Doll hospital: Where broken, worn dolls are fixed

SUQUAMISH — The doll’s head hung limply, blonde curls spilling down over sagging shoulders.

Two tiny arms dangled awkwardly. Two delicate feet splayed in unnatural directions.

The doll looked sick, and more than a little sad.

“This one is in for restringing,” Nancy Korsak said, tenderly lifting the doll from its perch, “poor little thing.”

Another patient is added to Nurse Nancy’s waiting list.

Dozens of dolls await Korsak’s attention in her shop on the outskirts of Suquamish. They gaze unblinkingly down from shelves and recline in rows of boxes. Clear plastic storage containers, stacked floor to ceiling, hold heaps of ceramic legs, glass eyeballs, miniature torsos and obscure fabric.

The containers leave just enough room for a small workbench under a window where Korsak practices her vanishing craft.

Korsak, 66, restores dolls for a living, devoting herself into a pastime that may have faded from its former popularity, but remains her lifelong passion.

“I want to save the dolls,” she said, seated at her bench on a recent morning, “and they’re becoming less and less available.”

Korsak’s patients arrive by mail, cracked, grubby and worn. Some are antique and collectible dolls worth tens of thousands of dollars. Some are drugstore dolls battered by years of hard play.

The dolls all get the same treatment in Nurse Nancy’s Doll Hospital.

“I know that if they bring a doll to me, it’s really important to them,” Korsak said. “So I treat it like it’s in my own collection.”

Coming from Korsak, that’s more than an idle sentiment. Among the hundreds of dolls in her collection are dolls she’s kept from her childhood, and dolls passed down through generations of her family.

Dolls have been Korsak’s companions since her youth in Seattle. Her parents were busy and seemingly never around. She had few friends to play with in her early years.

“I loved dolls from the time I was little,” Korsak said. “Dolls were my playmates.”

While the dolls were Korsak’s companions, her grandparents and great aunts were her mentors. Korsak’s grandfather made shoes at a shop in Ballard. He gave her a small hammer and let her pound tacks into the shoe leather, teaching her to work adeptly with her hands.

An aunt gave Korsak sewing lessons. By second grade she was making clothing.

She put her skills to use taking care of her dolls.

“I’ve always been a fixer,” she said.

Korsak kept collecting and tinkering with vintage dolls as an adult. Noticing her talent at repairs, friends asked her to work on their dolls too. She became more serious about doll restoration and traveled to museums on the East Coast to immerse herself in the craft.

A lifelong hobby became a career. A fascinating, fastidious career.

“If I’d known just how hard it was, I probably would have never done it.”

Each time Korsak lays a doll on her bench, it becomes her mission to return the figure as close to its original condition as she can. That means paying attention to fine detail, from the strands of its mohair wigs to the soles of its goatskin shoes.

Since many of the dolls Korsak works on are antiques, the materials used to make them are hard to find. She stashes stockpiles of taffeta and organdy. She orders handblown glass doll eyes from Germany, “where the good eyes come from.”

“I never know what I’m going to need,” Korsak said. Korsak begins restorations by fixing body parts, patching and refiring the ceramic or reinforcing the papier-mâché. Then comes the paint and sealers. She layers on as many as 30 coats, drying and sometimes sanding between each, until she reaches the smoothness of the original.

She rethreads strings through the doll’s joints and pulls limbs firmly back into place. She slides glass eyes into eyeholes, and applies tiny eyelashes, hair-by-hair, to equally-tiny eyelids. Rows of shiny teeth are inserted behind pursed lips.

The clothing is just as painstaking. A proper doll doesn’t only wear a dress, she wears undergarments, petticoats and stockings. She might carry a dainty purse and sport a laced bonnet.

“I don’t dress dolls, I costume them,” Korsak said.

Korsak typically spends several months on a full restoration. Sometimes it can take a year.

“Tedious” is the first word she uses to describe her trade. The reward for her labor is delivering a finished doll back into the hands of a doting owner.

“That’s what make it worth it, that’s why I keep doing it,” Korsak said. “The dolls are so precious.”

While still precious to many, Korsak sees the number of die-hard doll enthusiasts dwindling.

She frequently takes her dolls on the road, traveling around neighboring states for collectors shows. Those shows are few and far between these days, she said. There aren’t as many doll restorers either.

“Some people call me the Last of the Mohicans,” she said.

Korsak knows fewer girls grow up playing with dolls now than when she was a child. She still fervently hopes dolls can connect with younger generations.

In Korsak’s eyes, dolls have an important role to play in childhood, for girls and for boys.

“They learn how to take care of them, and they learn to love them,” Korsak said. “It helps them to learn to love.”

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