Celebrate Barbie’s 59th Birthday – Share Your Stories With Us!

March 9, 2018 marks Barbie’s 59th birthday!

Screen Shot 2018 03 07 at 11.30.28 AM Celebrate Barbies 59th Birthday   Share Your Stories With Us!By Sew News columnist Abby Glassenberg
Excerpted from Sew News February/March 2018

Many sewists got their start sewing for a favorite doll. For many people, that first favorite doll was a Barbie. Columnist Abby Glassenberg explores how those humble beginnings shaped, and continue to shape, the home sewing industry.

Share your memories of sewing for Barbie – or any other beloved doll – in the comments!

I never had a Barbie growing up. My mother objected to the way Barbie’s impossibly tall, busty, thin body might make a short Jewish girl like me feel. Mom wasn’t the only one who has worried about Barbie’s potentially negative impact on impressionable girls. Mattel, the manufacturer of Barbie, came under fire almost immediately when it released the first doll in 1959. Parents worried that a doll with breasts wasn’t appropriate for children. Over the years, the company has been accused many times of perpetuating female stereotypes and making white skin and blond hair the ideal of feminine beauty. Still, Barbie has endured for more than 50 years as an American icon and, while I didn’t have her at home, I spent hours playing with Barbies at my friend’s house after school.

In addition to rejecting Barbie, my mother also rejected sewing. She’s of the generation that cast sewing aside when it became cheaper to buy readymade clothes at the department store. We didn’t have a sewing machine in my house, and when I begged for one in 8th grade after learning to sew in Home Economics class, I had to figure out how to use it on my own. When I look back at those frustrating afternoons struggling by myself to understand the language of sewing patterns, I see her lack of involvement as a blessing. In the end, I pushed the patterns aside and set about designing things on my own, turning to books, and later to blogs and YouTube, when I needed to master specific skills. I developed the confidence to become a designer in my own right.

I didn’t sew for Barbie, because I couldn’t, but I’m fascinated by the role that Barbie has played in our sewing lives. In 2009, to celebrate Barbie’s 50th anniversary, 51 of the most well known fashion designers created Barbie-inspired looks for a show at New York Fashion Week. It’s striking how many of them cite sewing for Barbie as a child as their first fashion sewing experience.

Screen Shot 2018 03 07 at 11.30.50 AM Celebrate Barbies 59th Birthday   Share Your Stories With Us!

Bridal and eveningwear designer Reem Acra, who grew up in Beirut, told InStyle magazine at the time, “We had a live-in seamstress who made my clothes; and while she was making my clothes, I would sit next to her and make matching outfits for Barbie with the leftover fabrics.”

At the time Barbie came on the market, nearly all other dolls available in stores were babies. While on vacation in Switzerland in the mid-1950s, Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler had purchased German dolls that were shaped like adults. She brought them home thinking that something similar would be popular in the US market. And, of course, she couldn’t have been more right. Mattel has sold over a billion Barbies since.

Alissa Haight Carlton is the Supervising Casting Director for Project Runway, which has become a fashion institution since it first aired in 2004. She’s been struck by how often Barbie comes up when she talks with potential contestants for the show. “I’ve interviewed a lot of fashion designers,” she says, “and every season a handful mention that sewing clothes for their Barbies was their first foray into fashion design.”

She has a theory as to why. “Fashion design in general is a hard world for kids who aren’t from privileged backgrounds to break into because it’s so based on internships and getting into companies by giving time for free. Plus who can afford to live in New York City? Mostly it’s kids who have parents helping out financially. No one is limited this way when sewing for Barbie. Scraps of fabric with a needle and thread are all they need to get started.”

Haight Carlton believes there’s another reason why Barbie was the doll that kids who grew up to become fashion designers chose to sew for. “It’s the first and maybe the only doll they got that looks like a woman and not a baby or small kid. No doll looks more like a fashion sketch than Barbie.”

Barbie is, in fact, like a three-dimensional croquis. She’s made at a 1/6 scale, which means that at 11 1/2” tall, she’s the equivalent of a 5’9” woman with a 36” chest, 18” waist and 33” hips. She’s the ideal blank canvas for a child to experiment with fashion design.

The major sewing pattern companies, including Butterick, Simplicity and McCalls, have released patterns for Barbie clothes through the years, but at such a small scale those patterns are fiddly and hard for a child to achieve independently. Perhaps that’s a blessing. Pushing aside the available patterns, children set about designing their own Barbie fashions, and some carry that experience forward into a lifelong passion for sewing.

