A designer and dressmaker who thrives in a very small world
June 21, 2019
Designer Xu Jiajia creates a Thumbelina's world of doll clothes with needles, scissors and a sewing machine. She says she makes the smallest clothes in the world.
Xu, 34, and her husband operate a workshop in downtown Shanghai, where they create and make hundreds of styles of doll clothes sold across the globe.
One of her favorite “models” is Blythe, a fashion doll with oversized head and large eyes. It was created in the United States in the early 1970s, and its latest reincarnation has been released by the Japanese toy company Takara.
Xu, like most little girls, loved dolls in her childhood. But unlike other girls, she never outgrew that love.
"When I was young, I would 'destroy' things to make the doll clothes, " she tells Shanghai Daily. "Once I cut up curtains to make clothes for my doll, and I cut up my mother's necklace to make earrings."
She is self-taught.
"I was brought up by my grandmother,” Xu says. “She often took me to the entry of our neighborhood, where I watched her and other elderly ladies knitting sweaters. I showed great interest in that and learned some skills from them."
She set aside her passion for doll clothes when she was studying hard in middle and high school. After she enrolled in university, her mother one day told her about the Blythe doll and encouraged her to pick up her hobby again. She fell in love with the big-eyed doll at first sight.
"At that time, there was a store selling animation and comic products at the Hong Kong Plaza on Huaihai Road M.,” Xu says, “It sold Blythe dolls as well."
On MSN Spaces, she posted pictures of her Blythe doll dressed in clothes she made. It attracted many fans. In 2002, one follower introduced her to an online doll forum.
"I shared my works on the forum, and some fans said they really liked them and wanted me to make clothes for their dolls,” Xu said. "That's how my career started."
After graduation, she worked as a designer for a time, but felt her creative talent was being suppressed.
"So I resigned,” she says. “I told myself that now I could do what I wanted."
She did undertake studies in clothes-making at Donghua University, where she met her husband. The couple opened their own workshop in Yangpu District to make doll clothes in 2009.
"We made some simple ones at the very beginning, but they got more complicated and elaborate with time," says Xu, explaining that the designs are aimed at making doll clothes look more human.
For example, unlike most trench coats in the doll clothes market, which mainly use hasps or hook-and-loop fasteners, the tiny trench coats made by Xu can be buttoned up.
She customized clothes for dolls of different sizes, ranging from slim ones like Blythe or the Japanese brand Momoko to general ball-jointed dolls. She is now making her clothes smaller.
Her forte is making daily-style clothing, with patterns of natural elements such as animals and woods.
"I often put what I like in the real life into my works,” Xu says. “For example, when I see a beautiful scene when I'm out and about, I'll remember the colors and use them in my doll clothes. Sometimes I also get ideas from my dreams."
Many of the clothes have to be made by hand because they are too small to use a sewing machine.
“I used to use household sewing machine for making doll clothes,” she says. “But for some thin clothing, it’s easy for the cloth to get stuck.”
Xu has special tools for doing different craft work, including crochet hooks and knitting needles. She even had a jewelry store customize a set of knitting needles for her because the general ones are too large for doll clothes.
“I tried using needles for sewing quilts, but they are still too thick and often hurt my fingers,” she says.
Xu has introduced cultural heritage elements into her works, with the support of her alma mater, the Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts, Shanghai University. The academy has a public art coordination center that promotes traditional folk crafts all over China.
"We don't make mini-versions of the ethnic minority clothes, but rather we extract elements from them,” she says, picking up a doll’s dress. “For instance, this fabric is made with special plant dyes and it's very unique. My husband did the design and I did the embroidery.”
She brings out a set of Tibetan-style clothes.
"They saw my dolls and found it's interesting,” she says. “So these artisans made me tiny versions of traditional Tibetan clothes, which gave me ideas about creating my own.”
Last year, the academy’s center opened training classes for artisans from the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of northwestern China, and Xu joined them. There she learned how to make the “jade rabbit” that Xinjiang families make for newborn babies, and created one in a modern style for her Blythe doll. She also learned Xinjiang embroidery.
Xu has also studied the craft skills of Bouyei and Mongol ethnic groups.
"At the beginning, I didn't know much about these cultural heritages," Xu says. "But with deeper relationships with the artisans, I found each of these crafts has a story behind it. Every new experience brings me new ideas."
Her social network accounts like Instagram (jiajiadollworks) and Facebook and her online store attract thousands of fans from all over the world. She also takes her works to exhibitions of toys and dolls.
"In September and October last year, we attended two BlytheCon exhibitions — an event for Blythe doll lovers — in Beijing and Shanghai,” she says. “And earlier, we attended doll shows in Tokyo."
Xu's career is supported by her husband, her parents and her children.
"My mother always encouraged me to keep going when I encountered problems and was thinking of giving up,” she says.
Xu says she is not bothered by those who pooh-pooh dolls.
"Everything will have someone opposed to it,” Xu says dismissively. “I associate with like-minded people and we appreciate our common interests."