Dolly mama: Jean Schwartz uses 'reborn' process to bring dolls to life

WORTHINGTON -- Some aspects of Jean Schwartz's hobby can be a bit disconcerting to outsiders. "One time somebody called, and I said, 'I can't talk right now because I've got a baby in the oven,'" she related. Jean also regularly sticks skewers up...

Jean Schwartz holds one of her reborn baby dolls at her home just outside Worthington.

WORTHINGTON -- Some aspects of Jean Schwartz's hobby can be a bit disconcerting to outsiders.

"One time somebody called, and I said, 'I can't talk right now because I've got a baby in the oven,'" she related.

Jean also regularly sticks skewers up baby's noses and jabs holes in their heads.

The babies in question, however, are dolls, and the techniques that she employs make the dolls look as realistic as possible.

Jean "reborns" dolls -- turning them from basic to so lifelike that they are often mistaken for living infants. Although she's not sure exactly when or how she started in this unique hobby, Jean estimates she's been doing it for about five years.


"I was probably looking under dolls on eBay and happened upon these," she said. "Obviously I kept digging deeper and deeper."

Dolls have long been an interest for Jean, and for many years she collected antique dolls and dressed them authentically.

"I went to auctions and sales in search of fabrics," she explained. "But that got to be too much about dollars and cents and back-stabbing. ... I love dolls. I like crafts. So this all came together."

The reborn phenomenon -- which has spread around the world -- began with store-bought dolls.

"People started taking the Berenguer dolls, which look quite realistic to begin with, and filing down the grooves in their heads, taking them apart and remaking them to look like real babies," Jean said.

Nowadays, there are many companies that make doll forms and kits to be used in the reborning process. Artists specialize in sculpting the features on the baby's faces.

"There are probably over 300 molds available right now," noted Jean.

All the components needed to make the dolls, as well as the finished dolls, are sold, bought and traded on auction sites such as eBay, and there are also a number of online forums devoted to reborning.


Jean's enterprise is called Prairie Babies Nursery. She does custom orders -- the dolls are occasionally utilized as a way to remember a child who died in infancy or to resemble a child who has now grown up -- but also individualizes the dolls for her own enjoyment.

Once she's selected a vinyl doll form, Jean begins by using a specialized oil-based medium.

"The paint is called Genesis Paint," she explained. "It can take 20 different layers of paint."

Great attention is given to detail -- getting the skin tones just right, adding tiny touches such as feathering in eyebrows with a pencil and utilizing a particular shade of light pink for the toenails. Once the proper look is achieved, the vinyl parts go into the oven.

"We have to bake their heads, I hate to tell you," Jean said with a smile. "Eight minutes at 265 degrees to set the paint."

Adding the eyes can be tricky, and Jean's husband Kern is often called upon to maneuver the glass disks into place. The heads and limbs are then attached to a cloth torso, but even the body is filled with materials that simulate the feel of a baby's bottom. Some people go as far as inserting a "wonder wafer" that emits the smell of baby powder.

For the baby's hair, mohair fibers are inserted, strand by strand, by poking a felting needle into the head.

"There are people who raise goats just for this, and it can cost up to $60 for half an ounce," she said, demonstrating how the needle is jabbed repeatedly into the scalp. "You just keep doing it and doing it and doing it. I like to do it during football games. It can take up to 40 hours just to do the hair."


Once the hair is styled to Jean's satisfaction, the doll is basically complete, except for its wardrobe. The dolls wear infant-sized duds, and Jean takes great delight in picking out the perfect outfit for each doll.

"I buy most of it," Jean said about the clothing, even though she's a skilled seamstress. "I've got 42 smocked dresses right now hanging in the closet."

Like many reborn enthusiasts, Jean talks to and about the dolls almost as if they were living, breathing entities.

"I put them in their winter jammies the other day," she said, referring to the collection of dolls that inhabits a cabinet in the Schwartzes' bedroom. "When I send one out to somebody during the winter, I wrap them up real warm, and I always give them a stuffed animal so they won't be afraid."

Although she occasionally comes across a doll with features that become a boy, most of Jean's creations are female.

"I do open-eyed girls the most," she noted, "although I'm starting to do a few closed-eyes ones and a couple of boys."

Contrary to form, Jean recently reborned a boy doll with closed eyes, as well as dark skin and curly black hair -- baby Jesus. The doll, swaddled in linen, will be utilized during the upcoming Christmas program at American Lutheran Church in Worthington.

"He's only going to live at church during Christmas. He lives with me the rest of the year," Jean asserted.


The reborn dolls are intended more as adult collectibles than children's toys.

"They're not recommended for children younger than 12," Jean said. "It's not a toy. It's a keepsake. My granddaughters know they can't touch them. I have eight granddaughters, two daughters, two daughter-in-laws. Someday they'll all get one as a legacy from grandma."

The doll forms have names, but since they are apt to make multiples of a particular model, many reborn artists christen their creations with a new individual moniker.

"Most people say, 'The name just comes to me,'" Jean related. "That doesn't happen for me. I have trouble giving them names."

But Jean has no difficulty infusing her dolls with a bit of individual personality.

"She's full of the devil," she said, pointing to a doll with sparkling eyes sitting on the sofa in her living room, a twinkle also shining in her own. "I have three or four of her, and I have to keep them separated or they'll get up to some mischief."

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