park
Total cost: $1 for the placemat, 50 cents for the buttons, $2.50 for the ribbon

I must disclaim that my French is limited to what I remember from an old library book I read in 6th grade and what Google translate can help me piece together. Many 18th century fashions came from France and thus had French names, so in that tradition, I decided to play around a bit with giving my cheeky 18th century creations equally cheeky French names (unless you are fluent in French; then you are council to all my poorly-translated secrets)!