In case you haven’t guessed from the corny title this month’s tips are about cleaning and fixing up dolls. Unless you only buy brand new dolls there is a good chance you have done some extreme doll cleaning. Dolls that come from op shops, markets, and garage sales have often led tough lives.
Some dolls are just a bit grubby and have messy hair. Others are filthy and may have stains from marker pens or biros and even food stains. These are the ones I often bring home from the Op Shop to fix up as I can’t abide the thought of selling dirty dolls to people.
First Do No Harm
I am saying this first because there are some things that you shouldn’t attempt unless you are really sure that you know what you are doing. Antique dolls are fragile and restoring them is probably best left to an expert. Materials like composition, papier-mache, wax, and porcelain can easily be damaged by over-enthusiastic cleaning. If you are going to try to clean these old dolls at home I’d suggest first reading all you can about the materials they are made of and then trying out your cleaning method on an unobtrusive part of the doll or better still one that is only fit for the bin. My experience is mainly with vinyl and hard plastic dolls and those with cloth bodies so I’m just going to write about that.
I am no expert on doll cleaning techniques, most of what I do I’ve learned from other collectors websites or YouTube channels so I’ll just go through some of the basic stuff for those people who might be new to our hobby. At some point, I intend to set up a page of links to useful articles about cleaning and maintenance as a resource for readers.
There are several commercial doll cleaning products available both from doll dealers and online. I haven’t had the opportunity to try most of them because they are either not available in Australia or are just too expensive to use on rescue dolls. If anyone has used some of them please feel free to comment on what you have used and whether it worked for you.
I usually use dishwashing liquid to clean vinyl and hard plastic dolls. Many collectors recommend Dawn as being excellent for this. In Australia Dawn is only available as an import, at least I haven’t found anywhere local that sells it. It’s very expensive. I have a little sample sized bottle and I keep it for extreme cases. Normally I just use a good quality dishwashing liquid. I have read that Fairy in Australia is made by the same company that makes Dawn but I don’t know if the formula is exactly the same. If I’m cleaning a hard plastic doll or a doll which shouldn’t be immersed in the water I will just wipe it down with a cloth dipped in soapy water. When I am cleaning fashion dolls I usually wash them under running water in the kitchen sink. I don’t like to use anything abrasive to scrub dirty dolls but I do have a few old toothbrushes for doll cleaning and I find cotton buds are handy too for getting into crevices. I wash doll hair either with dishwashing liquid or whatever shampoo I have on hand.
These poor dolls came with a variety of problems but mostly they were all absolutely filthy.
For cloth dolls, it depends on whether they have any interactive features and what they are stuffed with too. Modern soft toys are usually stuffed with polyester fibre fill which is safe to wash. I occasionally put dolls and toys in the washing machine on a gentle cycle but always in a lingerie bag. If that’s not possible I like to sponge them down with a gentle cleaner like the ones designed for woollens. As with your own clothes, read the care labels. If I think that colours might run, and almost anything red seems to do that, I use cold water. I rarely wash anything in hot water anyway. Vintage dolls and toys may be stuffed with rubber foam, cotton waste, kapok or excelsior (wood wool) Getting any of these wet is A VERY BAD IDEA. If you really want to wash a doll stuffed with one of these materials it would be best to carefully unpick a seam and take the stuffing out first. I will talk about restuffing dolls and toys in another post.
Fashion dolls with nylon or Saran hair I will wash with either dishwashing liquid or shampoo. Afterwards, I’ll comb conditioner through it although fabric softener also does quite a good job. Styling is another topic that I’ll cover in a different post. These Monster High dolls all arrived with tangled hair which responded very well to treatment.
A lot of stains made by water-based markers and paints will come out during the washing process but some require more work. I have used Remove Zit by Twin Pines of Maine for removing marks from vinyl dolls. The first time I tried it was when I had some dolls with stains on their bodies from shoes and clothing and Naomi had some Ken dolls who had suddenly acquired marks on their faces. The product did a good job but it is not something I can afford to buy often and the shelf life is only about a year so if it isn’t all used up it gets wasted. Instead, like other collectors, I started to use acne cream. I use Oxy 10 but any cream with the active ingredient Benzoyl Peroxide will do the same job. Remember though it is a bleach and may discolour the surrounding area. I’m not fussed about doing this with dolls that are going back to the Op Shop if it doesn’t work it’s not a major disaster but you may not want to do it on precious dolls from your collection. I tend to leave it on for short periods of time, wipe it off and reapply if necessary.
Below is a before and after photo of the first doll I took home from the Op Shop to fix. Those blue stains came off with a good wash.
Ashley Olsen had some of the worst stains I’d seen on a fashion doll.
Doll care is such a big subject that we’ll definitely come back to it in future posts. In the meantime look out for the new page of links which I’ll be publishing soon.