Holley Morgenstern plays with dolls. And stuffed gnomes, unicorns and owls.
The Duluth artist hand-crafts these goodies and many more using new and vintage upcycled fabrics, trim and lace for her business Sparrow and Berry.
On her display table sat wire bins of bears in plaid shirts, little gnomes with white noses poking through furry beards, and sleeping bunnies wearing pajamas.
Julie Luchsinger of Two Harbors strolled over, looking for a deer doll she saw on Facebook.
That one sold, but I have new winter bears, Morgenstern said.
Luchsinger is a repeat customer; she bought a Sparrow and Berry bunny around Easter, and she was in the market for an autumn piece.
“The reason I love these is my mom used to have a lot of vintage fabric like this. She used to sew all of our clothes, and these remind me of her,” she said.
Dollmaking is a nostalgic business for Morgenstern; her grandmother, Dorothy, is a dollmaker.
Last weekend, Morgenstern showed pictures of Dorothy’s large collection of toys, baby dolls and little holiday trinkets. She grew up without toys during the Depression, and that’s where this comes from, said Morgenstern, who recalled Dorothy mailing boxes of 500 cutout doll dresses, which her mother would sew.
While dollmaking runs in the family, Morgenstern taught herself how to sew after high school. She made her first doll around 2012 for a pregnant friend. Morgenstern showed her encouraging co-workers, eventually launched an Etsy shop, and it snowballed.
It was a lot of trial and error in the beginning: putting things on paper, sewing and finding the neck hole, or the arms were too small. You have to think in reverse; everything is sewn inside-out, and one small item can call for 30 individual steps, she said, but it’s a process she has refined.
A new design may start with a 2-inch doodle. Sometimes, she looks at animal photos. Then, she’ll sew a mock-up with not-so-great fabric. She’ll note things to update before moving on to the final product.
Morgenstern makes her own patterns, and along with store-bought fabric, she uses vintage materials, corduroy or wool, which she snags from church bag sales, estate sales, and the boxes and boxes of house dresses and aprons from her grandmother.
She has made hair, doll shoes or purses out of old wool sweaters. She knits purses and shawls for her dolls. She’ll hang onto a 1-inch square of fabric to use for eyes. “I can have the trim of a pillowcase that someone crocheted in the 30s, now it’s living a new life in a doll,” she said.
She hand-washes her vintage trim and lace, and she’ll wash and dry vintage fabric many times to ensure it can hold up. And on the inside, each doll has new, non-allergenic poly fill.
If Morgenstern is stumped, she’ll flip through her collection of turn-of-the-last-century children’s books. She’s also inspired by her fabric, the impetus for little quirks in her creations.
Look closely to see an elephant plushie with an elephant pattern on its ears, a bear with honey jars on its shirt, a fox with mice on its skirt. Her creations range in price from $12 for a smaller doll to $145 for more complex pieces.
The quality of Morgenstern’s works are a stand-out, said Theresa Hornstein, one of the founding members of Nice Girls of the North.
Hornstein noted her Easter bunnies, “a darling set of Irish cattle with plaid kilts,” and the expressions Morgenstern creates on her dolls.
“The most peaceful, happy looks. They remind me of my cats after they’ve been in the catnip,” Hornstein said.
The two artists sometimes swap fabric, which goes into Hornstein’s rugs, and roving or dyed yarn, which Morgenstern uses in her dolls.
Morgenstern has been “one of the solid folks” of Nice Girls of the North, Hornstein said.
The group of local artisans aims to be collaborative, interdependent and above all, courteous. “We all work together to support each other rather than compete with each other; we're nice,” Hornstein said.
Nice Girls of the North has become a family of sorts, said Morgenstern, who has been a member for more than four years.
“A lot of us makers spend a lot of time alone doing your craft. It’s fun to be with people who get making the stuff, the drive, the need,” she added.
Morgenstern has moved on to making art dolls, with lace skirts, embroidered faces with long lashes, freckles, but the biggest standout is the hair. The intricately braided hairstyles, Morgenstern felts directly into their heads. “It’s good for stress, like bread-baking, very repetitive,” she said.
There are some physical challenges to being a full-time artisan, chronic tendinitis in her right elbow and headaches. There’s burnout at times with the repetition of creating certain items, but she doesn’t see an end in sight.
Next, she’d like to do more art dolls and to focus on 3-dimensional pieces, but she’ll never stray far. “There’s something really simple and honest about a cloth doll,” she said.
If you go
What: The Nice Girls of the North Second Saturday Marketplace
When: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Nov. 14
Where: Masonic Lodge, 4731 Gladstone St.