Ragdolls have been a part of growing up since time immemorial. In the British Museum in London, for instance, you can see one Roman ragdoll that dates all the way back to the 5th century AD. To this day these soft toys remain hugely popular around the world, not least for their collectable nature but for the vivid imaginations they can propel in the minds of little ones and grown-ups alike.
Textiles designer Jess Brown exemplifies this capability in ragdolls, and couples it with the sophisticated stylings of antique textiles. Based in Northern California, she first started making dolls for her children over 15 years ago. Using the canny approach traditional to the art of ragdoll making, she used up fabric pieces found around the home, but instead of using simple waste scraps Jess chose to use luxury materials like the cashmere from sweaters and antique cloth remnants, resulting in her now hugely collectible and elegantly tailored one-off dolls.
These days Jess sources her materials from all over the world; her khadi comes from India and her cottons come from Japan, where dolls were historically represented as funerary figures. This dark context is in many ways intrinsic to the history of the doll, as its otherworldliness doesn’t always encompass the fairy tale whimsy often associated with them now. In the past, African dolls were often used as supernatural intermediaries for ritual sacrifice, in Europe they were used for casting spells and in Greece and Rome dolls would be ceremoniously dedicated to goddesses once their owners became women and got married.
Jess treads this sense of femininity carefully in her work, being wary not to purport any didactical notions of womanhood through her minimal aesthetics. Her dolls’ faces, for example, stay true to tradition by remaining as spare as possible with simple threaded eyes and fabric mouthpieces. Playing with notions of surrealism, Jess’s work harps back to the earliest dolls recorded that in fact had no defined features at all. Perhaps it is this surreal quality that gives dolls their transformative quality, opening the door to undiscovered realms of imagination...
Jess Brown’s dolls are available to purchase from the Selvedge shop in North London, and will be part of the one-day only half-price sale this Saturday 4th November. You can view a selection of her dolls here.
Photography by Christine Visneau