Tattooed Lady Dolls for Grown Ups

by Grace Evans


I was at the Brooklyn Renegade Craft Fair two weeks ago and among the usual abundance of prints, jewelry and t-shirts, I saw something that made me stop in my tracks: Mimi Kirchner’s beautiful tattooed lady dolls.


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Styled in the dress of circus performers or flappers, toile-print fabric makes up their arms and legs, marking their cloth bodies with detailed tattoos. Their clothing is carefully detailed, sewn from vintage fabrics and collected notions. One doll wears a red and yellow snake wrapped around her body, a pinstriped corset-style top, black shorts and red boots. She looks like a circus performer. A red-haired flapper wears an oversized yellow bow on the side of her head and an old-fashioned swimming costume. I’m drawn to Kirchner’s dolls because they look tough. They are not dolls of frilly lace; some of them are clothed in flowing dresses or skimpy tops, but they have sturdy looking legs, confident expressions and charming character. They look like they’ve had whole lives to tell stories about, rather having spent their years as objects sitting on a shelf.


Kirchner has been drawn to dolls since she was a little girl. After a brief stint making art dolls in college – including a life size portrait of herself as a bumper car, she worked as a potter for twenty years until the building that housed her studio burned down. Kirchner tried her hand at other art forms such as painting and printmaking but it was with doll making that she found her calling: “Once I started, everything else dropped away,” Kirchner wrote on her blog. “I love the 3-d, the materials, the high level of craftsmanship that has grown for me. I love turning a flat piece of fabric into something with life.”

In 2000 Kirchner began to focus on doll making. She found real inspiration in the fabric and sewing paraphernalia she cleared out from her parents’ house, and in 2005 she began to incorporate rescued fabrics and embroidery into her work. The subjects of Kirchner’s dolls are entirely based on what she is interested in working on at the time. Since she doesn’t take orders of commissions she is always working on a piece that she is in love with, from little girls and swaddled babies to foxes and tattooed ladies.

I asked Kirchner about the tattooed ladies and she told me, “The original idea for doing a tattooed doll was sparked by a woman with a tree tattoo on her back. I thought for a long time about how to make a doll with tattoos. I thought about and experimented with embroidery. I thought about drawing on the fabric with permanent markers. Then it dawned on me that I could use fabric that is printed with drawing-like images: toile. Once I had that insight, I designed and started making the tattooed men. It was another two years before I made the tattooed ladies, after many requests.”


 Her process is one of care and consideration. To make a tattooed lady doll, Kirchner first must locate the right fabric. She finds most of her fabric on Ebay or Etsy. Once she’s decided what fabrics she’d like to use, she over-dyes the plain and toile-printed fabric flesh tone. She sketches out her idea on paper and makes muslin models to get the right shape, which she almost always tweaks. Kirchner traces the parts of the original model to create the pattern pieces for the torso, shirt, breasts, pants, boots, arms and hands. Next she sews all of the separate pieces together and turns the doll inside out to stuff. At this point the basic doll is complete and Kirchner can add the details.

First the breasts get sewed on with a ladder stitch in neat circles on the chest, and the face carefully sketched on with a water-soluble marker. Kirchner styles the lady doll’s hair with a sketch and a pattern, and pins it on before sewing it in place. She carefully stitches the face on and stuffs the arms, stitches the fingers and attaches the limbs to shoulders.

The details are amazing. Just look at the hair on this lady:


At this point it’s all accessories, and she plays with a bias-tape belt or a hair bow. Kirchner told me, “The tattooed ladies are fun because I can play with their clothing and the hair-dos. Every doll is one-of-a-kind and presents it’s own little puzzle, such as how to make a bobbed hairstyle. It is those little puzzles that keep me challenged.”

Besides tattooed ladies, some of the other things Kirchner sews include little landscapes nestled in teacups that she calls “tiny worlds,” snuggly owls, swaddled babies and very smart-looking animals. Like Professor fox, who wears an olive green herringbone wool jacket with suede patches on the elbows and carries a leather briefcase. In 2010 alone, Kirchner made 27 tiny worlds, 31 fish, 14 swaddled babies, 8 tattooed ladies, 15 girls, 21 tattooed guys, 11 cats, 4 foxes and 9 owls working full time on her dolls.

I’m just in love with the craftsmanship and character of Kirchner’s dolls. You can see more of Kirchner’s work at her Etsy shop and on her blog, Doll.



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