Spare-Time: Growing up in a dolls' house

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The Independent Online
Tiny dog leads, miniature door knobs ... there's a mini world in the making at Pulborough. Sally Staples joins the Dolls' House Workshop.

The four-day course sounded just a little intimidating. Decorating and electrifying, carving tiny pieces of furniture and creating miniature room sets suggested that this was a course for serious-minded experts - not the sort who would gladly share their tube of glue with a beginner.

But it proved to be quite the opposite. The women who had signed up for the workshop were a friendly, humorous bunch ranging from the novice toying with a flat-pack kit, to an obsessive dolls' house maker who built an extension to her home to accommodate the 11 houses she has created from scratch in the past five years.

Mary Barclay, from Sheffield, is a retired social worker with a talent for "crafty things" and a passion for dolls' houses. Her home-made collection includes a Sixties doctors' surgery, a Nineties modern house with a Porsche in the garage, a Victorian toy room, a teacher's room she made out of a bread box, a chemist's shop and a bridal shop.

She embroiders the tiny carpets for the staircases and spends spare cash on buying miniature furniture. But she still comes on courses to seek advice from tutor Lorna Payne.

"The most important thing I ever learnt was to measure, check, measure, check and check again before you cut anything," she said. "And you need a fresh eye to give you new ideas. I bought this little brass oven for pounds 40 and it just didn't look right. Lorna suggested I should stipple it with black paint leaving just the brass rail and brass on the door handles. When I'd done that, it looked exactly right for my Victorian kitchen. She also instigated the idea for stripping a dining suite and giving it a different finish."

Mary has visited America to learn more about her hobby and likes nothing more than to browse round the surprisingly large number of miniaturist fairs and specialist shops. Her husband has insured her handiwork for pounds 20,000.

At the other end of the scale is Sue Parkes, from Staffordshire, who has had little experience in the art of miniatures and is painstakingly working on a new project. She has saved her earnings from a part-time job for two years to book a place on the four-day workshop, at the residential adult education college located in an old rectory near Pulborough in Sussex.

"There's not much time to get stuck into a project at home, what with working, looking after the children, cooking and housekeeping," she said. "So this is a nice break. I've bought a flat-pack kit and I want to make it into a shop that sells gardening equipment and things for pets.

"I'm planning to make dog baskets with some cane. I can do little brooms and dog leads, and I've got some miniature chicken wire for rabbit hutches. I'm really clumsy - not talented in this way at all. But all you need is time, patience and the desire to make something and, honestly, anyone can do it; it's very addictive, too."

Shops are as popular as conventional dolls' houses. Jean Stuchlik, from Worthing, is working on a baker's shop with living accommodation upstairs.

"I started making mouse houses out of papier-mache for my grandchildren," she said. "I've always liked working with my hands and I've drawn quite a lot. But you don't need any special talent to do this. I've bought a kit to make my staircases but I was really stuck with the lighting. Lorna has shown me how to electrify my shop with a copper wire circuit soldered to the back of the house."

Jean has set her shop in the Twenties, and bought a selection of rolls of wallpaper with tiny scale patterns, and some swatches of thin corduroy material to make the carpets. The chimneybreasts are balsa wood and she spent hours cutting, painting and sticking pieces of old cereal boxes to make hundreds of tiny tiles for the roof. The windows are acrylic and the sitting-room floor is paper with a parquet design.

Pat Clay, from Shepperton, has no interest in dolls' houses but enjoys making what she calls "boxes". These vignettes or room sets can be decorated with stones, pebbles, pieces of wood and miniature furniture to conjure up Christmas scenes, beach pictures, woodland landscapes - anything that catches the imagination. Pat has created a Greek island scene as a memento for a friend.

"I enjoy coming here because it's therapeutic and it's fun to be with like-minded people. I'm not talented but I like to be creative within a small area. For me, being here is adult playing."

Pat's Greek island is constructed out of a Croft Original sherry box. She created a church by photocopying and enhancing a postcard several times and then building up the picture with paper backing to give it a three-dimensional look. She has used sand and tiny pebbles to give a glistening effect to the beach, and rubbed some soil on plastic strips to give an extraordinarily authentic impression of old Greek flooring tiles.

Tutor Lorna, who founded the East Midlands Miniaturist Association in 1991 and won a scholarship from the International Guild of Miniature Artisans to study her subject in America, acts as a sounding-board, giving help and advice to students where it is wanted. "Some people are purists and others just want to have fun," she said. "I'm there to give them ideas and to help them achieve whatever they have in mind."

A four-day residential dolls' house workshop at the Old Rectory, Fittleworth, near Pulborough in Sussex (01798 865306), costs from pounds 188 including full board. A similar course is run by Pat Cutforth at Shaw Farm, Lockeridge, Marlborough in Wiltshire (01672-861228).