Farmington doll maker marks time with needle and thread

James Fenton The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Lovilla Grim has created her own Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls for more than half her life.

Grim, 86, who lives in the Apple Ridge senior community here, said she often struggles to explain her devotion to the iconic American rag dolls.

"I started making them 55 years ago for my kids and my grandkids," Grim said. "I don't know. I get a kick out of making them, but I may be getting to the point where I'm getting tired of them."

Grim said her eyesight isn't what it used to be, and her energy level has taken a blow from a recent diagnosis of lung cancer that requires her to breathe with the assistance of oxygen fed through a tube that hooks under her nose. She also uses a machine every six hours to help her breathe more easily.

But Grim said she still finds herself working on the dolls most days, a pursuit that has taken her through about a half dozen sewing machines.

Being anchored to her home has meant more time to sew the Raggedy dolls, which were created in 1915 by American writer Johnny Gruelle.

Despite admitting to a slight ambivalence over the red-haired rag dolls with the triangle noses, Grim said she simply loves to sew, and the dolls are a great way to pass the time.

Her small apartment is tidy and organized, but two dozen Ann and Andy dolls that swallow her couch and fill one corner of her living room leave her little room to sit. Her bedroom doubles as her workshop, where she utilizes dual Singer sewing machines for making the dolls' bodies and clothes.

Grim has found a small but reliable customer base at the annual craft fair at nearby Bonnie Dallas Senior Center, where she sells the dolls, usually as a pair, for $25 or sometimes $40. She gives away most of the dolls — which range in size from 15 to 36 inches — to family members and friends.

"People don't usually want to pay the price because they don't appreciate how much time each one takes," she said. Grim said it was difficult to estimate how many dolls she has made in more than half of a century, as well as how long each doll takes to complete.

Grim makes as many as 20 at a time, beginning with the measuring and cutting of the fabric for the bodies and clothes from patterns she has bought and collected through the years. Working piece by piece requires patience and focus, a skill she developed years ago while working the assembly line and manufacturing mini cars at a Tonka toys factory in Mound, Minn., and packaging items customers bought out of the Sears catalog at the Sears, Roebuck and Company Mail-Order Warehouse and Retail Store in Minneapolis, Minn.

She moved to Farmington after her husband retired from a 30-year career as a long-haul truck driver.

She grew up with eight brothers and sisters on a farm in Tyler, Minn., and said she learned sewing from her mother. Over her sewing machines is a wall hanging, a gift from her sister, that reads "Life's a stitch."

"'Life's a stitch.' That's my sister who made that," she said, chuckling. "It's my mother who sewed and taught me how. She never used a pattern."

Grim also sews her own slacks and said she sewed many of the clothes her children and family wore. She still makes herself knit slacks in navy and prefers them to any pants available in a store.

Grim's friend and neighbor Joanne Hammes said she admires her friend's industrious nature and joy for life.

"(She's) a woman with spunk and enterprise," Hammes said in an email. "Her apartment is a veritable assembly line for Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls of all sizes."

Recently, Grim has expanded her steady line of dolls to make Ann and Andy doorstops, which she said have been popular with some.

Grim also has been busy making quilts out of her stores of fabric.

"Every seamstress has a stash of fabric," she said. "So, I'm cutting up fabric in little squares and making quilts to sell. Maybe I'll donate them for children at Childhaven."

After he retired, Grim said her husband would ask her in the morning what the two of them might do that day, and her answer was often the same.

"I'd say, 'I don't know what you're doing today, but I'm going to be over at my sewing machine,'" she said. "And that day, there I'd be, working on this or that. That's just me."

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 and Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.