The frustrating thing about my love of knitting, sewing and primitive art and making cloth and rag dolls and other soft sculpture, is that it’s hard to find time to actually do anything of the sort these days.
Anyway, what is primitive you ask? What is a primitive doll? The primitive art genre encompasses a folk art and naive simplicity in cloth rendition. The primitive artist’s goal is to replicate dolls of early days, of the depression eras when life and art was less sophisticated and money was short. People lacked skills and supplies and ‘made-do’ with what was available. Basically they were frugal utilitarians. A good starting place to learn more about this style of art is Krystal Norton’s article Why? What is Primitive Anyway? I’m simply elaborating on her summary in this post.
I first discovered this type of art when living in the USA where visions of that country’s history are reflected in the early dolls especially rag dolls including mammy dolls.
Of course dolls made from cloth or other available materials were not confined to America. Dolls in some form or another were a part of early family life in most countries including Australia. And cloth was not the only medium used.
Despite the hardship of the times, despite a naive and simplistic style, early handmade dolls, bears and other cloth items and make-dos were made with care and devotion. A mother made a doll or a bear for a child or an ornament or a ‘make-do’ with love and dedication. The child cherished the raggedy doll for years often wearing it out. The dolls were washed again and again, repaired again and again. They became tattered, grubby and raggedy but always loved.
The trick for the primitive artist today is in recreating this simplistic, ‘make-do’ style and character. It is in engendering a feeling of history, simplicity and a sense of the past. Made with the right character and patina, a primitive doll arouses a sense of whimsy and nostalgia, a sense of home and home-made. It reminds us of a simpler time.
The dolls were made from scraps of fabric including rags, blankets, clothes, sticks, paper mache and clay. It was about frugality, no waste and to ‘make-do’.
Stuffed with rags, straw, sawdust, rice, wool and so forth, some had plain faces, some rough and crude while others had soft and pretty faces. Amish dolls had plain faces.
These old items revealed years of wear and tear including repairs and patching often with mismatched fabric and stitching. Naturally, they ended up with a worn and rustic patina, yellowed, brown and dirty looking.
These dolls and toys were often made with incorrect perspective and were lopsided. They were crooked, floppy or stiff with rough and uneven stitching and they sometimes had stick legs and arms or mismatched eyes often made from buttons. Yet they could be charming and whimsical.
Living in the USA brings seasonal changes with historical significance manifested in uniquely American ways. I especially love the fall (autumn), a season of harvest, festivals and Halloween. Fall means pumpkins, squash, gourds, corn and maize. It brings witches, goblins, ghouls and ghosts. It means carving the pumpkins! It’s a time for trick or treating when candy and costumes reign especially for the children (and most adults as well!).
November is a beautiful time for Thanksgiving and family togetherness and the guillotining of thousands of turkeys!
December means winter, the cold and Christmas. Depending on location it can be a cold, wet, icy or a snowy white Christmas.
Putting up the tree is always special. For me it’s the rich vibrancy of the northern hemisphere seasons and what they mean in the USA and how that unique sentiment is expressed and enjoyed. The period from October to December is a busy, head spinning time of fun, shopping and craft fairs, of friends and family, of holidays, of giving and giving thanks and of prayers and celebration.
We had a few Christmases at Gatlinburg in the Great Smoky Mountains in north- east Tennessee. To get to and from our rented chalet in the mountains we had to put chains on the car tyres without which we would not have driven the steep, icy, snow covered roads.
In Australia the seasons are reversed meaning Christmas is in the summer and the fall is in March, April and May. I grew up in Australia and love our southern hemisphere Christmases whether at the beach, or on the shady vine covered veranda like here at home at Angaston. But the USA’s rendition of these special times has a special place in my heart. I have lived on the north side of earth and the south and my heart is in both places, always torn between the two.
It remains a sort of happy/sad head space for me. I’m in two head spaces I guess, living in one place while missing the other where in each I have family, friends and colleagues. Ugh!
As you can see here, olde witchy is a very primitive lady, a witch of the woods holding her friend and companion, old crow. Witchy is grungy, torn and tattered as expected for an ugly old witch living in the woods. She’s long at about 92 cm or 3′ in length. I’ve attached a hanger at the back for displaying as you see here on the old door.
This olde witch is a doll for displaying in a rustic setting especially in the autumn and winter months or around Halloween in October.
Autumn in the Barossa Valley (March/April/May) means the end of grape picking, end of vintage, end of harvest. It’s a time to enjoy the fruits of a hard year’s work, the rich bounty of grapes and wine to come. It’s a time for vintage festivals, for celebration and to stock up for the long cold winter.
O Autumn. Laden with fruit, and stained With the blood of the grape, pass not, but sit Beneath my shady roof, there thou may’st rest, And tune thy jolly voice to my fresh pipe; And all the daughters of the year shall dance, Sing now the lusty song of fruits and flowers. -William Blake-
The witch looks great in a rustic themed vignette hanging on an old chair or cupboard or out on the veranda. Or hang her on an old door as you see in this image. Display her in a window with a few gourds, pumpkins and maize or some pine cones with twigs and leaves or even some vine cuttings. Add a bit of straw or sawdust even more crows!
Her body, old crow and hat are made from heavily dyed and aged cotton calico (muslin). I used various mediums and techniques for heavily aging and staining her. She’s stuffed with poly fill to make her light (for hanging).
The old crow features a weathered, aged and worn body also a grubby brown-black colour. Crow has a crooked and slightly hooked beak in faded ochre shades. He has little rusty bells for eyes.
You can see I’ve twisted and curled witch’s hat adding rusty wire and string embellishments. I unravelled her twined hair a little for the dishevelled look.
Straw broom is simply a stick to which I attached fine bits of straw tied with string.
The crooked and tattered dress with worn out hem is perfect for the old witch. Bare feet of course.
The tattered, stained and grunged muslin fabric of her gown.
Witch holds on tight to her crow, her best friend.
I hand sculpted her features giving her a pinched and crooked nose, mismatched eyes made from dark coloured thread oddments and a lopsided mouth using rough over stitch and cross stitch applied crookedly. Not the most attractive old lady by any means, my inspiration for witchy came from a design by Kentucky Primitives.
The patching on this part of her torn dress didn’t really work did it. Looks like witch tried to repair the tear herself using a rusty safety pin and button. She needs a patch. She needs a new outfit.
Close up of hat. Very aged, grubbied and worn.
Old crow is her true friend and companion in the woods, her soul mate.
I make all sorts of soft sculptured rustic dolls not just grungy or witch type dolls. With Christmas and Halloween coming perhaps I can (I hope) create some appropriate items including Santa dolls, gingerbread men, trees, ornaments and other smalls. Perhaps some witches and primitive sheep. I love the early primitive sheep especially the German putz style sheep. While I can’t replicate them, I am inspired to make a style of naive little sheep using cloth. Something about these little beings gathered together on the cupboard under candle light or with a Christmas tree. Yes, if only there was time ….