Multicultural dolls form a close-knit group

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Oak Parker Martha Rohlfing didn't grow up playing with dolls, but she's making up for lost time. Rohlfing began knitting dolls a few years ago, and her creations evolved into works of art. They're just now available at the Illinois Artisans Shop in Chicago's James R. Thompson Center.

As the full-time women's issues coordinator for Illinois State Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, Rohlfing doesn't have a lot of time on her hands. But she's knitted and cross-stitched for many years, and when she came across a doll-making pattern in a knitting book, she realized it would be "a nice way to use up scraps," she says. After making a few, she scrapped the pattern and began designing the dolls herself.

"As I modified them, I began moving from 'flesh' tones into lighter browns and darker browns, and I realized I was creating ethnic dolls," Rohlfing recalls. "All different, but all the same." And that's how her line of dolls, which she's dubbed "All God's Children," began.

No two are alike, and Rohlfing names each one. She's partial to bright color combinations: teal and chartreuse, navy and pink. Doll sizes range from 7 to 10 inches; the girls get skirts and the boys wear slacks. Every part of the doll is knitted; even the eyes and mouth are stitched from yarn. The hair is the most time-consuming part, since each strand has to be individually attached with a crochet hook. Unraveled yarn from old sweaters makes perfect curly locks.

At first, when it took her a long time to produce one doll, "I became so attached, so fond of them, it was hard to give them away," confesses Rohlfing. "But it was nice to know they were going to happy homes."

Now that she can finish faster, she's "less attached," she says. Rolfing's got the process down to about 5-6 hours, and she likes to work in front of the TV (she's partial to PBS), or while riding in the car.

Rolfing gave away early models to the children of friends and relatives. A few years ago, she made a bunch of them for a fall fundraiser at her church, Grace Lutheran in River Forest, and took a day off to staff the sale, curious to see if any of the dolls would sell. Ten did, and she was encouraged to make more.

In her day job, Rohlfing concentrates on financial literacy issues; a current project involves working with a committee studying issues faced by women business owners. She also does outreach to women's organizations, which is how she learned about ChildLink, a social service agency. As she'd done with other organizations, she offered to donate a few of her dolls to a ChildLink silent auction fundraiser.

"I brought the dolls to the office to be picked up [for the auction] and a colleague saw them. She loved them and said I should take them downstairs to the Artisan's Shop," explains Rohlfing. "The manager liked them, so I brought in all I had. She took 10; my supply is depleted."

For each doll sold, Rohlfing will get a cut of the $24 price. But she's not looking to get rich. "I just wanted to use up my yarn scraps and put my television time to good use," she says. "But I'm thrilled that my dolls are reaching a wider audience, not just children, but also adults with an interest in American folk art."

"Laura Stuart

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