May Tip of the Month: The Three R’s – Restore, Repair, Restyle

If you are the kind of person who loves old stuff, dolls, teddies or antiques in general and you can’t afford to buy things that are in perfect condition you will sometimes be faced with deciding what to do with your beat up looking purchase.

Lifestyle blogs and TV shows love the idea of “reimagining” old stuff. They repaint furniture in chalk paint, make mobiles out of old cutlery and bowls out of old vinyl records. Some people think this is great, others would like to take them out and shoot them.

However, we’ll just stick to talking about dolls and teddies. A lot of people who collect teddy bears love the well-worn ones the best and if Teddy has gone bald or is missing an eye they will just knit him a sweater and give him an eye patch. Others will go to the other extreme and find a professional who can restore him to his former good looks.

Somewhere in between these two groups are those who will want to repair some damage themselves. Naomi collects old bears and a few of them have had damaged paw pads, missing eyes, noses, mouths or ears. I’ve done some repairs for her but as I’m not a professional I generally try to do them in a way that can be reversed should she ever be able to take them to a professional restorer. I remember once reading a doll and bear magazine where someone had sent in photos of a bear she had restored herself. The magazine’s expert who identified readers dolls and bears commented that the bear should be a completely different shape and that the restoration had changed his character. I could almost see the steam rising from the print. The teddy in two of the photos below needed new ears and I had no idea what his original ones looked like. Luckily I was at least able to match the colour and type of fur reasonably well but whether I got the shape right is another matter.

The same goes for old dolls if you are going to do your own restoration. There are a lot of repairs you can learn to do yourself. You can sew limbs back on to cloth dolls, you can make a replacement cloth body for a doll with vinyl or porcelain head and limbs. You can learn how to restring dolls and replace eyelashes. However, if you are going to try rerooting hair or repainting faces you need to decide if you are going to go with the creative approach or be faithful to the original. In the case of the latter, do your homework. Study pictures of how the doll should look and if you can’t get hold of the original materials, use something that looks and feels appropriate. I once had to restuff an old Verna teddy bear. He had been stuffed with some kind of rubber foam which had basically disintegrated leaving him flat. I bought a bag of foam chips so that once he was restuffed he’d still feel nice and firm. Personally, I prefer that restored vintage dolls stay true to the way they originally looked. Penny, my 16-inch Pedigree Walker had almost no hair when I got her. I want to get her a wig that is more or less the same colour as her original hair. I see a lot of wigs that have very curly styles but to me, they don’t look like anything I remember seeing in the sixties. I want Penny to have plaits, bunches or a pageboy bob.

Penny when she arrived.
Here is Penny after I had removed the marking pen eyebrows and finished cleaning the worst of the grime off her face.

The exception would be if the doll is so badly damaged that a full restoration would not be practical or as in the case of fashion dolls when they are plentiful enough that you are not destroying the look of a unique doll. Below you can see a restored Mme Alexander composition doll. Read about how it was done here.

Restored Mme Alexander Ana McGuffey composition doll circa 1937-43. Photo by Marilyn Armstrong

As I’ve said before, I don’t pay a lot of attention to value as a collector so my choices about fixing up my old dolls are purely about what looks right, and for me, that usually means wanting the doll to look original. However, if the value is an issue for you, preservation and restoration rather than restyling is probably the way to go. On the other hand, if you want to re-root your number one Barbie with purple hair and repaint her in Goth style that is entirely up to you. It might be a bit foolish if you paid several hundred dollars for her but if you found her at a flea market for a couple of dollars you are not really losing any money over it. Just don’t tell any collector who has always wanted one.

OOAK sindy
Customised Sindy by




  1. This was a timely subject for me as I just acquired a Horsman baby doll at a swap- meet in need of care.I saw that being in the sun was splitting the hands and it is missing paint on it’s face. I think it was a crier, so far I’m only able to wrap it up in a blanket away from the sun.There will be a fair bit of reswarch ahead as I don’t generally collect babies, but the thought of it exposed on a table unprotected drew me to it.Don’t even know what to call her/him.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You won’t be able to restore the crying thing and how much you can do with the rest of the doll depends on what it’s made of. IF it is hard plastic and its limbs are strung with elastic cords, you can fix them. Ebay has a doll group on it that used to be pretty good at explaining how to fix a lot of things and you can buy the pieces you need for the repairs in ebay, too. IF the doll is vinyl, it’s all about glue. If it has rooted hair, you can restore it, but it’s really a lot of work. I always preferred wigged dolls because buying a wig and gluing it down is easy compared to restoring rooted hair. Good luck!!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Some dolls you just have to rescue. When we first saw our Shirley Temple she was jumbled up in a pile of other dolls and we were afraid that she might get broken so we bought her.


  2. I had to learn to fix them myself because there are no doll hospitals anymore. Most of the work I did (do sometimes) is pretty simple. Repairing a rotting limb on a composition doll is more difficult and I don’t think it’s possible to do it perfectly. Maybe someone else could do it perfectly, but I’m not that good. And I never learned to do eyes. i always admire people who can fix eyes!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh yes, some dolls and bears just cry out to be rescued. Fixing them up is one of the most satisfying aspects of collecting. I generally think it’s up to the owner to restore or customize a doll or bear to suit their own tastes. However, I agree that it is distressing to totally change the look if it’s a hard to find or rare doll.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The doll seems pretty much intact, vinyl arms and legs attached much like the neck. The head looks like hard plastic rather than composition. Also the head is painted not wigged. So far just removed surface dirt.Still has stained leg and deep dirt and cracks / not serious condition issues, and the sleep eyes seem perfect, just breaks my heart. Poor baby’. He/she needs an outfit and a pram. Probably name it something good for a boy or girl.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. The teddy looks wonderful! I bought a walking doll from Ebay that I was cleaning up…probably from about 1955. All of a sudden it let out a loud wail and I almost dropped it. Once in a rare while the doll will decide to be vocal. I guess it gets tilted or turned in the just the right way. Can’t make it cry, however, if I want it to.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I rescued a lot of poor old teddies for the same reason. Vanda has done wonders with them replacing eyes and ears and making them some cosy jumpers.We have decided not to do anything too pernerment to them in case I ever want to take them to teddy hospital. It’s a good idea to think very carefully before embarking on any home restoration work or make overs just in case you regret it later. They can’t all be reversed. I feel sorry for the Sindy doll.

    Liked by 1 person

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