Just last year, while figuring out her next career move after a layoff from her job at Australia’s national science agency, mother and scientist Sonia Singh began noodling with a simple creative recycling project. Inspired by the elaborate games of make-believe she and her twin sister had played as children — with dolls as the stars of each storyline — she began salvaging discarded Bratz toys from thrift shops and giving them sweet, down-to-earth “makeunders,” complete with tiny, hand-knitted clothes made by her mother. She didn’t expect much to come of it, aside from rescuing a few discarded playthings from the landfill.
Then, in early 2015, she posted photos of her first completed dolls online — and just like that, her Tree Change Dolls became a viral sensation. Her Facebook fans leapt from 200 to over 450,000, and the dolls flew out of her Etsy shop in minutes. Since then, Sonia has responded to media inquiries from all over the world from her home in Tasmania, and was voted Community Choice winner of this year’s Etsy Design Awards for Australia and New Zealand. Here’s Sonia’s story.
People have reacted to your dolls in a very strong way. Some people see them as a challenge to the norms established by doll companies, particularly the hyper-sexualization of children’s dolls. Did you intend that?
I really didn’t set out to make a statement. What I wanted to do was upcycle and recycle some old dolls because I have always loved dolls so much. Toys — and so many other things — are treated as disposable items these days. I saw these dolls lying around tip (thrift) shops and saw the potential to make them into something to be treasured. I deliberately tried to give them a down-to-earth look because those are my values. I think children should play outside and I think natural beauty is lovely. While I worked on them, I remembered what I liked as a child and tried to make these dolls into the kind of dolls I would have wanted to play with. I still try to make each doll unique.
Did you have big plans for the dolls when you started? And why did you decide to share the work online?
In the beginning I only made about 10 or 12 dolls, and I didn’t show very many people because I was embarrassed. I was supposed to be looking for a job while my child was in childcare, not “playing with dolls” and exploring these ideas I had in my head. I’d shown my mum and she made some little clothes — she still makes all the dolls’ clothes, in fact. But when I showed the dolls to my partner, John, he was amazed, and really encouraged me to continue. So I took some photos in my garden of the dolls playing outside. I still hadn’t thought I would sell them. I was just being creative. But as soon as I created my blog in January, in about two days I started having media requests from all over the world.
I understand the dolls have had a role in charity.
Yes — since I started, I have been auctioning one doll each month for a different charity. I support children’s and environmental causes, including International Womens Development Agency, Save the Children Australia, Greening Australia and Tasmanian Land Conservancy. Most of the charity dolls have sold for over $1,000 AUD, with the highest going for $1,600 AUD. And I am hoping to be involved with Etsy’s #makeforgood campaign, which is a collaboration with PLAN Australia.
How long does it take you to make a Tree Change Doll?
It’s hard to say, because I do them in batches. It’s probably a full day’s work to do the faces. That doesn’t include shopping for the dolls, doing the hair, or my mum’s time for the little clothes. But one of the parts that has been the most challenging and that doesn’t get a lot of attention is making new feet and shoes. A lot of the used dolls have snap-on shoes that include the feet. Because I use discarded dolls, a lot of them have lost their feet or shoes, and even if they still have them, it’s not the look I want. So I came up with my own technique and I put a lot of work and time into styling my own shoes.
Do you imagine developing a line of dolls of your own?
So far, I still don’t have another job, so you could say I want to make the most of the opportunities that come my way. I do have a small daughter, and when you think about it, what better job could I imagine for myself than this one? At this stage it’s just a small business. I sell my dolls in my Etsy shop, and I sell knitting patterns for doll clothes and a few other things.
Tell us about your patterns and DIY tips.
I started making these dolls because I wanted to be creative myself, and I also wanted to inspire other people. After it all went viral, I got so many requests that I put some free DIY information and videos on my website. I especially like it when I hear that parents have done this as an activity with their children, because it’s lovely when children have some input into the toys they play with. They will really treasure those toys.
I have a very young daughter — just two and a half — and I made a doll for her that looks like her, and another that looks like me. She loves to play with them and make them have all kinds of adventures. I can’t do customized dolls for everyone, but if you know your own child, you are the best person to do the job, anyway.
A new batch of Tree Change Dolls goes up for sale Thursday, November 12 at 10 p.m. AEDT, or 6 a.m. ET; check the Shop Announcements section of Sonia’s Etsy shop for updates on future releases.
Photographs by Natalie Mendham for Etsy.