Sunday, 23 October 2011

Ivy May - A Little Raggedy Asylum Doll

I've been reading quite a few different books and accounts about the treatment that women received at insane asylums through the Victorian era, and how that treatment changed as science and medical knowledge grew.

It's still amazing to me how barbaric some of the treatments were. It wasn't that long ago, but the "experts" knew very little about how to treat even the simplest mental conditions. Resorting to horrific procedures that more often than not only made the poor patients worse, and gave them further problems to deal with.

The book Women Of The Asylum by Jeffrey Geller and Maxine Harris is a very moving collection of the experiences that 25 women went through during the Victorian age in America. Each account written by the women themselves either during their commitments or after their release.

Each of them felt it necessary to share what had happened to them with the world. Either to try and make sense of it for themselves, or to try and open the eyes of the ignorant public to what was actually going on behind those big locked gates. Some of them even campaigning for reform of behalf of those they had left behind.

It's a truly touching book that deals with many aspects of life at a Victorian Insane Asylum. and as each account is written by the women themselves, everything is written in the gentle, refined tones of the time.

The descriptions of what they went through is enough to bring tears to even the hardest heart. The experimental surgery, the harsh treatment and beatings by attendants and nurses that themselves had been promoted from among the patients, the water treatments, mental torture and often filthy conditions...

These women went through Hell and were somehow still strong enough to re-visit their ordeals by writing them down for others to read.
One of the things that stuck with me after finishing this book, other than the main women that were sharing their stories, were the glimpses they shared of the other women that they saw around them.

Total lack of understanding about mental conditions meant that most of the women writing these accounts were perfectly sane. Probably even more so than most of us, convicted to the care of asylums because someone wanted them out of the way, or because they held views that their fathers and husbands did not agree with. Some even for being too fond of clothes or for just not being as pretty as they once were.

But the women they describe around them are the ones that actually had problems. The ones that needed care and proper treatment, but received cruelty and abandonment instead. Left to fend for themselves in filth and confusion while the lazy staff forced them to scrub floors and do laundry to avoid being beaten or starved.

I know that this has to be one of the oddest subjects for a doll that there is, but these glimpsed snapshots of asylum inmates just stick with me, yearning to be made into something tangible, something that can be cared for and looked after. Something that can be given a good home, maybe a pretty view for them to look at, or a generous heart to help balance their minds.

So when one of these poor creature gets louder and louder in my mind, begging to be made into reality, who am I really to say no to them.
Why shouldn't they be made?

I know that I'm not the only one that has suffered from some sort of mental condition form time to time. We've all experienced stress at some point during our lives, maybe a period of depression, or even the occasional outburst of hysteria or panic.
Then there are those that struggle with greater problems such as long term depression, nervous breakdowns, or horrible phobias . And know we know enough of these awful conditions to know how the treat them, to have sympathy for the sufferers, and to treat them with respect.

I've seen what happens to people that suffer from depression and stress up close quite a few times through my life. And am always amazed how people manage to carry on and live their lives.

I've been there when family members and close friends have been suffering beyond anything I could do anything to help with. And I've seen them come out of the other side of the most hideous experiences and illnesses to be an even stronger more beautiful person than they were before.

I'm always amazed how my loved and cherished family and friend always manage to amaze me more as time passes with their strength and courage.

Just recently I know that I've been suffering from a form of depression brought on by very low levels of iron in my blood. Although I've been anaemic most of my life, these sudden drops always leave me tearful, confused, prone to panic attacks, feeling ill with no energy and tired beyond the point of sleep, which of course only makes matters worse. Add to that external pressure from my day job, worries about how I'm going to manage to fix my living room ceiling after a big chunk fell in, and having problems with my back again and I'm surprised I've got anything done at all.

