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Skill Makes Dolls Pretty as a Picture

The women at the front of the store are perfect. Unlike those in the back, they model custom-made gowns of eyelet and lace. Their hair suggests hours of styling. Their makeup never smudges. Their polish wouldn’t dare chip.

Compared to the women in the back, sweating, squinting, sanding, their denim and polyester obscured in a blizzard of plaster dust, the group lounging by the window looks like little dolls.

They are little dolls.

Dolls by Jacqueline Cichetti and her students, toiling behind the scenes to make their fantasies just right.

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Cichetti, a big woman with blue eyes and flyaway red hair, has hands that are never idle, even after her shop is closed. Once she took a clay head to a poetry reading, sculpting “Becky” between the lines. Another time, she attended a party sewing two tiny pieces of blue velvet that would become pantaloons for “Daniel.”

“Someone came up to me once and said, ‘I can’t believe you make all these different, amazing things. You look so ordinary!’ ” Cichetti gives her full, high laugh, as inseparable from her speech as work is from her fingers, now deftly scraping a porcelain head.

“The world only sees one side, but we are all these things, that pensive one, that romantic, that innocent. And if we don’t think we are, then there’s something missing.”

There certainly isn’t anything missing from her shop, a packed marvel of doll arms, legs, glass eyes, wigs, boxes upon boxes squeezed on shelves extending from the floor to the ceiling. Face paints of blood red, violet; spools of thread; salmon, lime and lavender laces; rhinestones; satin, and embroidered ribbons peek out where they can. Occasional packages of raisins and hot dog rolls are perched as a reminder that unlike their creations, the women in the back do, eventually, get hungry and eat.

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These disembodied parts provide the “sugar and spice” that go into Dolls by Jacqueline. From her workshop in Spring Valley, the 54-year-old Cichetti makes about 100 dolls a year. White, black and Hispanic, she mails them as far away as Hawaii, Alaska and Sierra Leone, in Africa.

Putting Them Together

From four to 21 inches high, they cost anywhere from $100 for reproductions of molds of some commercially made dolls to $425 for one of her own 15 original models, each of which she names, signs, dresses and casts in limited editions.

For most of her life, Cichetti could not have afforded to buy the dolls she now makes.

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Until six years ago, Cichetti, a homemaker, only designed clothes for her four children and their store-bought dolls. Then they grew up, and her marriage of 30 years broke up. She decided to go back to school and get a physics degree at Cuyamaca College.

The physics was fine, but the money soon ran out and she started sewing clothes for someone who made dolls. That partnership dissolved, leaving Cichetti with a lot of doll clothes and nothing to put them on. A store in La Jolla called and wanted a doll with one of her outfits. She took a class and made her first doll. The store, delighted, asked for more.

Hanging On

“So I thought I’d start a business. I didn’t know I needed money. I just did it. I hung on. I didn’t have a dime and, you know, you can’t hang on and you do.

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“I didn’t even have money to get supplies. The children had a piano. I sold the piano. I had a dresser for my son, a little blue dresser I had gotten when he was a baby. There was a bicycle one of the kids had. I sold it all for $500 to $600. I bought my first molds and kiln. With my $75 profit from my first doll, I bought three wigs and another gallon of slip (liquid clay), and I could make a few more dolls.”

She started by making reproductions in her three-bedroom apartment, converting her coffee table into work space. She became friendly with a woman who made her own molds. Cichetti decided she could make them better. She got a book. She listened to doll makers, picked up tidbits of information where she could.

“I figured if someone can do it, why not me? If someone else is doing it, it just means they figured it out before me.”

Because she didn’t have enough money to take additional classes, she continued to teach herself. Now she’s glad she did.

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“I didn’t go with accepted methods. I went by methods that were quicker and more thorough.”

She wanted the arms of her dolls to move separately and to bend at the elbow joints, so she fashioned her own armature of nuts and bolts to maximize flexibility. She wanted the bodies to be soft, with backsides and little swelling bellies, so she devised her own method of stuffing a cloth body that would end in a porcelain head, arms, legs and feet.

