Doll maker breathes life into toys |

Doll maker breathes life into toys

Nothing excites doll maker Sheasa Kenney-O’Sullivan more then the day a box of vinyl baby heads, arms and legs arrives on her doorstep.

For about two years now, the mother of two young children has poured her artistic talents into creating life-like heirloom baby dolls using a popular European technique known as “re-borning.”

A sculptor, photographer and writer, Kenney-O’Sullivan gravitated to doll making after severe morning sickness throughout her second pregnancy stopped her from having any more babies.

“I always wanted to have a big family but I couldn’t,” she said.

After going online and researching various fields that were baby-related, Kenney-O’Sullivan came across the craft of “reborning.”

She tried her hands at a few dolls and soon found she had a skill at making realistic dolls. Her husband, Lane, convinced her to turn an expensive hobby into an heirloom doll business.

Prices range from $150 for “preemies” up to $400 for an elaborate sleeping three month old. Some purchase the dolls as gifts when a child is born. Collectors buy them as conversation pieces.

People react to the life-like dolls in two ways – either with love or horror. Some with doll phobia have called the toy’s uncanny resemblance to the real thing “creepy,” Kenney-O’Sullivan said.

Working at an outside table lit by cedar bough filetered sunlight, Kenney-O’Sullivan uses an array of sponges, brushes and bits of yarn to paint 30 layers of flesh tones including the finishing details of fine blue veins and capillaries. She pops the limbs into the oven to bake after each application.

Soft goat hair is attached using a process called “rooting,” where hair is threaded through the doll’s scalp with a needle, one strand at a time. The task takes hours and is often done while the petite doll maker sits in coffee shops or suns herself at the river, causing more than one person to take a second look.

“I always have a doll head and needle wherever I go,” Kenney-O’Sullivan said.

Once complete, the dolls are dressed in handmade frilly outfits sewn by her mother-in-law.

Heating elements can be placed inside the dolls to give them another human characteristic. After her grandmother died, Kenney-O’Sullivan relized her dolls could cheer up elderly patients at local convalescent hospitals.

“Older people really love these dolls,” Kenney-O’Sullivan said.

Working from home can sometimes be a challenge especially when the children rummage through mom’s supplies, scattering doll limbs all over the house. She and her husband songwriter Lane O’Sullivan take turns minding the tireless, energetic children.

“Real babies grow so fast it’s kind of heartbreaking. That’s one of the hang ups I have about these. They don’t grow,” Kenney-O’Sullivan said cradling one of her dolls.

Family photos cover the walls of the family’s old Victorian home. Lavender, 19 months sipped milk from a bottle while her 5-year-old brother Dublin sprawled out on his parents’ bed watching Sesame Street.

“They are my inspiration,” she said.

Kenney-O’Sullivan’s dolls can be found at Main Street Kids, 212 Main Street in Nevada City or by calling 478-1089 or online at or contact her directly by email at

To contact Staff Writer Laura Brown, e-mail or call 477-4231.

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