Molly Fisk: Rag Dolls

When I was 12, I started my first business: selling rag dolls. I did not invent these, they were cut from a Mary Poppins doll-making kit that my mother gave me for Christmas when I was ten. That year I made one doll. Mom helped me turn the fabric arms and legs right-side-out after I’d stitched them, and provided the cast-off nylon stockings I used for stuffing, but otherwise I did it all by myself and was pretty darn smug.

The doll did not look like Julie Andrews, thank heavens — more like a cross between Laura Ingalls Wilder and Frida Kahlo. The Frida aspect was due to my following the instructions, which said after embroidering one eyebrow on the face fabric, you could run the thread behind the fabric to do the other eyebrow instead of knotting and cutting it and starting fresh. I don’t think the kit’s designers had tried this with white skin fabric and black eyebrow embroidery floss. When the doll was finished, the line of thread between the eyebrows was quite visible. This did not interrupt my pride of accomplishment for very long, however. My mother — who smocked our dresses and knit us all Xmas stockings with fuzzy yarn for Santa’s beard — was pretty thrilled too.

I have no memory of the moment I thought of selling the dolls. Maybe a comment from one of my parents’ friends was the spark. I also have no memory of going to the stores. I’m sure I took five or six dolls with me — all in different-colored dresses, with red or yellow or brown or black yarn for hair — and I’m sure I was terrified. I was paid an incredible $10 for each one, and everybody wanted more.

Before you wince at the price, $10 in 1967 is about $70 today. Now you can wince. That was a wage of approximately 40 cents an hour. Since I was 12 and our family didn’t lack for money, hourly rates meant nothing to me. I was just amazed that something I made could sell in a store.

I sewed 27 rag dolls before I burned out on the tiny hand-stitched lace hems and black felt high-button boots and had to go to high school. But the entrepreneurial itch has never left me. For ten years I designed Norwegian-style sweaters and sold them to swank boutiques on the East Coast, substituting pterodactyls or seahorses for the expected reindeer. Now my prestidigious fingers have turned from stitching to typing and I teach poetry classes over the Internet. I love the work, but I miss that glorious sense of wealth when I’d look at the seven dolls or 35 sweaters covering my kitchen table. Tangible things I made myself: clean and perfect and in multiples! There’s nothing like it.

I had forgotten the feeling entirely until yesterday, when UPS brought two enormous boxes to my front door, filled with copies of my new CD of radio essays. Suddenly I was 12 again, gazing at what I made with my own two hands. What abundance! What a harvest

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  • Nora Brossard June 24, 2017 at 8:58 am

    Wonderful story.Wish I were that creative.

  • Shirley June 24, 2017 at 7:49 am

    Ain’t nothing like the “real thing.” And, by that, I mean a tangible product you can hold in your paws! Would like to order a CD of your radio essays. Where do I find that?

    • Molly Fisk June 24, 2017 at 8:46 am

      Isn’t it amazing? Such a specific thrill. Send me an e-mail at mollyfisk at gmail dot com and we can accomplish the ordering process. Thanks, Shirley!