Q and A With Doll Maker and Creative Genius Jess Brown
With a desire to focus on timeless toys that bring endless joy, this dollmaker’s creations have been elevating play time for almost two decades.
Maker Jess Brown has built and maintained her business on the idea that her products should be made to last, whether they’re a cherished rag doll or a beautiful piece of clothing. At the heart of her work is the commitment to create with beauty, timeless design and longevity.
Jess’s rag dolls are recognizable immediately. Their soft, delicate faces are available across the globe. Made to order, their construction reflects her integrity to create products that are meant to given from one generation to the next. We were lucky enough to have the opportunity to talk with Jess about her work and what makes her a Creative Genius.
Tell our readers a little bit about yourself and your work.
First and foremost, I am the mom of Stella, 20 and Tiger, 17. I have always loved creating special handmade keepsakes for them. I have a really strong belief that there is a different kind of energy in anything handmade. You can feel the intention of the artist in each stitch or fabric choice — each design decision curated. My work evolved from this sentiment. Every doll, quilt or women’s piece has my vision of purpose and beauty poured into it.
What led you to want to create handmade dolls? What do you love most about the process?
When my daughter, who is now turning 20, was born, my husband and I made a conscious decision to focus on creating handmade toys for her. At the time, it was nearly impossible to find anything for babies and young children that was either handmade or made from a natural fiber. I created dolls for her and he, a carpenter, created building blocks, dollhouses, those sorts of things. When she turned six and my son was three, I opened a small children’s shop with a friend. I created a few dolls for the shop, and they sold well. I was having trouble keeping them in stock. One thing led to another, and suddenly I had a budding little business of handmade rag dolls. I began going door to door and calling my favorite shops to see if anyone wanted to carry the dolls. Each store gave them a try and did well with them. The business gained some fast traction after a few trade shows and kind of took off!
What are some of the characteristics of a rag doll, and how you do put a modern spin on them today?
I love working without rules and allowing for each piece I create to unfold. I embrace the happy accidents and try to let each creation show me how it will evolve. I’m generally surprised with the finished product!
When you’re working on creating a new doll, where do you begin? What inspires your design?
Each doll has the same look, same face, same style of hair. This is intentional. As for the beginning of the process, for me it’s all about the textile I’m working with. I use a lot of antiques. The unique qualities in each fabric scrap inform the final design.
Textile and texture are very inspiring to me. I love working with antique pieces that have been tattered or discarded. The idea that something can be repurposed and elevated is exciting to me.
What kind of materials do you prefer to use with your dolls?
I love working with hand-created pieces of fabric: embroidered, hand-dyed, hand-blocked or hand-beaded — anything that can visibly show an artisan's process. Antique scraps are best.
What are some of the must-have tools needed to make your own doll?
A really sharp pair of sewing shears and a few good needles. And some really great Japanese embroidery floss!
What is it about a custom-made doll that elevates it to heirloom quality?
I think the intention behind each piece is what elevates the design to heirloom quality. Nothing is rushed. Time is taken with every part of the process.
As someone who also creates women’s clothing, what are some of the differences and/or similarities when it comes to sewing clothing on such different scales?
With my women’s collection, I design the pieces, and then they are sewn up by local sewers. I would say the greatest similarity in the design is the commitment to timelessness and longevity.
When you’re not creating a doll for a new order, what are some of your other creative outlets?
Creating quilts has become a huge passion of mine and another actual product line. There’s a freedom of creativity that comes with the style of quilts that I’m making. I also love how utilitarian they are!
Do you have a favorite reaction to your dolls from a recipient over the years?
Well, I suppose it’s the incredible letters I receive. Children write me thank you letters that absolutely bring me to tears! The thought that I could create something that makes a child fill will love, joy and comfort is the number one most amazing thing ever!