Liz Conway sheepishly admits that the 13 little ladies she shares her Barrie, Ont. home with are better dressed than she is.
“Their outfits cost more than anything I’ve ever had on my back,” she says of the award-winning porcelain dolls she’s created. Most of their garments are worth hundreds of dollars each – including Mrs. Claus’s, whose Belgian lace dress boasts more than $300 worth of fabric and materials.
“It’s a disease,” the doll-marker says with a sigh.
For the past decade, Ms. Conway has also been working on a dollhouse – complete with flush toilet and electricity – that (so far) has cost her about $7,000. She’s also started on a second, elaborate Victorian-style dollhouse that will have twin Gone With the Wind staircases.
Ms. Conway operates 5-Star Spas, a quality assurance service that inspects and accredits spas that exceed national standards of compliance in terms of facilities, amenities, services and treatments.
In the early 1990s, she attended an arts and crafts show at a local mall when she noticed a display by doll artist Bessie Ann Cardoni and it struck a nostalgic chord. Ms. Conway’s maternal grandmother had taught her how to sew and as a child, she loved to make clothes for her dolls.
“Bessie Ann had this beautiful doll in a glass case that had a blue ribbon, for winning a competition, and that really intrigued me,” says Ms. Conway.
When she found out that Ms. Cardoni taught doll-making, she immediately signed up. At the studio, she and other students would choose a mould for their dolls’ heads, pour liquid porcelain ‘slip’ into the moulds and after it hardened, bake the set porcelain, known as Greenware, at high temperatures in a kiln. Then they’d paint the doll’s faces, select their eyes and wigs, sew the dolls’ outfits and accessorize them.
She had to shell out about $100 for some moulds and $75 a pair for German hand-blown glass eyes.
Since she started doll making, Ms. Conway has created 18 dolls and has given five as gifts to family or friends. She has competed nine times in the annual Doll Artisan Guild competition. It attracts hundreds of delegates from around the world and Ms. Conway has won seven first place ribbons and two second places.
Among her creations are a bride dressed in a replica of her aunt’s 1956 Grace Kelly-style bridal gown Cinderella, a flapper, a boy doll outfitted in 1850 St. Andrew’s golf attire for her golfer brother and several wearing dresses made from doilies her grandmother crocheted.
Then there’s her infamous harlot doll that caused – what she calls – a “ruckus” at a competition for her come-hither look and risqué costume. A piece of black satin Ms. Conway picked up a few years ago gave her the inspiration for her harlot as she figured the material, trimmed with fur, would make a great boudoir outfit for a doll mould she’d picked out that came with a well-endowed figure and high heels.
“One of my friends was in a jewellery store and they had a little bowl of key chains and one had mini handcuffs that actually worked,” says Ms. Conway. “She called me and told me said had the perfect accessory for that doll.”
Despite one contestant’s objection to the bawdy babe, Ms. Conway’s harlot was a competition winner.
“I have never gone into a competition with the attitude that ‘I am going to win this.’ I want to make a doll that’s going to suit me, even knowing some judges have certain preferences. This doll is going to live with me for the rest of my life,” she says.
Another one of her cherished dolls she made for her sister, but unlike the harlot, it didn’t conform to the rules of the competition.
“My sister plays the piano and I found this small replica of a grand piano that you put batteries in and it plays songs. I paid an obscene amount of money for it,” she says. “My sister loves bunnies too, so the doll, who is dressed in magnificent silk, has a bunny under one arm as she plays the piano. But in competition, you can’t have a base for your doll wider than 12 inches and the piano is too long.”
Ms. Conway entered her fourth doll into the Doll of Your Dreams contest sponsored by Doll Crafter magazine and it was one of 10 winners from across the globe. She had dressed the doll in an outfit made from a crocheted cloth she’d purchased at an antique shop for $200.
“I filled in the dress with silk ribbon and spent over $300 on the ribbon alone,” she says. “Then the wig was $75.”
This doll continues to be her favourite not only because its bears a remarkable resemblance to her young granddaughter, but the quest for its dress started her collecting antique lace.
Ms. Conway and four friends she met at the doll studio, regularly venture to Toronto to a fabric store on Queen St., where they search for materials for doll clothes.
“Some fabrics might be $200 a yard, but you justify it by saying ‘but I only need half a yard,’” says Ms. Conway. “We all love and respect the workmanship of fine fabric and working in fine detail as we do, polyester doesn’t fold or drape nicely. When we see a piece of fabric we can’t live without, we have to have it.”
Although Ms. Conway hasn’t competed since the doll studio closed three years ago, she and her friends get together for an annual 10-day getaway at a cottage where they take their sewing machines and sew doll clothes or make accessories.
They’ve also embarked on a new, similarly costly hobby: making ornaments from Swarovski crystals and glass beads – each costs more than $100 to make and can take up to 36 hours.
That doesn’t mean Ms. Conway has retired from doll artisan competitions and plans to have a few more award winners in her collection before she’s finished.
“It’s incredibly exciting when you’re at a competition up on stage and the winner on one side of you might be from Holland and the one on the other side from France. You might not be able to speak each other’ languages, but you have this connection because of doll-making.”
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