As promised, I am hosting guest bloggers for the Summer. I have known Kathleen for about ten years, and I have always been impressed with her incredible talent for creating dolls and puppets. I was very glad when she agreed to be my first guest! -J
Wiggling Dolls for Fun and a little Profit
I am a puppeteer. I have been since, according to my mother, the age of two. I cannot remember a time in my life that I haven’t had puppets in it in some form or another. In my teen years I started to build puppets just to see if I could figure out how it was done. There were not a lot of books on the subject at the time that I could get my hands on. So a lot of it was trial and error, mostly error.
The Center for Puppetry Arts opened in Atlanta and gave me some more resources to learn about building puppets. I didn’t really use it until after graduate school but I learned a lot very quickly from the builders and puppeteers there. Also the library was a treasure trove of books and papers and schematics on building puppets.
Thus I embarked on my career as a puppet builder with an emphasis on puppets that makes sense in fandom. I have made Klingons, Pinhead (from Hellraiser), an entire set of Dr Who puppets, a set of Harry Potter puppets, Neil Gaiman (at his request), Babylon 5 puppets, and many other forms of fandom. I have made monster puppets that have a muppety quality to them. My puppets have gone all over the globe and are in both private collections and occasionally are on display in museums and galleries.
The doll-making that I do came out of the puppetry. For many it is the reverse but I had to make some marionettes for a commercial and found myself learning a lot very quickly about new materials that were available for making puppets and dolls like affordable polymer clays which were just coming out. After I got the marionettes done, I started looking at what I could do with dolls. I also had the good fortune, a number of years later, of taking a doll making course from Wendy Froud (Wife of Brian and Mother to Toby) which took what I knew and brought it to a much high level. And I started mixing dolls in with the puppets.
To create a puppet or doll that someone can look at and declare what it is can be a tricky thing. You have to look at what makes something look like something every time. It could be a facial feature like the Klingon ridge on the forehead or a type of clothing that the character wears like the Harry Potter robes or the 4th Doctor’s scarf or some form of decoration that makes it that character rather than another.
If I am recreating something or someone, I look at a lot of pictures and try to distill it down to what I need to make sure that the character is recognizable to other people. What is most distinctive about the character? Also how much detail do I need to get my point across? And how much detail do I want to get into. Is this detail something that is going to be seen? Also what fabric to I have on hand or be able to get my hands on to recreate a look. It can be hard to get fall colors in the spring and spring colors in the fall so there had to be some planning ahead.
If I am creating something from my imagination, I have a little more leeway. I have never had a problem figuring out something to make that has been running around in my head. Ideas just come rattling through whenever they want and I’ll file away the ones that I want to do and discard those that really can’t be made in three dimensions. Well, not really discard but put them way back in my head until I can figure out a way to make it come to life.
Then comes the bringing of the idea from my head into this realm. Most of my patterns are of my own making. I have a few that I use that I got during my time at the Center for Puppetry Arts or from a book. Some of the base shapes are pretty much standard. There are really not too many ways to sew a human hand puppet.
Most of the clothing is drafted for that piece. I have gotten very good over the years at being able to measure a couple of points on a doll or puppet and then be able to eyeball what I need to cut to make a jacket or a pair of pants. I have gotten really good at collars on shirts and jackets just from a lot of practice. When I started it could take me more than half a day to make the basic puppet shape but over the years I have gotten a hand and rod puppet along with the clothing to about 4 hours total.
I enjoy creating puppets and dolls that make people grin or gasp in amazement. I have met a lot of interesting people because of my puppets including my husband. I love being able to take something in my head and give it form. It gives me a sense of satisfaction and purpose. I am a Puppeteer and very proud of it.
Kathleen O David is a puppeteer, dollmaker, costumer, book editor, stage manager, and writer among many other things she has done in her careers. She is the owner of No Strings Attached: Custom Puppet, Masks, and Dolls. Her work can be viewed at
Kathleen’s Photo Album Look for her work at Shoreleave and DragonCon this year and on her web blog No Strings Attached . Tuesday are Crafty Tuesday where she talks about the creative process and other crafty topics.