I n a cozy attic studio in Hamden, rainbow skeins of ribbon and bolts of patterned fabric are neatly arranged. On a workbench, a linen figure lies, her pink yarn hair half-pinned to her head. A puff of dotted blue tulle waits to become a tiny tutu.
“I always loved dolls as a girl, and I still do,” Alisa D’Andrea says. D’Andrea is one of the founders of dollmaker Bash Petite, with her best friend Flavia Abely. The two met 13 years ago, when they were both working as interior designers. “We had a pretty instant friendship,’ D’Andrea says. After the birth of their children, when they were both considering a career change, they decided to forge a new path together.
“We just said, ‘Let’s do it,’” Abely says. “I was afraid at first.”
“Me too,” D’Andrea adds. “But other people succeed.”
Then Abely: “Why not us?”
“Exactly,” D’Andrea responds.
When it started in 2015, Bash Petite offered custom home and party decor, but D’Andrea says they could soon sense the tide turning against them. “Retail stores were getting hip to what was on Etsy. When they start producing items that look handmade for a fraction of the cost, then you know that you’re not in the right business anymore.”
Last May, Bash Petite changed directions and focused exclusively on dollmaking. The first doll D’Andrea made was a present for Abely’s daughter. “I just started sewing. And that’s sort of how we both work. Most of the time we have no idea what we’re doing, but we just have a lot of confidence that we’ll figure it out,” she says. After a few successful dolls that she gave as presents, she and Abely discussed turning it into a business.
“She said, ‘But we don’t really know how to make dolls,’” D’Andrea remembers.
“So we learned on YouTube!” Abely picks up.
Naturally, the pair’s designs have evolved since then. The original bodies were made from muslin; now they’re linen. At first the hair was made from gray felt—“I don’t really remember why we liked the gray so much,” D’Andrea says. “We thought it was very modern;” now they use yarn for hair, which allows for more color, style and texture. The lineup of finished dolls currently reposing in the studio includes creations with baby blue and pink tresses, often with removable accessories like cat ears or pompoms.
Some of the changes are smaller. For instance, the original face design had only cheeks, lips and eyes. Then D’Andrea “got kind of obsessed with eyebrows.” Now all their girls have a strong embroidered brow.
“We want our dolls to be super fun,” D’Andrea says. “We want a little girl or boy to walk by them and just be delighted. And not because they’re pink and glittery or anything—just because they’re so cool.” The dolls’ facial features—flared felt eyelashes and minimalist embroidered pouts—are contemporary and expressive. They’re also miniature fashion plates, outfitted in adventurous textures and patterns, as if waiting for a street-style photographer to come and snap a photo of them.
D’Andrea and Abely say that, although either one of them could make a doll from start to finish on their own, they prefer to work together, passing a doll back and forth according to each other’s skill sets. “I’ll embroider the faces, and she does the dresses because construction is her thing,” D’Andrea says. “I struggle with it a little bit—you have to think almost inside out and backwards with construction, and she has a much easier time figuring it out than I do.” They sell their finished products on Etsy, and are preparing for the biannual PopShop Market in Fairfield, which will be their first time selling the dolls in-person.
Abely ascribes the popularity of dolls, which she says are “trending,” to a few factors, the first of which is nostalgia. D’Andrea agrees, saying that dolls are perhaps best understood as a toyland cousin to “comfort food—there’s that familiarity.” And familial-ity. D’Andrea says that her three-year-old daughter often works alongside her in the attic, composing her own dolls from scrap fabric.
Beyond that, Abely thinks, dolls are a more engaging plaything in a world of passive digital distractions. “Kids,” she says, “start too young learning how to do everything on the phone and computer,” crowding out any blank spaces their brains might otherwise have to fill. “When they have dolls they use their imagination… And that’s what we want.”
Written by Sorrel Westbrook. Photo #1 by Sorrel Westbrook; photo #2, depicting (from left) Alisa D’Andrea and Flavia Abely, courtesy of Bash Petite.