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Waldorf dolls: an anti-consumerist icon for $700?

Whimsical and wholesome, Waldorf dolls provoke a Cabbage Patch-style frenzy


 
An anti-consumerist icon for $700?

Photograph by Jenna Marie Wakani

There’s no doubt the American Girl doll, with her moulded plastic limbs and head, cloth body and shiny, synthetic hair, has a hold on the imaginations of young girls. Children flock to the company’s Fifth Avenue flagship store in Manhattan to buy one that looks like them. Blonds go for blonds, brunettes for brunettes, and so on. They then take their toys to the dolly hair salon before heading to the in-house café.

The Waldorf doll is meant to be the anti- thesis of all this. Whereas American Girl is a megabrand owned by Mattel and propagated globally via the usual consumer channels, the Waldorf doll is the anti-brand, a grassroots phenomenon spread by word of mouth. “They’re not made in China,” said Petra London, a mother of two in Calgary who was first drawn to the dolls because she couldn’t buy anything like it at the toy store. “I wanted something that wasn’t the same old plastic.” Her family now has about 16 of them, some of them gifts.

She has a small collection compared to others who have dozens of the cloth dolls, which doll makers around the world craft painstakingly, stuffing them with shearling wool, knotting their yarn hair by hand and stitching their whimsical outfits. This style of doll was created in the 1920s to complement the Waldorf pedagogy—an alternative approach to education first articulated in Germany by the legendary Rudolf Steiner. The dolls are made with natural materials that please the senses and have few facial features so kids use their imaginations when they play. A search of the online arts-and-crafts market Etsy yields more than 10,000 results from artisans as far away as Latvia and Australia, selling Waldorf-inspired creations. A Tokyo seamstress even offers Waldorf-doll kimonos.

It is more common for parents in Europe to buy their children Waldorf dolls, which typically cost at least $150 online. Here, fewer people know of the dolls, but those who do go crazy for them. Though they look wholesome and are embraced by an educational counterculture, Waldorf dolls provoke a frenzy reminiscent of Cabbage Patch dolls in the 1980s.

Doll makers can’t keep up with demand from North American buyers. Artisans such as Nancy McLaughlin of Dragonfly’s Hollow in Denton, Texas, post their next sale date on their website, which they call the “upload.” Then consumers from around the world wait by their computers to try to be the first to click through to buy one at the right time. When McLaughlin auctioned off a limited-edition doll she made with fairy wings and a leather corset, it sold for $1,775. “It is a huge global market,” said McLaughlin. “Just huge.”

One of the hottest Waldorf-style dolls out there is the Bamboletta (price tag: $245), a modernized version of the original and sporting hair made from multicoloured yarn. They’re made on Vancouver Island in a studio run by Christina Platt, who, until recently, couldn’t make enough dolls to satisfy the market. At the height of the Bamboletta’s popularity, doll speculators would compete to buy them, then resell them online for up to $700. Platt now employs 10 people in her studio, as well as 30 stay-at-home mothers in her community to sew for her in order to make the 100 dolls a week she sells—but customers still must wait for an upload to get one. “Some people collect Louis Vuitton bags and some people collect these dolls,” she said. “I struggle with it, but I’m also a business and have had to come to terms with it.”

It may be more than consumer culture that fuels the desire for the doll. “It really is a lost piece of childhood,” said Platt. “These dolls don’t propel little girls into adulthood and that’s what’s special.” For Monika Aebischer, a Toronto artist who makes exquisite versions and teaches others the skills, it’s the care that’s put into each doll. “People are getting the 20 hours of my life that I spend making one,” she said. “It’s not a throwaway thing.”

That spirit can bring people together. There have been instances in Canada when a child’s doll has been burned in a house fire. When word gets out, people pitch in to replace it. Said Aebischer, “It’s giving a child something truly beautiful.” Even if she already has a few dozen.

See more of Jenna Marie Wakani’s photos of Monika Aebischer’s dolls:


 
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Waldorf dolls: an anti-consumerist icon for $700?

  1. Point of Waldorf, missed entirely by those who feed the frenzy and forget why they started making these dolls in the first place. Sad to see the slow “simplicity” of the toy robbed from less affluent children by the desire for more riches and more fame, fast. #fail

    • Hand made is not cheap, unless it comes from third world countries. Those are not designer bags, they are artistic creations with soul. Go b…. on a different forum.

