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Doll Restoration and Conservation
What you need to know
"Conservation differs from restoration by aiming to preserve and clarify what survives, rather than replace what is missing."
"Conservation is a race against time"
"Do nothing that cannot be undone" (Bettyanne Twigg, UFDC President)
There is an epidemic in doll collecting--an epidemic of doll restoration. This epidemic has been fostered by the easy, open market of eBay and other online auction houses, which has allowed collectors to easily sell items from their collections (as well as their garage sale and estate sale finds). Naturally, a vintage or antique doll that is photo-ready with a perky dress, bright painted features and a neat hairdo is going to sell quicker than a doll with aged-looking clothing, faded paint and flaws. So, collectors by the thousands are taking their vintage and antique dolls that are not in mint condition, and they are doing everything in their power to make the doll and its outfit more perfect--they curl and style the hair, they wash, bleach and starch the doll costume (or replace it entirely, whether it is original to the doll or not), and they repair tears and repaint facial features.
Now, I am not NECESSARILY saying there is anything wrong with this....what I AM saying is that there is a right way to restore a doll that preserves its originality, historical value, and that does not damage a doll. On the other hand, careless restoration can actually damage the value of the doll, and also destroy any historical value it might have. I agree strongly with, and cannot emphasize enough, the importance of the UFDC motto on doll conservation and restoration: "Do nothing that cannot be undone."
Additionally, a vital aspect of doll collecting is often overlooked by eager doll collectors--conservation of their dolls. To conserve dolls is to preserve them--to fight against the damaging forces of temperature, light, insects, dirt, dust and time. Conservation, properly done and understood, will help your treasures last your lifetime, and hopefully to also last for generations to come.
This multi-part article will help you navigate the topics of doll restoration and conservation. There are sections on conservation/restoration of bisque dolls, vinyl dolls, doll costumes, doll wigs and paper preservation. There is also an extensive bibliography, and links to sites with further information on these topics. I have taken the information in this article from many sources--my own experience, the experience of my husband who has taken an in-depth course in porcelain and composition repair, and courses on restoration and conservation taken at UFDC conventions given by well-known doll conservationist (and UFDC president!) Bettyanne Twigg, and also given by the conservator at the Strong Museum in Rochester, NY.
The following definitions are not necessarily the ONLY ones--some people would call preservation and conservation the same process. I will use preservation and conservation interchangeably here.
Preservation: Protect a doll from destructive forces--heat, light, insects, dust and dirt.
Conservation: Treat something which already happened and HALT the problem (string a doll, treat an insect infestation, re-set eyes that have fallen out, stop further melting of silks, etc.)
Restoration: Replace or fix something NOT on a doll, or improve something on a doll. Cleaning dirty outfits, add a new finger, restyle/add a wig, repaint a doll.
General Principles of Doll Restoration
How Severe Should The Restoration Be?: I've mentioned it in the introduction, and I'll mention it here again--do NOTHING that cannot be undone--at least to any vintage or antique doll with historical value--most antique dolls, vintage dolls with original clothing an presentation, etc. Now, obviously if you have a vintage Barbie that is a basket case--no face paint, vinyl splits, hair a mess, no original clothing--the doll has little or NO historical (or other!) value, and that is a perfect candidate for no-holds barred restoration including perhaps treatments and repainting that cannot be undone! The only caveat I have here is if you DO restore a doll that is a total basket case, PLEASE employ the proper ethics and make sure that all such restoration is disclosed upon the sale of the doll.
Wash Your Hands! Wash your hands quite a bit while you are working with vintage or antique dolls-or wear gloves. Oils from your hands transfer to dolls and doll clothing. You don't SEE the oils, but the oils attract bugs, mold, and dirt. Some people use baby wipes to clean their hands--I use plain soap (such as ivory) and water only since I am worried about types of residue that baby wipes may leave on dolls and their clothes. Another reason to use gloves when working with dolls is to protect yourself from substances that can be ON new, unfamiliar your dolls--You should use gloves to protect yourself when working with unfamiliar dolls (you don't know if pesticides have been used, etc.) I will admit that I have a hard time following this advice, as I hate to wear gloves when I am working.
SEE What You are Doing: Use white cloths to clean dolls so you can SEE what the effect is--are you lifting just dirt from the doll, or also paints, too? And, only work in a very well lighted area; if you have daylight corrected bulbs, that is ideal.
Be Prepared: Have everything before you (tools, materials, etc). set out before you start. Don't eat/drink while you are working (bad things from the doll can get in your food and drink--bugs, chemicals, even pesticide residues--you DON'T know what treatments/problems a doll ahs before you get it!) AND, trust me, coffee spilled all over a composition doll or body you are working on WILL damage it.
Ventilation!: Only repair dolls with proper ventilation--some of the items that are used for cleaning and restoring dolls can give off harmful fumes.
Keep a Trail....If you take a doll completely apart, sketch things before you do this so you can get them back together again (this is particularly important for dolls with complicated bodies that need restringing).
Ethics of Selling a Restored Doll: If you sell a doll, you MUST disclose any changes made to the doll--any repainting, repairs, added materials (new eyes, wig). For certain vintage dolls such as vintage Barbie, even restyling the hair effects the value and should be disclosed; so does washing the clothing. However, you do not have to disclose basic conservation measures such as cleaning dolls. For antique dolls, washing of clothing and restyling of wigs is generally not required to be disclosed.
Don't miss the rest of the articles (below!) in this series--find out everything from how to clean a composition doll, to how to repair a split in a vinyl Barbie doll, to how to clean doll clothes safely, and also where to find LOTS of additional information!
Second Page > General Principles of Doll Conservation: How To Make Your Treasures Last! > Page 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
Third Page > Tips For Successful Doll Restoration > Page 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
Fourth Page > Tips on Doll Costume and Textile Restoration > 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
Fifth Page > Special Tips for Restoration of Barbie and other Plastic Dolls >1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
Sixth Page > Links to Suppliers of Conservation and Restoration Products; Links to sites About Conservation and Restoration > Page 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
Seventh Page > Bibliography: Books on Doll Restoration and Conservation > Page 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7