Judy Knauf started her doll doctor career by repairing a friend's beloved childhood doll which had been mauled by a dog. "I created and sewed on little arms and legs and brought the doll back to life," Knauf says. (Photo by Chris Smith)
Judy Knauf was almost a senior citizen before she began playing with dolls.
The daughter of a U.S. Air Force doctor, Knauf preferred rough-and-tumble adventures and challenging toys as a child. “I was a tomboy,” she says. “I knew lots of other girls on the different military bases where we lived who played with dolls, but I never did. I had one doll, and my grandmother sewed clothes for it; I pretended to be thrilled so that I would not disappoint her.”
Knauf has a photograph of herself when she was 6, holding that doll.
Little Judy Knauf with the only doll she owned as a girl. "I was a tomboy," she says. (Photo courtesy of Judy Knauf)
“That was about as involved as I wanted to be with it,” she says.
Several decades later, the little girl who wanted nothing to do with dolls spends most of her free time mending and restoring them.
For several years, Knauf enjoyed a career in management for a women’s clothing and handbag manufacturer. Then she changed the course of her life by returning to school for a nursing degree. She is now a semi-retired geriatric caseworker.
One day, a friend who knew that Knauf enjoyed sewing asked her if she could repair a beloved cloth doll from her childhood. The friend’s dog had gnawed its torso and head and chewed off its arms and legs. “I created and sewed on little arms and legs and brought the doll back to life,” Knauf says. “My friend was pleased that her precious doll was once again whole, and she asked if I might be able to repair some of her other ones.”
The other dolls were made of hard plastic and needed to be restrung, but Knauf knew nothing about restringing vintage dolls. The process can be tricky: The arms, legs and head must be removed, as all of the work takes place inside the doll’s torso.
“I became increasingly curious about how to repair those dolls,” Knauf says, “so I turned to the Internet, where I found an online class — which I passed with flying colors.”
After Knauf aced the doll repair course, she felt it was time to hang out her shingle at a doll show. “I had heard that Richmond hosts two annual doll shows, so I loaded up some of my work and my doll repair kit, and off I went to my first one, at the Richmond Raceway.”
Doll shows are well-attended events where collectors buy and sell every kind of doll imaginable; the Richmond shows attract about 50 vendors.
“There was only one doll doctor at the show,” Knauf remembers, “a talented and knowledgeable woman, whom I befriended. She became my mentor for the next 10 years. When she got sick, I told her that she couldn’t die, that I hadn’t learned everything I needed to know yet.”
After her mentor, Cece Goins, passed away, the other doll vendors told Knauf: “You’re it.”
Knauf acknowledges that working the shows can be daunting, “especially when there is a line of broken dolls that runs to the end of the building.”
Many dolls that need minor repairs can be helped on the spot. “I restring dolls at the shows, and I can help with cloudy eyes, but major work such as repainting a doll has to be done at home,” she says. “It’s very time-consuming, as I have to take off all of the original paint and then repaint the entire doll, body and face.”
Knauf also repairs antique ball-jointed dolls at home. She often has to search for the right parts, since the originals are obsolete. “I’m willing to improvise with whatever is a good fit,” Knauf says. “For that reason, they know me at Home Depot.”
Knauf works on the dolls when the mood strikes, explaining that her art, like that of any artist, cannot be rushed.
“The dolls tell me what needs to be done,” Knauf says. “I know that sounds odd, but it’s true.”
Having passed on online doll repair course, Knauf works on dolls when the mood strikes. (Photo by Chris Smith)
She shares her home near Short Pump with three small dogs, a bird and a constantly changing number of “patients.” At first, Knauf used her kitchen as a “waiting room,” but as the doll doctor’s practice has grown, the patients spilled over into the dining room, the den, living room and onto almost every available surface in the house. When friends and customers began donating dolls and accessories to the doll hospital, she had to buy a storage shed, which she calls The Doll Hospital Annex.
“One lady whose late mother had owned a doll shop offered to sell me some doll wigs,” Knauf says. “I thought I was buying a few dozen — I was willing to pay $200 for them, and my offer was accepted. But when they were delivered, there were 700 of them!” She says the wigs are worth more than $30,000. She says she may never use them all, but the price was certainly right.
She will take on almost any doll, but her favorites are “baby dolls” or “play dolls,” the dolls that have become worn from being well loved.
Knauf enjoys working with classic dolls including Madame Alexander, Effanbee, Bye Lo, Tiny Tears, Ashton Drake and American Girl. She also has restored bisque porcelain dolls from Germany. The bisque dolls date to the 1800s, and many are heirlooms. Restoring fragile bisque heads requires skill and a gentle touch, which prompted Knauf to travel to Boise, Idaho, in 2013 for a workshop in which she learned specific repair techniques that return treasured dolls to their delicate beauty.
Once a doll has been restored, Knauf collaborates with a friend, Richmond resident Joan Terrell, who specializes in constructing authentic doll clothing. “She’s like me,” Knauf says, “in that she lets the dolls tell her what they want to wear.”
Knauf is always interested to learn the history of the dolls she repairs. “I suggest that my customers take a moment and write, on a small card, the history of their doll — how old they were when they got her [or him], who gave the doll to them, and any other interesting information. The card may be pinned to an underskirt or kept in a separate safe place. Who knows who will find the doll years from now and wonder about its history?”
One of Knauf’s customers is Dianne Lamb of Richmond. “I was given a Madame Alexander Pussycat baby doll with golden brown curls on my 6th birthday,” Lamb says. “She went with me everywhere. Over the years, my grandmother made her beautiful clothes, but I kept her original pink dress, and that is what I dressed her in when I put her away before leaving for college.”
Thirty years later, Lamb’s brother found the beloved, worn doll in the family attic, and Lamb contacted Knauf at The Doll Hospital.
“What a wonderful gift this woman has,” Lamb says, “to take a treasure from our past that has been tarnished by neglect and time and return it to us in the same state that our memories had it. Even as a grown woman, I enjoy this sweet doll that brought me so much comfort.”
Knauf says her favorite part of the restoration process is what she calls “The Big Reveal.” When the owners return for their dolls, they see a scarf draped over a figure. They are then shown the “arrival photograph” Knauf takes of all dolls that enter her hospital. And then the scarf is removed. “Sometimes they cry,” Knauf says. “They cannot believe it’s the same doll. I feel I have given them something special.”
A DOLL’S HOUSE
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