Finding her passion in a tiny niche

Updated 2018-03-10 04:18:00

The workbench in the corner of Xu Jiajia's house is stacked with dozens of sweaters, jeans, hats and other types of apparel.

It isn't a particularly big work station — the clothes are just incredibly small.

Xu, who has since 2008 been making a living by designing apparel for dolls, gained prominence in recent years with her intricate creations. She currently has more than 12,000 followers on Weibo and over 8,000 followers on Instagram. She has also sold nearly 10,000 of her accessories on Etsy, an e-commerce platform focused on handmade items.

"I started to make clothes for my dolls when I was in kindergarten. Dolls seem to have a magical power that attracts me," said the 33-year-old Shanghai native. "This magical power also got me into trouble several times."

Such was her determination to create new clothes for her dolls that Xu would resort to scavenging from her surroundings. She remembered how she would always carry a pair of scissors and be on the lookout for materials. Once, she cut a piece of curtain from a neighbor's home. On another occasion, she deconstructed her mother's gold necklace to create a pair of earrings for her doll.

Xu majored in digital arts during her time at the Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts at Shanghai University. Following her graduation, she found a job at an exhibition design company but soon realized that what she really wanted to do was craft accessories for dolls.

She later met her husband-to-be while furthering her studies at Donghua University. The couple bought a simple 400 yuan () sewing machine and that marked the start of their doll-designing career.

Apart from Etsy, Xu also sells her creations on her virtual store on e-commerce platform Taobao. Her products are clearly popular with foreigners — of the 20,000 accessories she has sold on Taobao, nearly half were bought by overseas customers. She claimed that she even has fans in the United States who have kept her creations for more than a decade and frame them up as works of art.

Each accessory, said Xu, requires at least one day to craft and costs between 100 and 2,000 yuan. The price is largely dependent on the nature of the accessory and the type of materials used. The smallest apparel she has ever created measures no larger than a 1-yuan coin.

Xu said that the concept behind designing accessories for dolls is the same as for a human. What differs is the type of materials commonly used. For instance, she pointed out that thick fabrics are not suitable for doll accessories because such small items need to be made with more delicate materials.

She added that she used to seek inspiration for her designs by browsing fashion magazines. However, she is now confident enough of her skills that she no longer needs to do so. She also said that her creations have managed to withstand the test of time, noting that her works from a decade ago have still not gone out of fashion.

But her handicraft skills are not reserved exclusively for making accessories for dolls. She also likes creating new clothes for her children.

Xu has since 2017 been cooperating with intangible cultural heritage masters to incorporate embroidery and dyeing techniques from minority groups of China in her work. Her creations have even garnered the attention of major brands like Levis, which helped to showcase her denim collection.

"I plan to open a doll museum in the future and hope I can carry on making apparels for dolls even when I am old," said Xu.

"I have met many unforgettable customers and fans over the past 10 years and they give me the courage to continuing creating good works."

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