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.
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.
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.