Curious Pip (Sarah Burford) is a doll and miniature maker as well as illustrator based in Bristol. Ever since she was a child, her main inspirations come from old Hollywood movies, old cloth dolls, vintage mannequins and 1930s-40s comic strip characters. A collection of her dolls in flawless classic Hollywood glamour will be available to enjoy and purchase at Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop from the 7th November to the 10th December. We sent our ‘Hollywood Reporter’ Chiara to find out more.
Chiara: Hi Sarah, thank you for answering our questions today – we love your creations at Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop and we’re excited to find out more! Let’s start from the beginning: you are a self-taught designer and doll-maker, which is impressive. How did you learn all this, exactly? Is it something that was initially passed on to you by a family member? Did you read books, follow YouTube channels, learn from trial and error?
Sarah: I’ve always had a pencil in my hand from a very young age. I drew constantly. A little later I was drawn to old movies, and I used to sketch the outfits worn by the glamourous women in the afternoon matinees. My mum was a knitter, and my grandma was a seamstress who was always making her own clothes – suits and dresses. Off cuts from my grandma’s materials became the perfect dressing up box for my childhood dolls.
I sadly dismissed art at school as I didn’t enjoy my classes and I ended up becoming interested in theatre studies. This is what I pursued and ended up working as an actor before getting married, moving to Bristol, and having my son.
Having lost ambition in acting I took on a short course in Children’s illustration. My amazing teacher was so complimentary about the sweet characters I created she encouraged me to create a fabric doll. I then started writing a blog and selling my very simple little designs, which were very long limbed and an age away from what they look like today.
I’ve never followed any pattern or watched any tutorials. I tend to collect photos from the internet of old fabric dolls and study how they may have been constructed. I have a very sweet old handmade doll from the 1940s and she was always my starting point for template inspiration. I generally draw my patterns straight onto the fabric this ensures that every doll is one of a kind. I did however make a template for the Busby Berkeley troupe! Most things I’ve just figured it out myself along the way and I usually accompany my makes with character study illustrated prints. I couldn’t really do one without the other. I like to draw characters then make them come alive as fabric dolls you can pop on your shelf or hang on the wall.
Chiara: We’re particularly fascinated by how you make the hair. Do you have any tips for novice doll-makers?
Sarah: I can honestly say the hair making is practice, practice, practice!
When I first started using merino wool on my dolls, I placed the hair quite simply but now I play around with it quite a lot – creating waves and curls. I do this with a combination of felting and stitching.
Now and again, I make little wigs and place them straight onto the doll’s heads, but I don’t want to give away all my secrets!
Ultimately, it’s trial and error and a lot of practice, practice, practice!
Chiara: Your dolls look adorable and rock some killer outfits! How do you source the fabrics and other materials you use for them?
Sarah: The materials I use are a combination of both new, recycled, and vintage fabrics. I wear and collect a lot of vintage myself, so when things come to an end, I often chop up my own clothes to use them for my dolls! I don’t believe in holding on to vintage pieces and never wearing them for fear of damage.
I try to get to lots of flea markets and vintage fairs, where my eyes are always peeled for beautiful prints and textures. I particularly love fabrics from other eras because they tell a story, hold a romance, and stand the test of time.
Chiara: Although all your dolls share a kind of old Hollywood glamour, we couldn’t help but notice some variety among them: divas, mermaids, circus artists… How do you pick who to represent? Are you interested in creative female icons ?
Sarah: I have so many creative female icons on my inspiration radar. I’ve always been fascinated with Hollywood starlets, slinky villains, showgirls and mermaids. When I fall for someone, I’m committed to them forever!… to name a few…golden era Hollywood actresses such as Myrna Loy, Jean Harlow, Esther Williams. Fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, Early female cartoonists such as Gladys Parker and Jackie Ormes, Artists Tove Jansson, Frida Kahlo. Iconic figures such as Maila Nurmi (who created Vampira) as well as textile designers from Ray Eames to Celia Birtwell.
I have always loved mermaids I’m obsessed with their look and representation in movies and books. Some of my earliest memories are looking at illustrations of mermaids in the books I read as a little girl. Subsequently I’m very drawn to the sea and anything aquatic.
Chiara: Classic Hollywood and Busby Berkeley are clear influences in your work and behind your exhibition for Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop. What exactly do you like about this era and style? Do you have other, more “hidden” inspirations – something your public wouldn’t expect, perhaps? Any hints for what is next for Curious Pip?
Sarah: When I first spoke to Louise earlier in the year we pencilled in Nov/Dec as our initial plan. Christmas has to have the sparkle factor, so I thought of sequins and chorus girls from the 1930s. This led instantly to Busby Berkeley, who created complex geometric patterns with large numbers of chorus showgirls. The result had to be an elaborate extravaganza of sparkle. It’s magic, it’s glamour and its pure fantasy, this is what appeals. I hope people see it as the perfect eye candy and great timing with the Covent Garden Christmas light switch on.
Next I’m going to make some Christmas tree fairies – so sticking with the tulle and sequin theme for a little longer! I’d also like to create a collection of new prints for my shop as well as work on a new website.
Chiara: How have you found working on the Busby Berkeley troupe for the ‘Living Pictures’ Christmas at Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop? How do you feel when you let them go into the world?
Sarah: It’s not so much the product for me, it’s the process of making. So, when it’s finished it’s like ‘okay I’m happy to send that out into the world’ I love that people enjoy my creations.
I’ve had the whole year to slowly produce 12 sweet dolls, how lovely is that! Perfect project.
Alongside doing my other creative work It’s helped me through some very tough times. I was diagnosed with breast cancer earlier in the year and have had five months of treatment to make me well again. Having had something to focus on really helped pull me through. I’m now on the other side of treatment and am really proud to present these very special pieces that will always be close to my heart.
Please email us for information on the Curious Pip Exhibition. Priority is being given to in-person sales. Register your interest with us by email.