    • While I agree with your first sentence, Vera, the art of making cloth dolls is nothing that the Waldorf pedagogy movement has invented, it is a traditional way of making cloth dolls which has its roots in traditional German doll making techniques. A lot of cloth doll makers do not even call their dolls waldorf dolls, but due to a lack of knowledge, a large group of people would consider these dolls being waldorf dolls simply due to the fact that they are made from fabric and wool.

      I work full time as a doll maker, it is my profession. The best doll that a child can play with is a doll that a mother has made for her child, no question. This is what I
      encourage in my classes.

      Charging a lot of money for a doll does not always mean that a doll maker wants to get famous or rich. A high price can also reflect superior craftsmanship and thoroughly chosen materials and it does not exclude that the doll is made with love and has a soul. If doll makers work four days and longer on a doll, they have any right to get paid for their expenses and the time they spent on the doll, I think.

      I totally understand that not everyone can afford such prices and that families would have to put money aside to be able to buy such a a high-priced doll. However, quite a few doll makers (and their families) have to put money aside to be able to afford a music instrument for their children or to buy school books, and like anyone else, also doll makers have to pay their rent and fill the pantry.

      My customers pay 400-500 for a doll. I work mostly on a custom order basis – because I´d like to know who the doll is for. My customers are in no way rich and they do not buy my dolls because they follow a hype. They want to give their children a doll that is meant to be played with for many years, a little fellow with a soul, made with love. A lot of them have to save up money for a long time but think it is worth it. I on the other hand would not be able to work as a doll maker if I couldn´t cover the costs for materials and labour.

      If one wants to get rich and famous, making cloth dolls certainly is the wrong choice of career ;-)

      • Right on! I’m a crafter… knitting sewing, crochet etc., and the few times I have tried to sell my items at craft fairs, I have been disappointed in people who balk at a price that is little more than the materials used. Also the insulting comments they feel inclined to spout. “My grandma can make me one for free” or “$30 for THIS?!” Yikes.

      • I agree with Vera, The waldorf doll was something that was an icon for “simplicity” that has been lost. Traditionally made from up-cycled material etc by a mother… I am a doll maker and I do not charge outrageous prices for my dolls. At one of the last shows I was in Toronto one of the featured artist in this article picked apart my work the whole show because her dolls cost 3 times what mine did she was fiercely competitive about the trade. One of the last insults she left me with was that “your dolls are nothing more than a mother would make her own child!” … and I was dumbfounded because that is the point of a Waldorf doll it is something homemade from the heart. Not a limitied edition piece of art! That is the appeal of them that they are not this perfectly fabricated thing they are unique and have little imperfections that a child learns to love, and that can be lovingly mended not thrown away or replaced by the next limited edition doll … not something that cost so much you have to keep in a box on a shelf as an investment…

        • Oh, Lisa, I am so sorry this happened to you! It is sad when one artist would do this to another. Hugs.

          • Ulla,
            Nothing bad or mean was said at the show – or intended as such – it was simply a sharing with another vendor about my own path and ethos – it is so unfortunate when being open and friendly is misconstrued about criticism and hostility.

        • Lisa, you misquoted what I said to you at the show.

          Stating that your dolls are the type that mothers make for their children was a compliment! Every Waldorf doll should be made by the mother of the child, alas, that is not possible.

          Sharing with you about my doll making and my own levels of quality that I believe in is not putting you down – it is sharing my path with you, my ethos.

          Getting a Canadian living wage for our work is only fair.

        • Do you have a website? I’m very interested in your dolls.

