On a Sunday afternoon at the Starling Mall in Petaling Jaya, there was a buzz at the flea market. It was during the month of Ramadan and many were milling around, buying knick-knacks and food. The chatter was incessant as sellers explained their products and buyers asked all sorts of questions. One table stood out above the rest. It was a quiet space where little faces smiled at passersby. They were in their best dresses and had scarves on their little heads. Their faces were rosy and they looked so happy with their heart-shaped pink lips and eyes shut.
The handmade heirloom dolls were each tagged “DollsByMawar”. From behind the display popped a smiling face, much like her dolls. It was Mawar, or Syamsinarwalis Mohd Aris, the dollmaker herself.
Each doll is made lovingly and painstakingly by Mawar. They are heirloom dolls – made with high quality material and lasting a long time, they can be passed on from one generation to the next, hence the name.
Some weeks later, as we sat in her charming home in Petaling Jaya, Mawar explained how she got into the business of making dolls.
Start of a dream
It did not happen the way you might expect. The mother of two, a boy aged 17 and a girl aged 15, did not start making dolls because of her daughter. She herself likes dolls and she never had a chance to have an heirloom doll when she was young. When she finally bought one in her adult years, she was curious to find out how it was made. She even opened it up to examine its stitches.
“I looked at the construction and shape, how it felt in my hands. I really loved the doll but I didn’t like the way it felt in my hands. I bought another one that looked interesting but it was too soft. Lastly, I bought one from Australia. I liked it and thought about making a doll like that,” says Mawar.
Around the same time, she was volunteering to teach at her son’s school. There were some slow learners and a few who had dyslexia. Wanting to buy some books from abroad to help the students, the volunteers decided to do some fund raising because the books were not cheap.
That’s when it all came together.
“I thought, why don’t I make dolls and sell them to collect funds to buy the books. So, we sold 21 dolls and got 10 books,” says Mawar.
She started with a cat doll. It was made with fabric which had a cat face printed on it.
Meet Sofia and Zahara
As soon as her dolls made their way into little hands, the demand started rolling in. Mawar officially started making dolls in October 2016.
“It occurred to me then that I had never seen a heirloom hijab doll or a Muslim doll. I had seen Barbie dolls and Russian dolls with a headscarf but that was it. So, I wanted to try and make one,” she enthuses.
She started experimenting with various fabrics for the dolls’ dresses and made them in different sizes. Today, she has Sofia (40cm) and Petite Zahara (25cm).
Most of her customers are from abroad. She even has a fan, a doll collector, who has bought 14 of her dolls.
The response from Malaysians is still lacking, perhaps because not many value heirloom dolls here. Others lament the “high” price. Purchasing one of Mawar’s dolls will set you back RM150 at least. That’s for a small doll (25cm in height).
Made with love
The price paid for anything handcrafted cannot be compared with a mass-produced item with the “Made in China” stamp on it. Factories can churn out plastic dolls in the blink of an eye. It takes Mawar eight to 12 hours to make one doll from scratch. It’s a painstaking task requiring concentration to ensure all the details are in place and the high quality is maintained.
“I have to accept that it’s niche so I shouldn’t be frustrated if I can’t do more. If I get it commercially produced then it is no longer handmade DollsByMawar,” quips Mawar.
She has enjoyed sewing since she was a girl, but stopped when she started working. She only got back into it when she gave up her job five years ago to devote more time to her school-going children.
Her dolls come in various skin tones. The dresses are made with cotton fabric and the stuffing is hypoallergenic polyester. The fabric for the dresses always has small printed flowers, adding to their charm. The doll’s hijab is not removable. The only item that can be taken off is the doll’s skirt. The dolls may be handwashed or spot cleaned. Families “adopting” her dolls are recommended to gently dab any stains away.
“I don’t make a lot of dolls at one go. I want the dolls to be fresh. If I make them, it is to sell. If a design doesn’t sell within a few months, I give it away. I don’t want to keep it too long. Normally, I buy just half a metre of material for the dresses. If there is a request for that design later on, then I will get it again. If not, I move on to other fabrics. I prefer to have a variety of designs so you won’t find 10 people with the exact same doll and dress,” says Mawar.
Word of mouth
Although handmade dolls are big in the UK, US and Australia, in Malaysia they are not as common. According to Mawar, most of her local buyers have never had a handmade doll.
She makes customised dolls as well. Some customers want a few dresses for the dolls, others want specific dress designs.
Apart from Sofia and Petite Zahara, Mawar also sells a family set. It consists of four dolls – two 40cm dolls (Sofia and Aaman, the mother and father) and two 25cm dolls (Petite Zahara and Little Yusuf, the children). It costs RM750 and is only made on request.
Although initially frustrated with the lack of enthusiasm for her dolls on the local front, Mawar has not given up. She has been building up a following through customers’ recommendations and social media. DollsByMawar can be found on Facebook and Instagram @dollsbymawar. She also has an online shop at https://dollsbymawar.com/.