Ida Downing of Green Springs has been a participating artist at the Y-Wives Holdowningy Extravaganza for the past 10 years. She is the featured artist for the 2011 bazaar. Her booth offers cloth dolls, clothing for American Girl and other dolls, doll accessories and some stuffed animals.
Downing's three daughters have grown, but the cloth dolls and garments she made for them provided the seeds for her sewing business. With them in mind, she still tends to make things in threes.
"We went through the Barbie and the Cabbage Patch phase for them," Downing said. "When I die, nobody will fight, because there will be three of everything."
In 1997, Downing obtained a vendor's license and registered for craft shows in Monroeville and Green Springs to sell extra items she had made. It surprised her many customers were older women who wanted the cloth dolls to sit on their beds or to give to their grandchildren. Other clients asked her to make clothing for smaller dolls, such as Barbie, Madame Alexander and Magic Attic, a more slender version of American Girl.
"I love it, and the kids are so great. I think that's my favorite part," Downing said. "The little girls are so sweet."
Everything took off from there. Downing's husband, Jack, turned a small garage into a sewing studio with shelves for fabric and racks to hang up the tiny outfits. The more Downing made, the more creative she became.
Her "rag dolls" have evolved with yarn hair and more sophisticated attire.
The craft shows introduced the Downings to new customers and vendors, some of whom became good friends. Downing said the late Gary Mulvane was like extended family to her and Jack.
A woman who used to have a shop in Port Clinton advised Downing doll clothes would sell more quickly if they were hung on display. The woman even taught Jack how to make hangers out of florist's wire. Their new friends also shared information about other shows.
"Somebody kept telling me about Y-Wives ... over there (at Monroeville), we just had a small table space, and I was just running out of room," Downing said.
Tiffin was a shorter distance to travel, so Downing made the switch. The first year, she was situated in a booth near a door that kept slamming. The next year, she requested, and received, a different slot that she has kept since then.
"The people that put it on there are just so nice. They're there to help you," Downing said.
The busy crowds at the Y-Wives Extravaganza also revealed a need for Downing to change the set-up she was using to something larger and more stable.
Because Jack usually helps with the shows, he was able to design and build wooden frames that remain upright and show off the merchandise.
"You hang the rods on them and they collapse like an accordion. Everybody knows my set-up. It's all open in the center so people can move around," Downing said. "We started out with one tiny little wooden rack he built me and set it on a table. Now I have a monstrosity of racks."
Having tried setting up her booth in an outdoor tent, Downing has come to prefer indoor venues.
Even though she had knee surgery in June, she was able to make it to the Oak Ridge Festival in July, with help from Jack. She has a regular building in Attica. The inside is lined with pegboard on which to hang her wares. She said her last customer there was a friend she hadn't seen for a long time.
Some of Downing's Halloween doll items from October's Oak Ridge Festival are to appear at Y-Wives, as well.
In making doll clothes, Downing has learned more about doll companies. For example, Madame Alexander dolls are similar to American Girl but are less costly. Downing keeps an e-mail list and sends out photos to regular clients prior to the shows. Often, customers may see a finished outfit at the show and order it in a different color or size.
"If I cut one, I might as well cut two," she said.
Downing has a number of doll "models" in her shop to use for fitting. Sometimes, she buys doll accessories and then buys coordinating fabrics for the garments. Each season, she tries new color schemes and/or materials. This year, she purchased tiny black boots with buckles and found some black leather fabric that turned out to be easy to work with. Projects that prove to be too difficult are put aside for later when she has more time to experiment with them.
To pair with the leather doll clothes, Downing made some knit tank tops that mimic the current fashion trends. She puts embroidered designs on the fabric before cutting out the pattern pieces.
Downing's digital sewing machine can bind the seams and do embroidery to give everything a nice finish and custom details. Whenever she sees a new pattern in a shop or online, for any doll, she buys it.
"I move my patterns around and switch them up, because sometimes people like to copy. If they're going to copy me, I make them work for their money. I want my stuff to be my stuff," Downing said. "A lot of times, I'll see a pattern when I'm in a store, and my eye catches some fabric. I already know what I'm going to do with that fabric."
Although she was hesitant to try the "sparkly" doll dresses, her customers liked them. When she had her sewing machine serviced, the technician said the works were dotted with glitter.
During her travels, Downing allows space in her bags to take back some material that is not available in Ohio.
"I like to keep my stuff different from everybody else's," Downing said.
A special soft filling for the cloth dolls and stuffed animals comes in bulk directly from the manufacturer in Wisconsin. That way, Downing doesn't have to worry about stores not having it in stock. She tries to keep tabs on the items that are most in demand, and she keeps written and photographic records of each item she makes. If a family calls to order more of a certain doll or dress, she has their previous order on file for comparison.
Next year, Downing is registered for the Lighthouse Fest at Lakeside. She said she never enters a show until she has checked it out for herself.
"I want to see if there's a need for me to be there. I know a lot of my 'lake people' have been wanting me to come back up there," Downing said.
The artist credits much of her success to support from her husband. He helps to transport and set up the displays and merchandise and takes care of the cash register during shows. Downing said some customers remember Jack more readily than they do her. With him to keep an eye on things, she can spend time with customers. She said grandmothers do most of the buying.
"I think the best part about these dolls, of anything is, the little girls are a lot closer to their grandmas now. I'm every grandma's best friend," Downing said. "I think it's kind of nice that little girls get to be little girls again. I think nowadays, they grow up too fast."
Downing recently became a grandmother herself, but she won't be making many dolls for Tyler. Instead, she stitched him a mini-backpack to take along to daycare.
For those who miss the Y-Wives bazaar, Downing can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at (419) 639-2340 in the afternoon or evening.