But we do, don't we?
We carry on and make the best of things.
And that's why humanity is so amazing. And why I'll continue to make these sad little creatures when one decides it's time to be made. And I hope that someone out there can understand why I do it, and open up their lives to a doll like Ivy May.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Adriana Brinkle

Adriana’s life was a sad one. Convicted to an asylum for two very small reasons: firstly, she was extravagant and very fond of dress, and secondly because she made a mistake that threatened to bring disgrace to her family. She was naturally gay and intelligent, and knew that she had a father and an uncle there to help her out of any financial difficulty, so was extravagant in her use of money.
The particular event that led to her incarceration was that she became involved with buying furniture on part credit to furnish the parlour she had rented in the house of two old ladies that were distant relations. She had no room there for a piano, so moved to a larger house in the same neighbourhood which was already furnished, so went ahead and sold the previously bought furniture. The dealer that had originally sold her the furniture heard of this and prosecuted her. She was naive to financial matters, and was unaware of the difficulties that her father and uncle were experiencing with their business. Before the time came for her appearance in court her Physician father decided that she would be placed in an asylum and the insanity plea used in court in her defence. She was questioned briefly by both her father and another doctor who she had never met. They asked about her general bodily health and if she would like to go on a journey. It was later explained to her that the purpose for these questions was to decide if she should be sent to an asylum. Her father told her that they did not believe her to be insane, but under the circumstances it was all that could be done.
She knew where she was going, and was told that it was preferable to being put in jail, but she did not relish the thought of being shut in with the insane. The judge that took her to the asylum where she would spend so long talked openly to the doctors of her extravagance in her presence, as if that was reason enough to commit a young woman to the terrible life she would experience at the asylum. Everything was strange there, and as an intelligent sane woman she could see for herself that the nurses and attendants at the hospital were not themselves rational beings, and some of them had even been promoted to their positions after being patients there for some years. Her father visited and commented of her health looks and promised that she only had to wait there until the troubles had blown over. It was the last time she ever saw him, and he died four years later. Her release turned out to be more difficult than expected.
At the typical asylum where Adriana was committed the untrained staff were violent to the patients, who couldn’t understand why they were being beaten or how to avoid it. The only way that you could get on their good side was to do their work for them, becoming their slaves. Any bruises caused by the violent attacks seen by family visitors were always explained away as accidents and falls. The lucky ones were the ones whose family did not believe these stories and removed them. The rest had to learn how to cope in this strange insular tyrannical world. Suicides occurred, and even the dead went without compassionate treatment and were treated with great disrespect.
After new laws were passed in 1884 which gave inmates the freedom to write with any grievances they had to the Committee on Lunacy Adriana wrote to one of the medical members named on the notice posted in her ward. Along with other women Adriana waited for some replay or visit, which never came. After months she wrote again, believing that the first letter must have gone missing, and this time her case was looked into at once, and her appeal for liberty given the first serious consideration it had ever had. She was visited by doctors of the committee and her release was ordered immediately. Her board at the asylum had always been paid from funds left to her, and after being at the asylum for so long she hardly knew what to do or where to go. She went to a Convalescents’ Retreat where she spent many years being looked after by the kind staff, and where she wrote and published the account of her life as an inmate in the hopes of improving the treatment of those she had left behind locked away – doomed to a living death with no chance of freedom. Adriana was 60 years old when she was finally released. And she devoted many hours trying to improve conditions for those less fortunate than herself.
As Adriana knew where she was going and what was ahead of her, even though she had little choice in what was happening to her, I think that she would have tried her best to dress as simply as she could. She would have been aware that she would have no attendant of servant to help her dress, so I chose to dress her is a well fitted cotton day dress, but without the trappings of bustle cage or too much structure. The kind of dress that would have been worn for comfortable days at home, but because of her extravagant nature I also decided to make it in an impractical, but beautiful, light blue fabric, when a darker colour would have been more suitable, and trimmed it with lace and long ribbons, with a high lace collar. Her white cotton underwear and corset are worn under a soft cotton lawn corset cover to protect her dress from the sharp edges and ridged form of her corset, with one plain cotton petticoat under a cleverly constructed one that is gathered and has ruffles down the back to help give her dress some of the fashionable bustle shape, all worn over a stuffed moon shaped bum pad instead of the usual restrictive cage. Her fancy last petticoat of my favourite stripped cotton lawn has a ruffle around the bottom and is again gathered in back to provide shape, trimmed with a pink tapestry ribbon. Her gown has pretty three quarter sleeves with deep cuffs and lace trim. The crossed front has an almost Kimono style, and that along with the gathered apron front to her dress are both trimmed with navy satin and more lace. She wears a navy velvet sash finished in a large bow in the small of her back and left trailing down her skirts, which has a slight train to give it a soft finish.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

