Dollmaker never tires of coming up with new designs

News-DemocratSeptember 22, 2013 

April Tate likes dolls.

The 36-year-old graduate student and mom played with rag dolls growing up. Now, she makes and sells them through her business, Riley Construction, at craft fairs such as O'Fallon's Strange Folk Festival and on etsy.com, a website for buying and selling handmade items.

"I make them in the living room in the middle of everything," said April, who lives in south St. Louis with husband Tim and son John, 6 1/2. That way, she can still be part of family life.

"John and I can still talk. He can do his stuff by me. We go through a lot of paper and markers. ... Tim is easy-going. He doesn't mind being surrounded by patterns and dolls."

John is her craft-show helper.

"He's less shy than I am," said April. "He'll say, 'Come in and see what we make.'"

She was sewing Saturday afternoon at The Upcycle Exchange (an arts and crafts supplies shop on South Grand with pay-as-you-wish pricing).

"I am a very good sewer," said John, "just like my mom."

April's 16-inch dolls are handcrafted from muslin, fleece, eco felt and yarn. They have simple, sweet embroidered faces.

They cost between $40 and $50, depending on their complexity and if they are custom made, like the one April did for a child whose father is in the U.S. Navy.

"He was going to be away for a long time," she said. "The mom described him. She said he wore glasses, had a tattoo and a certain kind of shoes. When the family came to see me at a craft show in March, I recognized him immediately."

April makes time for doll-making around a full-time support staff job at Webster University and graduate elementary education classes.

Her 7-year-old niece is her Inspector No. 1.

"She's pretty specific," said April. "She gets to tell me what she likes and what she doesn't. 'Can you make me something that looks like an Indian girl with a black braid?' She's a lucky kid. She has a good collection of them."

Some dolls have names; some don't.

A studious-looking doll "who loves to read and drink tea" is named Olivia. The cotton rag doll with fleece hair has a sewn-on bodysuit and a removable short-sleeve cotton dress.

Sleepy Samantha in flannel pajama pants has yarn ponytails tied with white ribbon. April describes her as "the perfect soft doll for a little girl to take to sleep with her; sure to help scare away bad dreams."

April dreams of completing at least 40 dolls before next weekend's Strange Folk Festival.

"People like to pick out ones that look like them or their daughter," she said. "I try to include some of everything."

She works on a few dolls at a time.

" I call it a sweat shop," she said of the process. "I'm a one-person assembly line."

How did you begin? "I started out doing animals. My son John was 2. I made hedgehogs and woodland creatures. That's all I did for the first two years." That led to dolls. "I started sketching and came up with my first design. I had rag dolls when I was a kid. It was kind of pre-American Girl dolls. That's what you had in the '70s and '80s."

Did you have a favorite growing up? "My favorite one was a topsy-turvy doll. She had a face on each end, a sleepy face and a happy face. You could flip it. My grandma made it if I remember correctly."

What kind of materials do you use? "I started off using recycled materials, then expanded to new. I use cotton, linen, fleece, eco-friendly organic cotton and bamboo velour, which is very soft. I get them online, but I like to buy local when I can.

"I also will make some animals that are very simple pieces. I tend to sell a lot of woodland animals for little boys."

What do you like about your craft? "It's a lot of fun. It's hard work. Each time I do a batch, I get to go through the creative process. The way I do it, I try to freshen it up every time."

How did you learn about Strange Folk Festival? "I've known about it since it started. I was in the first one. I did accessories, jewelry. I cycled through a lot of things, then settled on something I never get tired of. I do a lot of other shows."

Have you always been creative? "I've been making stuff since I could hold a pencil. I used to design Strawberry Shortcake items and clothes for Barbie. It wasn't until I was an adult that I realized maybe you could make money doing this. ... My dad is a carpenter. His business is Riley Construction. I tease him all the time that I stole their name."

Hardest part? "The stuffing. It has to be exactly right, not too much, not too little. The (dolls) have to feel right when you hug them."

To see more of April's work, check her Riley Construction website on Facebook or etsy.com.

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