How does one start creating baby dolls that are so lifelike, they might be able to fool your brain into believing they're real?
For Wendy Wiebe, it began with collecting and healthy dose of curiosity.
“I started out collecting dolls with my daughter, and then I discovered these kinds of dolls, and I got really intrigued,” Wiebe told the Times.
“These kinds" of dolls refer to incredible creations known as "reborn dolls.” These hand-painted dolls can be so lifelike that there are instances of police being called to rescue infants from hot cars, only to discover upon breaking a window that they weren't actually alive.
Wiebe, who grew up in Fort Frances but now lives in Winnipeg, is one of these artists, sometimes known as “reborners.”
Using layers of paint and painstakingly detailed work, reborners create these dolls for sale to collectors or other interested parties.
Wiebe walked through the creation process for one of her dolls.
“They're actually created from vinyl kits,” Wiebe explained.
“The kits have been sculpted out of clay and then they've been sent off to a factory and made into vinyl kits that we can purchase. They usually have a head, two arms and two legs and then a soft body,” she added.
Wiebe said that the painting process involves detailing veins, skin tones and blush to create a final product that is as close to lifelike as possible, with some artists going the extra mile for their creations.“Sometimes they're left bald, and sometimes they get painted hair,” she said.
“Personally, I prefer them to have rooted hair, so that's a very long process as well, because the hairs are rooted one at a time or two to three at a time to look really realistic.”
A final touch in the creation process is to fill the doll with glass beads or polyester fiberfill, or poly-fil, to replicate the heft of a live infant.
If creating one of these dolls sounds like a lot of work, that's probably because it is.
“It probably takes me three weeks to make one, if I work on it several hours a day,” Wiebe explained.
“Usually I have a few on the go, so I'll be painting two at a time in the morning, then in the evening I'll catch up with my TV shows and root [the hair on] a couple others that I've already finished painting.”
The hobby can be intimidating for the beginner in terms of price. A search of Reborns.com, one marketplace for completed dolls and accessories, shows that the cost of one of these dolls can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Wiebe said that the price for an individual doll will vary based on the artist and how in demand their dolls are.
“I sell mine in the $600-650 USD ($800-900 CAD) range,” she said.
“It costs a lot to make them because the kits are not cheap. The mohair that we use for the hair is really expensive, we use glass eyes for the collectors . . . so it's very expensive materials to make them. I don't make a lot of money off of it, but it's just something, a passion, that I love to do.”
Understanding the cost and the work involved with one of these dolls leads to an appreciation of the value of the donations Wiebe makes to nursing homes from time to time, including one close to her and her family.
In late May, Wiebe gifted one of her dolls to the Life Skills Nursery program at Rainycrest Long Term Care.
“I grew up in Fort Frances so [Rainycrest] has a special place in my heart,” Wiebe said.
“My dad was a pastor and so when I was a kid we would go to Rainycrest probably about once every month or two to do a service there and I would sing and play the piano. So it's always had a soft place in my heart.”
While there haven't been any conclusive studies that show dolls like these are useful in treating Alzheimer's, Wiebe explained that she has seen the benefits her dolls have had for people living with dementia.
“My mother-in-law has Alzheimer's and I made her a doll and it's the only thing in the day that makes her smile,” she noted.
“I'm not sure how it all works, I'm not a health professional, but my gut feeling is that it probably helps them maybe remember a happier time. Maybe they had their own little ones or maybe when they were a child they played with their dolls. Maybe it's all the endorphins that are released when you're holding a baby, or a combination of all those things, but it does help.”
As for the appeal of the dolls themselves, she said that people appreciate the dolls for a number of different reasons.
“Women have collected dolls for hundreds of years, but reborn dolls have become popular in the last several years,” she said.
“They're a lot of fun, but they're also very therapeutic. A lot of women will use them to help them with anxiety and depression and even kind of as a distraction from chronic pain, but a lot of women just like to collect dolls.”
“I just think they're cute,” she continued.
“When I first started collecting them, I just wanted one for each of my kids so I could put their little baby christening outfits on them and put them on the shelf, but then I just really fell in love with the whole hobby. It was just a creative outlet for me.”
Wiebe has a simple message for anyone who is interested in trying their hand at sampling the hobby or creating a reborn doll.
“Go for it. It's a lot of fun,” she said.
“I actually had purchased the kit and the paint and it came with a DVD and everything, like a starter kit.”
Anyone curious about Wiebe's creations can find her on Facebook and Instagram at WeebieDolls Nursery.