She Has A Name - Adriana Brinkle

After getting my tiny wedding cake toppers mostly dressed I had a real need to work on something a bit bigger. The tiny details I'll have to create on Hazel's wedding dress need to wait until I can shake off a big nasty cold I've had for a while now and concentrate properly on those tiny stitches. The perfect doll to keep me busy was just waiting in the dark corners of my mind, quietly calling to me.

If you follow my tweets you might have seen me mention the work I've been doing on a doll with no name. It's odd for me not know who my dolls are while I'm dressing them and giving them their character. But this time around I just had no name.

I knew who she was, her story, her background and what had happened to her. I had a clear image of her in my head and knew what she would wear down to the last details, and I was getting really frustrated not knowing who she was.
I had to go back through a big stack of books to try and find her, and in the end I found her name - Adriana Brinkle.

Adriana had a sad life. She was young, gay and inclined to be extravagant. And her love of fashionable dress and a financial mistake led her to be locked away in an insane asylum. At her fathers insistence she had been tried at court and a plea of insanity used as her defence to keep the family from disgrace.

Even though she was a bright young woman she was held at the asylum and treated as though she were insane. Subjected to all the indignities and poor treatment that was normal at institutions during the Early- Mid-Victorian era.

Adriana suffered quietly, and with as much dignity as she could. Her only hope were the promises made to her by her father that she would be released as soon as the troubles caused by her debts had blown over.
Little did she know that she would spend a total of 28 years locked away, hidden from sight.

I finally tracked down Adriana's name with her whole sad story in the book Women Of The Asylum by Jeffrey Geller and Maxine Harris. A brilliant book containing 26 first hand accounts of women that were placed in mental institutions against their will between the years 1840 - 1945. Too many of these women were completely sane, and all of them where misunderstood. The rough handling and poor treatment they received, along with the truly barbaric practices carried out by doctors and attendants, left many of them weak, bodily ill and experiencing mental problems they had not had before. But all of the accounts in this book show how strong, intelligent and focused they were. Determined to tell their stories to others to try and make some difference to the worlds they had left behind.

Adriana Brinkle was one of the lucky few that may have had some knowledge of what was happening to her before she was committed. She knew where she was going and why, being convinced that the asylum was better than being sent to jail.
Too many women had to endure the shock of being suddenly torn from their family life and thrown into a new world among a mixture of the helplessly insane and the tormented wrongly committed with no prior thought of what was coming.
The Victorian Insane Asylums were truly horrible places where even the doctors had little understanding of how to treat their patients. And the suffering was made all the more horrid for those that were trying to hold on to the sanity that they had had when they entered the system.

I've dressed my Adriana in a Victorian day dress from around the late 1860's to early 1870's. She has on her split drawers trimmed with lace and ribbon, a short shift, corset, plain petticoat, and a checked trimmed corset cover as she was a very fashionable young lady that would have worn the best fabrics she could get, and wouldn't want the stiff hard edges of her corset damaging the delicate fabric of her gown.

Over these she has a moon shaped bum pad and another white cotton petticoat with ruffles down the whole of the back to try and provide some of the shape missing from the lack of a bustle.

At first I made Adriana a metal band bustle, but had to think would she really have been able to keep up with this level of fashion in an asylum, so decided to removed it. I have to keep reminding myself that she knew where she was going, and even though she was young and admits to being very fond of dress, I just don't think that she would have been so impractical to think she would be able to manage this level of dress at the asylum. I really want to make her dress as accurate as possible, but with all that I've read of Victorian asylum life I know that there would have been no-one to help Adriana dress each morning, and no-one to help tie her into the cage bustle. So even if she had worn it she would have soon had to do without it. I'll keep the bustle for another doll on another day.