Many Enthusiasts

One of the top three hobbies in the United States today, doll collecting butts heads with coins and stamps. San Diego alone hosts 10 doll clubs, the oldest of which, the San Diego Doll Club, dates back 40 years. A former regional director of the United Federation of Doll Clubs estimates there are about 600 enthusiasts in this area, only half of whom are affiliated with an organization.

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Increasingly, collectors are showing interest in dolls as investment art. Antique dolls, those more than 50 years old, may sell in the $1,000 range. But even some of the more recently made dolls, by established names like Mme. Alexander or the Gorham Company, have soared in price from $75 to $2,000 in the last eight years.

Similarly, those who bought one of the original, 1,000 hand-signed pre-Coleco Cabbage Patch dolls may find their $30-150 investment worth as much as $4,000.

But the students who wander into Cichetti’s shop usually do not have such practical reasons for their interest. One woman, a nurse, decided she wanted to make a doll in the image of herself as a baby. She plans to dress it in one of her own infant outfits. Another came to make a doll for her daughter and now, seven dolls later, says she will let her daughter play with them “eventually--when she’s old enough.”

Cichetti takes each of them through the painstaking process of making a doll--11 pieces for a cloth body doll and 16 for a porcelain.

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Getting It Right

First they pour slip into a mold. In three to five minutes, they drain the excess, letting the remainder sit in the mold from a half-hour to 1 1/2 hours, depending on the humidity.

Then they remove the porcelain, now called greenware, and let it air-dry for three days. At this point, they can smooth the bodies with net, emphasize lines with paint brushes and carve two to four teeth from the lips with a stylus. The greenware, only one-sixteenth of an inch thick, is so delicate in its unfired state that a light pressure between forefinger and thumb can smash it into dust.

They paint rosy highlights into the skin and bake the greenware at 2,246 degrees for eight hours. They sand it, oil it, paint in details like eyelashes, eyebrows and lips, then fire it again. If they wish to do fine shadowing, that calls for a third baking.

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In the meantime, they sew the cloth bodies or connect the porcelain ones. They make or buy the clothes, assemble the eyes and the lashes, cover the back of the head with Styrofoam and attach the wig with hot glue.

Executing a design can take Cichetti as little as 15 hours. But creating a doll can take up to six months.

“Sometimes I think about what I’ve done with them,” Cichetti says. " . . . Everything is a memory.”

She points to a boy doll with red curls, a green velvet jacket, a white ruffled shirt. “That was my father,” she says. “His curls were so long that one day his teacher made him go home and get them cut.” She gestures to a fairy sprite, dressed in blossoms and leaves. “That one has my daughter’s feet.”

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“First I think of the face. I see the dress, step by step. I see it falling a certain way. But then I need to find the fabric that will fall a certain way. It has to feel right to the hand. Even if I want a satin, I might feel 20 different pieces--the weight of it, the feel of it, the way it falls over your hand, if it has spring in it. There’s almost an energy in fabric.

“The wrong wig and it’s wrong. The wrong eyes and it’s wrong. The wrong name and it’s wrong. With Francesca, I put her on the table and I said, ‘What’s her name?’ Marsh (a friend) said, ‘That’s Francesca’ and it was. He knew her. It was as if she already existed and that was her.”

Her favorite part of doll making? “I like seeing it finished.” She laughs. “There’s a release at getting it out of you like no feeling in the world.

“Always there’s the little bit you doubt. ‘How is this doll?’ ” she asks as if recounting a familiar conversation.

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“Gorgeous,” she answers.

“No, I don’t mean that. What’s wrong with it?”

“Jackie,” a student calls. “Would you take a look at my eyes?”

Ileana Rodriguez offers Cichetti a porcelain head no bigger than her hand. She points to the thin brown lashes she painted under two almond-shaped vacancies which, after a final baking, will hold the eyes.

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“They’re perfect, Ileana. Except two or three are too light at the end. Give me the brush and the magnifying glass and I’ll darken them for you.”

Finding even the brush too thick, Cichetti uses scissors to sharpen a toothpick, dips it in paint, tries again, this time satisfied.

She hands the head back to Rodriguez, smiles.

Nothing wrong with it now.

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‘I figured if someone can do it, why not me? If someone else is doing it, it just means they figured it out before me.’


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