      • Couldn’t agree more, Juliane! I have been making dolls since 2001. Long time before the Bamboletta craze started. I am a German national who lives in the US. I started making dolls because I wanted my daughter to have the same simple kind of dolls that I grew up with. Natural, soft, and huggable. Not made of plastic.
        I fell into professional dollmaking by accident. Once I made one doll I made more for each of the kids in my family and then I made more just because I enjoyed the craft so much.
        I am sure there are extremes when it comes to every kind of hobby – including doll collecting. If people are willing to pay $1,700 for a doll – I say more power to that dollmaker. Good for you!
        I can testify to the fact that the majority of dollmakers are rather poor people. Considering the price of the materials and time spent on a doll I could make more money working at McDonald’s. But I find the true value and wages lies in the feedback I have gotten from my customers over the years. I love what I do and I hope some day maybe I will make enough to actually survive on my craft.
        Kudos to those dollmakers who have accomplished this feat of making a living on their craft.
        I have seen the changes in the market though and think there is a lot of truth in this article. Maybe some day I’ll write my own article on the topic…

      • Except an instrument or book not only lasts through generations and literally benefits people of all ages, they require highly specialized skills and artistry, unlike your simple fabric dolls.

        Also, a violin-maker would not expect to make a living wage by spend a ridiculous amount of time on one violin. The more skilled they are, the faster they’d be able to work… unlike you Etsy moms who need patterns to get you started and then charge first-world hourly wages, thereby profiting off inefficiency and lack of skill for relatively menial work.

  2. Silly me–when I saw the title, I thought they meant dolls that looked like Waldorf from the Muppet Show. I couldn’t see that inspiring a buying frenzy–although, he was always one of my favourites.

  3. Never heard of it, stupid consumerism waste of 700 dollars.

    • Why is it wrong to make money on hand-made items that are made to last, and not on technology that becomes obsolete in months and will simply end up in the garbage?

      • That IS a point!

  4. While I applaud the article for featuring the work of a waldorf dollmaker, I feel that is inappropriate to then compare waldorf dolls, to those that fetch the “$700 dollars”. Bamboletta dolls and Dragonfly’s Hollow do not make waldorf dolls, they have created a brand of artistically designed, handmade natural dolls, that are inspired by the waldorf philosophy of keeping a doll with a simple expression made with all natural materials. But they are not one and the same.

    Handmade natural dolls, made with the traditional german dollmaking techniques that Waldorf education adopted (but which they do not own), are becoming more and more mainstream, it is logical that as the following of some of these talented artists grows, so the resale value of these dolls increases. It is just a logical supply versus demand issue.

    A simple, handmade waldorf doll, takes about 15 to 18 hours to be made, clothes and all. These other dolls take more than 25 hours to be made, mine usually range around 40 hours. It is also not cheap to create them. Obtaining a rather minimal wage per hour, plus the materials invested, which are of the highest quality and mostly are manufactured in Europe, ends up accounting for an accurate price when you talk about a $700 doll. Which is not the usual retail value of these dolls. Most dollmakers subsidy their work by offering it at a competitive price, investing more time than what they get paid for, because it is their passion to create this kind of dolls.

    Many families have to save money or pool their funds in order to purchase one of my dolls, but they do it because they want to gift themselves or their loved ones with a unique doll, that has been made for their family, for their child, to commemorate a loved one. It is not a consumerist purchase, it is a very conscious effort to bring products into their lives that are made with awareness, with natural materials, by one artist. They choose to support the work of one family, instead of buying a toy that is mass-produced in a third world country, made with toxic materials, doubtful labor practices and low wages. They consciously choose to support the work of stay-at-home mothers, of artists, of creative individuals, and by doing so they bring forth into their lives something that they resonate with. That is why the appeal for these dolls is immense.

    Like Monika mentioned, we are giving away hours of our lives in order to create these dolls, and people can sense that and they appreciate it. Perhaps it would have been better to make a distinction between the dolls that this article spoke of, as there is a lot of misinformation surrounding these toys. I continually have to answer people letting them know that my dolls are not waldorf dolls, and yet they still choose to work with me.

    Thank you for featuring the work of Monika, a talented artist and friend.

    • Very well said!

  5. There seems to be an assumption here that because the artists are making dolls, a child’s plaything, they shouldn’t be allowed to ask a price that reflects the time spent making the doll, the level of experience and expertise used as well as the material costs incurred.

    Cloth dolls come in many forms and at many different prices. The doll buyer is not being forced to spend any more than their budget will allow and there are also many resources available to help people make their own doll.

    People who choose to buy an expensive hand made doll for their child or to add to their own collection have the right to do so and most are practising mindful spending that supports an artist rather than crazed consumerism. Many of my customer are drawn to my dolls because they remind them of the innocence of childhood. There is a gentleness to these hand made dolls that touches a place in people’s hearts.