Because she was intelligent I think Adriana would have chosen a more practical dress. The things she would have taken with her into the asylum would have been practical, and simpler than the high fashion she loved. Things that she was sure she would be able to manage on her own with no help, but still with as much fashion and clever shaping as was available to her. Both her ruffled petticoat and stripped cotton lawn fine petticoat are gathered cleverly to hold their bulk at the back with a very slight train. The kind of dress that could be worn around the home to allow a little more comfort while still giving a fashionable silhouette, all kept neatly in place with hidden tapes and tied easily in place.

Her dress will be of a beautiful vintage sky blue cotton lawn with a navy pattern that I've had for a while and have been really looking forward to using on the right doll. I've finished off Adriana's three-quarter lace trimmed sleeves, and an oriental inspired cross front bodice trimmed with navy satin and white lace, with a high lace collar worn underneath. Now I just have to sew together her skirts and learn how to make a swag gathered front for her. I think I'll have a go at doing something for the back of her gown I've not tried before too, but I'm still thinking about what that might be :)

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Joel and Hazel's Wedding Dolls In Progress

Since finishing Maria Manning I've been working on a pair of cake toppers for our friends and neighbors, Joel and Hazel. Please forgive my photo's. We're having a very odd hot bright start to Oct here in Wales, and they are a little sun-bleached.

At first I thought these little dolls were going to be easy, but how wrong I was. I've made so many large dolls over the past few months I totally forgot how hard it would be to work on tiny 5in dolls in much detail. And,, of course, wedding dolls need lots of details. The other issue was that neither Joel nor Hazel is what I'd call Traditional. He with his long red gold hair and goatee, and she with her dramatic black hair and individual stunning sense of style. Both are members of a heavy rock band and while she's one of the Swansea City Slayers Roller Derby Team, he is their referee. I knew from the start that this wouldn't be your typical white fairy tale dress type wedding, and I was looking forward to something a little less main stream. And that's just what I got :)

I can't say too much about "The Dress" of course, but it is very beautiful. Just how I'm going to recreate it on this tiny doll I have no idea. And so far I only have the under-layers done, but already this little mini-me of Hazel has a real drama about her. As a nod towards her actual hair style I've cut a fringe into the feathers of the dolls wild black hair, and have added shape and layers to the under-dress to try and get this fab dress to sit something like the original.

Part of it has that lovely crushed / gathered look to it, so after managing to get the look on pure silk for Lizzie Siddal, I had a go on a synthetic satin similar to what I'm using for her dress. It worked out quite well, but there where a few changes in how I did it. 

With the pure silk I wet it thoroughly and ring and crush all the water out before leaving it to dry hung on the radiator. After that I ironed it to lessen the effect a bit. The synthetic wasn't so easy. Again, I wet it through thoroughly, but just ringing it by hand wasn't enough. In the end I scrunched up the fabric and clamped each end in small woodwork clamps. My grip is rubbish, so I had to ask my husband to finish of keeping the fabric taught and twisting it as tightly as he could until it all twisted in on itself in a hard tight knot. Then another clamp to keep it all still and I left it to dry a bit overnight. When I opened the fabric this morning to spread it out to dry properly so I can sew it tonight it has the perfect creased texture ready for me to use on "The Dress" :). This bit is the example piece.

Joel had a few ideas about what he was going to wear before deciding on a classic all black Morning Suit. I managed very nice tiny cuffs, and even a wing collar and satin cravat, waistcoat and trousers before coming almost totally unstuck with the tailcoat.
If you could have heard me swearing at the stupid thing you would have been ashamed of me I'm sure. Between the collar going wrong, the tails not being even and somehow the sleeves ending up different lengths I finally got it done. The took another look and realised it was all too bulky and boxy for the slim figure I needed. I had top do the whole thing over. Cursing to myself that I hadn't realised sooner what was going wrong. But these things happen sometimes and at least now I have a good idea how to get a tiny jacket made up quite reasonably. He's looking quite good now :)

I still need to add a few more details to my tiny Joel doll. Like painting on just a little stubble, tinting his eyes, adding cuff links and a pocket handkerchief and flower, and painting on the classic black converse trainers he'll be wearing. But I'm very happy that the real Joel is happy with him so far. Now I just have to hope that Hazel likes hers.