She started out using simple techniques of filling and smoothing -- techniques she'd learned from her father, an auto body repair man who taught her how to fill and sand damaged car fenders when she was a teenager. After that, she studied with professional conservators to perfect her skills. A few ad hoc apprenticeships and correspondence courses advanced them further.
Along the way Melody Howarth discovered she had a talent for bringing crumbling antique playthings back to a more youthful life. Today, that skill has made the Rensselaer County resident sought after by private collectors and museums worldwide.
Every day is like Christmas day for Howarth -- whose doll hospital in Nassau, Mel's Belles Restoration -- has nursed back to health untold numbers of historic playthings and other decorative objects. There's always some surprise emergency waiting for triage on her workbench.
A matted teddy bear. A baby doll with a wonky eye. All manner of cracks and breaks and crush injuries -- whether the victim is fabric, composition, hard plastic, paper mache, bisque or porcelain -- are each tended to with a careful and steady hand. Even just undoing the damage of age, Howarth performs cosmetic surgeries as well... everything from blushing and repaints, to doll clothing cleaning and conservation, shoe repair and replacement. New clothing or vintage fashions are available for custom order.
There are no bad hair days for the dolls that leave her shop, either. She's become known for her extensive wig cleaning and repair prowess on dolls' dos that were previously thought "lost causes."
She simply doesn't believe in lost causes.
Howarth has always loved dolls. As a child she played with Trolls and Liddle Kiddles and, of course, Barbie, many of which she still has in her collection. However her attention turned to bygone era dolls and their histories after her mother took her to visit the former Yesteryear Doll Museum near Averill Park.
It wasn't until she was 30 and purchased her first antique doll -- a German-made porcelain toy with leather arms and legs -- that she found her calling. It was in dire need of repair.
Her first studio was on a counter in a galley kitchen of a tiny house. Now she's got a dedicated space in a sprawling village home, which she and her husband are also restoring, where she works on dozens of projects at once.
One of the restorations she's working on currently is for a private collector -- an antique German doll, with a bisque head and paper mache and wood ball-jointed body, who suffered a shattered head from a fall off of a mantel.
"The first step in the repair process is to put the pieces together with a tape that holds them together temporarily so that I can see where each piece belongs. I then use a museum-quality, very fluid, adhesive. After the adhesive cures I then fill the cracks, sanding a feathering past the line and blending into the bisque. The fine sanding is crucial to a quality result. The last step is to airbrush the flesh tone and in-paint any of the dolls features."
Howarth also makes one-of-a-kind creations, giving modern dolls fresh looks or entire makeovers, changing eye color, hair color, even changing the colors of the blush and eyelid colors. She can make popular ball-jointed fashion dolls resemble their owners.
It's a far cry from present-day mass production.
"Lots of dolls sold as collectors' items really aren't worth what you pay. It's sad. These bisque dolls sold on QVC for hundreds of dollars won't get $5 if you try to resell them. Maybe in time ... but not now. There was a time I thought Bratz dolls would be collectors' items ... but that doesn't look like it will happen."
"I tell people who are looking to collect that they should focus on dolls that are not mass produced, by well-known artists, and that are in limited edition. And if you're buying for a girl ... I hate to sound like an advertisement ... but you can't go wrong with The American Girl doll, especially the dolls with histories attached."
While the monetary value takes years and years to accrue, the true value of dolls will always be immediate, notes Howarth. "When kids play make-believe ... when they explore their creativity, it's a big deal."
Siobhan Connally shares her writing and photography at Ittybits & Pieces.
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