  6. I feel that any artist, regardless of the mediums they use, should be able to charge what they feel their work is worth. The market will either confirm or deny the valuation. If someone is able to command a high price for something they have created, who are we to question that? Ant if I have the financial means and chose to spend what many consider a higher price for a hand made, original doll made from all natural materials for the little person dearest to me, why not? If I don’t have the means or don’t feel so inclined then I simply won’t make the purchase, I will not disparage the artist simply because I do not agree with the price.

    • I just want to say that my 3 daughters all own a Bamboletta Doll & i have no problem saying that what I paid for them was money well spent. Two of the dolls were made custom in 2007 and have been VERY well used. Its amazing the craftsmenship that has gone into these dolls, they were extremely well made. The dolls are so adorable & magical I have caught myself playing with their hair while watching tv:). Let’s just say I could have spent the same amount on trendy leather boots & wore them 1 season. These dolls are keepsakes & will be treasured always. They are infact part of our family. I would have never considered myself a doll girl, that is until I met a Bamboletta doll. Now I’m in love. It’s also kept my 9 year old twins interested in being 9 year old twins, watching them play fashion shows, dress up
      & making videos with their dolls makes me so happy. I know they will grow up one day but I’m loving watching them enjoy their childhood for now. PS they also own American Girls & hate their plasticness. These ladies weren’t much more than those made-in-china dolls. I’m all for handmade, quality & local. Even if it costs a little more. And I didn’t pay $700, not even for all 3.:)♥ cheers to Christina for making such an amazing little doll, so happy to have 3♥♥♥

  7. The waldorf doll was something that was an icon for “simplicity” that has been lost. Traditionally made from up-cycled material etc by a mother… I am a doll maker and I do not charge outrageous prices for my dolls. At one of the last shows I was in Toronto one of the featured artist in this article picked apart my work the whole show because her dolls cost 3 times what mine did she was fiercely competitive about the trade. One of the last insults she left me with was that “your dolls are nothing more than a mother would make her own child!” … and I was dumbfounded because that is the point of a Waldorf doll it is something homemade from the heart. Not a limitied edition piece of art! That is the appeal of them that they are not this perfectly fabricated thing they are unique and have little imperfections that a child learns to love, and that can be lovingly mended not thrown away or replaced by the next limited edition doll … not something that cost so much you have to keep in a box on a shelf as an investment…

    • Lisa, you misquoted what I said to you at the show.

      Stating that your dolls are the type that mothers make for their children was a compliment! Every Waldorf doll should be made by the mother of the child, alas, that is not possible.

      Sharing with you about my doll making and my own levels of quality that I believe in is not putting you down – it is sharing my path with you, my ethos.

      Getting a Canadian living wage for our work is only fair.

  8. Nadine from Wooly Roo Dolls ( kniteeney on etsy). Having the 700$ price tag in the title is an exageration (as explained in the article). I learned the art of doll making at my daughter’s old Waldorf School in Montreal (we now live in Australia). I made a doll for my daughter and 1 for the school….I was hooked, I haven’t stopped making them since! I agree that they are best made by Mum, but I am happy to make for those who cannot. I have even helped some Mum’s finish their child’s doll (and have met countless Mum’s who have told me about their half-finished dolls when I tell them that I am a doll maker). I have recently started to sell my dolls at the markets here in Australia and get a lot of strange looks when they see the price (150$). I tell all about the benefits of these dolls vs plastic ones, the love, attention to detail, the time involved and some look at me like “why do you bother.” I think it’s very sad that we no longer value handmade things. I am sure that many parents have thrown out hundreds of dollars worth of plastic toys that have broken and are unmendable! What I love about doll making is the creative process (sewing, stuffing, sculpting, knitting, crocheting, such a variety!), seeing the doll come to completion (they are trully all different) and I get the most joy out of knowing that a child will be soon playing with my dolly! xox

  9. Handcrafted and homemade shouldn’t mean ridiculously expensive. 300-700$ for a doll is flipping outrageous! I make dolls and stuffed toys out of upcycled clothing my kids have outgrown as a hobby, but I would feel like a scam artist putting a price tag like that on something made with thread and material, no matter the hours of effort and love put into it. Blown away people are foolish enough to spend that kind of money on a doll.

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