Don’t worry, we can mend her – Ellie’s Doll Workshop
Lorraine Gibson enters a world where 'kissing it better' is replaced by professional repairs: Ellie's Doll Workshop
Published in November ’12
Limbs of all shapes and sizes piled high in corners, headless torsos hanging from hooks and there’s an eyeless head perched on a shelf. It is not a horror movie’s special effects department into which we’ve wandered, rather it is a behind-the-scenes peek into Ellie’s Doll Workshop: Dorset’s only surviving doll’s hospital, in fact one of only a few remaining across the UK.
The demise of traditional traders in our towns and villages is well documented, though a determined band of retailing stalwarts have bucked this trend so it’s not unusual to see a butcher, a baker and even a chandler holding their own alongside chain-stores on our high streets. However, the doll’s hospital has grown so scarce that one would be hard-pushed to find such a gem anywhere, and yet there’s one on our doorstep and it’s positively thriving.
Ellie’s Doll Workshop is a living, breathing blast from the past, where rag-tag teddies, over-loved dolls and unstrung puppets come, not to end their days, but to begin them again. And the puppet-masters behind the counter are married couple Lesley and Mike Edwards, who eat, sleep and breathe their work, living over the shop, which is to be found in the last parade on the left as you head out of Kinson along Wimborne Road towards Bear Cross.
Their previous backgrounds in science and engineering seem at odds with how they make their living now; Lesley, who has a degree in biology, worked in underwater weaponry, while Mike, whose degree is in computer science, tested space satellites. Yet it is the skills learnt in these former careers that make them experts at mending, restoring, and reproducing old toys.
Lesley joined a doll-making class merely to while away the evenings while working on a project away from home. She was instantly hooked and soon, too, was Mike. Now he manages the raw materials, overseeing mouldings, running the kilns and mixing and blending the slip (the powder which becomes the ceramic glazes) as passionately as a master baker would the ingredients for a cake.
‘We’re not artists,’ he says, ‘we’re artisans. We use our skills to get the basics right, like the textures, the materials, the stringing. I do the heavy work, Lesley does the intricate stuff.’
And intricate it is. One minute fixing a button no bigger than full-stop to a teddy’s dungarees, the next re-painting the eyelashes on a fragile antique doll, using a brush that is, by definition, finer than the lash it creates. Lesley is passionate about the history of old toys, especially dolls.
‘Forgive me if I get nerdy,’ she laughs, then waxes lyrical on dolls and their social history: ‘Take this one,’ she says, pointing a cardboard crate that once held fruit, and now cradles what appears to be a hopelessly ruined doll, ‘she’s lovely, made somewhere between 1913 and 1928.’
‘It looks bad, but she has most of her original parts,’ Lesley says, holding up a crooked wire with a red stopper on the end (‘her tongue’) and another from which two unadorned eyeballs stare disconcertingly. ‘We can restore her…, she’ll look beautiful, but before that, I need to undo a few “repairs”.’
Lesley, who has won numerous doll-making awards and who is a widely respected teacher of the craft, refers to a leg section that’s back-to-front and a knee ball-socket, jammed too far into said leg: ‘How can she possibly bend her knees to sit, poor thing!’
The other knee ball is missing but Mike, also a prize-winning doll maker – as a chap, that is a bit of a rarity – finds one in their ‘box of bits’, a treasure trove of obscure parts acquired over the last sixteen years.
Lesely slots what looks like a Germoline-pink golf ball into the leg, which is still sporting its original lace footwear, pops a thigh on top and suddenly there’s a functioning limb for ‘girl in a box’.
‘I ask owners to write down the history of their dolls. It helps me a little, but the real reason is that they learn its past and are more likely to treasure it hand down through the generations.’
But is there enough business to keep this olde-worlde emporium going? ‘Oh, yes, we are always busy,’ says Mike. Lesley adds: ‘ We’re the only shop of our kind in the area. I think the next nearest is in Canterbury. The Edinburgh one closed, so we get enquiries and packages from all over the country.’
To prove this, a lumpy package that arrived in the morning’s post contains their first ‘patient’ of the day, a pretty German antique doll, with some of her original clothing, though sadly minus her bald head, which is tucked down by her legs.
‘Lots of people come for our workshops and for doll-making items but most of our week is taken up with repairs, restorations and technical advice,’ says Lesley.
The next casualty is Marigold, a plastic baby doll, circa 1950, whose arm has come off. ‘We’ll fix her in no time.’ The owner is delighted to have someone who appreciates her treasured childhood chum. While Marigold is registered, the door-bell ‘chings’ and in comes Lois Brown, an amateur doll maker who has travelled especially from Gosport. Having been given a kiln as a present she needs help. ‘I’m just starting out,’ she says, ‘and I don’t really know what I want.’ The Edwards become more animated than usual and suddenly all talk is of the properties of slip, the merits of kilns, the alchemy of firing and the best brush to use when painting eyes. Among the many memorable items they’ve ‘nursed’ over the years was an unusual, 1908 Japanese doll. ‘Interestingly we were allies at the time and people didn’t buy German dolls,’ says Mike.
But Lesley’s dream visitor is a rare Henri Chevrot Bru doll from the 1880s. ‘They are technically perfect,’ she explains, ‘yet leave plenty to the imagination, which is what all toys should do, after all.
• Ellie’s Doll Workshop is at 1526 Wimborne Road, Kinson, Bournemouth, BH11 9AF. For more information visit www.elliesdolls.co.uk or call 01202 572626.