Op/Ed

Jessie Raymond: Big project means thinking small

Each year, because the holidays aren’t stressful enough, Mark and I embark on an insane Christmas project. This year, we’re building our grandchildren a dollhouse.
Mark’s making the house and the furniture, and I’m doing the decorating and the dolls — a family of mice, actually. (It amazes me how cute you can make filthy vermin just by dressing them in hats.)
Would you believe it’s more complicated than I expected?
I figured Mark would take an afternoon to glue together some plywood rectangles and call it good enough, because that’s what I would do. Instead, he spent three nights drawing a 3-D computer model of a 1:12-scale luxury home. 
His renderings showed every detail down to the crown molding in the guest bathroom. He bristled when I suggested that maybe he was taking the dollhouse concept too far. 
“It’s nice,” I said. “But I’m not sure you’re going to need this full HVAC schematic. Even if the radiant-floor heating works, there’s no glass in the windows. The utility bills are gonna be through the roof.”
Eventually I talked him down to the kind of dollhouse that’s meant to be played with. Besides, I reminded him, Christmas was only a few weeks away. Would he even have time to hand turn tiny spindles for the curved staircase? 
Discouraged but resigned, he revised his plans, settling on a much simpler two-story farmhouse. But as he shuffled out to his wood shop, I could hear him muttering, “What kind of lame dollhouse doesn’t have a home theater with surround sound?”
While he built the walls, I worked on the dolls, starting with one question: How do I make dolls?
I had no idea.
A web search brought me to needle felting, which involves repeatedly poking a clump of wool with a barbed needle, a process that eventually compacts the wool into a firm, defined shape. 
One problem: I didn’t know how to needle felt. So, in lieu of getting actual experience, I skimmed a few YouTube videos and concluded there was nothing to it.
I was half-right.
The technique itself is straightforward (poke, poke, poke) and oddly soothing. But the sculpting part requires both forethought and — in retrospect, this should have been obvious — knowing how to sculpt. I had neither the vision nor the skill. 
I knew I wanted the mice to be somewhat anthropomorphic; after all, they’d need to be able to lie in dollhouse beds and, if Mark had his way, use the hand-carved NordicTrack.
Shrugging, I jabbed at the wool, gradually shaping it with my needle strokes into what I hoped would become an endearing rodent. To my delight, an hour of poke-poke-poking produced a creature with a sweet mouselike face.
The body, however, had the torso of an underfed grizzly bear and the diffident stance of a J.C. Penney model. The dog growled at it.
I decided I’d keep this first failed attempt for us, either hanging it on the Christmas tree (in the back) or sticking it under the sink to scare away real mice. Luckily, the aesthetic of my subsequent creations has leaned more toward Beatrix Potter than Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.
Mark, having finished the house, has moved on to building bed frames and bookcases. I’ve sewn and stuffed four six-inch-long mattresses, and now I’m fashioning tiny patchwork quilts by hand.
I didn’t anticipate how awkward the small scale would be. I spent two hours one night tightly plaiting miles of embroidery floss for an eight-by-10-inch braided rug. Not only did my fingers remain hooked like claws for 24 hours after, but  in the end my efforts only yielded enough for a doormat.
My fading eyesight and the lack of natural light don’t help. These days, merely threading a sewing needle is a literal stab in the dark that can take several minutes with each try.
Still, for all the challenges of creating a doll-sized domicile, the work is engrossing. We find ourselves being drawn into the cozy world we’re creating for the children, one needlessly complex handcrafted item at a time. 
In some ways, it’s fitting; I’ve been saying for months that in this difficult year, I’ve found comfort in focusing on the little things.
But I didn’t mean it quite this literally. 

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