Sustainable Cloth – Even small efforts count!

As one of our Sustainable Cloth members so beautifully reminded us, making sustainably doesn’t have to be a ‘huge’ undertaking.  Using recycled vintage materials, Mary Lou Steptoe created historically accurate and naturally dyed clothing for her antique dolls.  



I never played with dolls as a child, but have long had an interest in sewing and historical fashion: one of my majors in college was Victorian Studies, and I used to make (human) costumes for a local Gilbert & Sullivan troupe. Somehow this all came together during the first Covid year, when I unearthed my grandmother’s porcelain head doll and started making clothes for her. I set myself the task of making each outfit as historically accurate as possible for a given era of Queen Victoria’s reign.  Soon my grandmother’s doll, Millicent, was joined by an eBay friend, Cordelia.  Although both are close in height (10-11″), they are quite differently shaped, as 19th c. porcelain head dolls were not standardized.  Porcelain head dolls were all the rage from about 1840-1920. Typically these dolls were made to look like grown women, with painted molded hair and face.  The head is attached to a body made from fabric or leather, stuffed to give hips, bust and other figure elements.  Often the arms  and legs are also of painted porcelain and attached at elbow and knee, giving some flexibility, and giving each doll a unique body shape, just as a human.   


For the Sustainable Cloth Challenge, I decided to use vintage and upcycled fabrics, dyed with plant dye that I made from my dye garden materials.  These included vintage laces and linen or cotton small pieces (e.g., handkerchiefs, doilies, runners), collected through the years from estate sales and antique shops in the area:  all dyed with weld or alkanet from my garden.  Cordelia’s outfit is entirely weld-dyed; Millicent’s outfit is made from a recycled silk blouse, wool suiting, and a cotton shirt – all from my family closets.  The “fur” trim for the coat  is felt from BFL lamb locks, made for me by Marian Bruno.  The laces are dyed with alkanet.  Both doll’s underpinnings are made from vintage handkerchiefs and laces. Bustles and the channels in Millicent’s crinoline are stuffed with local fleece — a common practice to obtain volume before invention of the watch-spring steel ‘cage crinoline’ in 1856.  Both dolls are styled in the late 1860’s fashion, which is the period when chemical dyes were first being introduced.  I like to think that my ladies had enough fashion sense to eschew the violent new colors and stick with the classic natural palate, even while embracing the evolving silhouette, which involved a lot of underpinning and over-draping.


Mary Lou Steptoe is a Washington DC native, with family roots in Virginia and Maine. Retired lawyer. Gardener, singer, lover of all things fiber, especially knitting and sewing.

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