Artistry in wool and words

Knitting, stitching and sculpting the human form in three dimensions has been Fiona McDonald’s passion for twenty years, and her elaborately costumed, gangly-limbed, wide-eyed creations have colonised every surface of the downstairs workroom in her north Armidale home. Now her dolls are set to take on the world, as Fiona, a classically-trained artist and former high school teacher, embraces a new career as an author.

‘Babes in the Wool’, Fiona’s book of patterns for knitting nine elegantly attired, fashionable young women, has been a bestseller for UK-based craft publisher, Search Press, since its release in May.

The book is a work of art in its own right, with the girls frolicking in glorious glossy colour across its pages and the designs prefaced by whimsical biographical profiles.

Three basic body types ranging in size from 50 to 60cm are included, along with instructions for sculpting faces, constructing long flowing locks, and handcrafting a full mix-‘n’-match wardrobe of stylish clothing and accessories.

Search Press were so impressed by Fiona’s work that they immediately signed her up to do three more titles: ‘Knitted Aliens’, which came out in June; ‘Knitted Fairies’, due in November; and ‘Knitted Vampires’, for next year.

Her agent has also secured a deal with a different publisher for a quirky but informative book about the history of textiles, which Fiona is currently writing, and another on Britain in the 1920s.

Fiona grew up in Armidale and attended Ben Venue Public School and Duval High School. She studied classical painting, drawing and etching at the Julian Ashton Art School in Sydney from 1985-89 and then became obsessed with making fabric dolls.

“Not your classic rag doll,” Fiona explained. “They were very beautiful, had masses of hair, long skinny legs and lots of personality. My aim was to get the same kind of detail that you can have with porcelain, by putting gesso on the fabric and painting them with oils.”

She took instruction from her daughter Beatriz, who was only five at the time but already had refined aesthetic tastes.

“They weren’t allowed to have loose baggy underpants, because that was daggy. And they had to have proper faces, she didn’t want them having dots for eyes. They weren’t to look like the kind of thing that you find at fetes or in charity shops.”

By the mid 90s Fiona was living in Katoomba and giving workshops all over Australia in the art of making stylised cloth dolls.

“It tended to be older women who came along to the workshops. I think it was a way for them to be creative and to make statements without being intimidated by not being able to draw.”

Fiona completed a BA (Hons) in English and Italian part-time through the University of New England, and then came back to Armidale in 2003 to start a PhD.

She abandoned that due to ill-health, did a Dip. Ed instead, then taught casually in various local schools.

About four years ago she began creating knitted dolls and toys.

While not regarding her inventions as amigurumi (super-sweet knitted stuffed toys of Japanese origin), she agrees that interest in her designs is related to the global resurgence in the do-it-yourself craft market.

Initially, her main focus was not publishing the patterns, it was starting a small business selling completed dolls online. Some of her life-sized cloth ones have sold for around $1000; the smaller knitted ones fetch $125 each.

However, she was also approaching publishers and agents about doing a craft book, finally receiving an enthusiastic reception from Creative Authors Ltd in England.

Her dream now is to use her non-fiction publishing credentials as a stepping stone to become an author of fiction.

“I’ve been writing children’s fiction for ages,” she said. “Piles of stories. They always come back with rejection slips. I’d love to do a book that has a story about my dolls and a knitting pattern at the back so people can make their own.”

Read the book, knit the characters. It sounds irresistible.

Published in Seasons magazine, The Armidale Express, Spring 2010

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