Sew News reader Claudia McCartney got a Barbie in 1959, the year the doll first came on the market. “The next door girl and I would get our Barbies, sewing supplies and scraps of fabric from our mothers and spend hours creating clothes for them,” she recalls. “We learned about darts in the top and skirts. We learned about snaps and hook-and-eyes. We made them fancy with scraps of lace and trim.” Sewing for Barbie was the beginning of a lifetime of sewing for Claudia, who made three-piece suits for her husband in the 1970’s, clothes for her children, curtains for their house and has now begun quilting. “I think my first experience sewing for Barbie, and the success I had, encouraged me to keep trying new projects,” she says.

“Barbie was a huge influence on me,” says avid sewist Kathy Ranabargar. “I didn’t want to be her. I just used her as my mannequin.” At age five, Kathy began designing clothes for her Barbie using scraps from her mother’s projects. “I would lay Barbie down on the fabric and trace around her. When I couldn’t get the dress over her head I figured out seam allowance and figured I better make it a little bigger,” she laughs. “The first communion dress that my mom made for my older sister became the most beautiful wedding dress for Barbie.” Now, at age 45, Kathy says she’s never stopped sewing. She made her own wedding dress as well as her sister’s, and she now works for a quilting company.

Barbie’s role in the American toy and fashion industry has been well documented, but she’s also played a significant role in the world of sewing. So many children over the last five decades first realized the power and beauty of sewing while making a dress for Barbie.


 Celebrate Barbies 59th Birthday   Share Your Stories With Us!
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34 Responses to Celebrate Barbie’s 59th Birthday – Share Your Stories With Us!

  1. Babette Hankin says:

    I eventually got into sewing and designing for Barbie dolls (my favorite was Francie, whose figure was more like mine), but I got started with the Dawn dolls Mattel used to make. They were 5 1/2 inches tall and the perfect size for 1/12 scale doll houses, for which I also made furniture. I wish Mattel still made them. I’ve gone on to make and design (just for family and friends) everything from swimsuits to winter coats, men’s suits, wedding gowns, maternity and nursing clothes, etc. However, I taught my daughters and other young girls to sew with American Girl dolls before they move on to Barbies. I think the larger size pieces are easier for them to handle.

    • Jill says:

      So many people got their start sewing with Barbie and other dolls. Good point on the American Girl doll. My niece loves hers although she’s never expressed an interest in sewing. She just asks me!

  2. Faith Newcomb says:

    When I was 11 I wanted to learn to sew for a girl scout badge. My mom and my aunt Alverna spent hours teaching me. I wasn’t allowed to have Barbies, not considered appropriate for a good Catholic girl, but I did get a Tammy doll from my Godmother, with hand made clothes. I started sewing clothes for her. I graduated to making doll clothes for “Barbies” for my younger sisters, (my how times changed in the 70s)and then my daughters. Over the years Tammy became lost, but I continued to sew Barbie clothes, Cabbage Patch and baby clothes, and yes Trolls. 10 years ago my husband and I were in an antique shop and I found a Tammy doll, in very good condition. A few months later, on my first excursion on e-bay, I won a full set of patterns for her. I still have all my original Barbie patterns, and hundreds more, dating from the 1960s through to the 2000s. Now quilting takes up all my time. But every once in a while I pull out those patterns and walk down memory lane.

  3. Janice Beitz says:

    I never liked Barbie and never will. By the way, she was NOT the first doll with breasts. I had and still have a Vogue doll with high heels and earrings. I made doll clothes for her and my baby dolls and Vogue Ginny Doll. She is still beautiful.

  4. Roberta L Ellis says:

    I also sewed and designed clothes for my Barbies and Ken and G.I. Joes. I started out sewing clothes for my baby dolls and soon progressed to making my own dolls. I now make dolls and animal toys as a business. Barbie and Bye-lo Baby were the seeds of my present line of work.

  5. Linda Taylor says:

    My grandmother bought me a Mattel Barbie Sew Magic Set, probably Christmas of 1972 or ’73? It was a toy sewing machine that used glue cartridges instead of thread. The set came with a Barbie-sized dressform, manila tagboard pattern templates, and several tricot fabric pieces. I loved it! The glue was unreliable and refill cartridges were expensive, but the simple pattern templates were easy to use. That inspired me to hand sew a wardrobe for Barbie. Also, a friend and I sewed Barbie clothes with each other when we were in 3rd grade. She made 2 circle skirts with lace trim and I made 2 tops, then we traded so our dolls would have matching outfits.

  6. Lorraine MacLeiod says:

    As a child I was always interested in sewing . I did not have many dolls as a child, but I would make patterns from newspapers and sew clothes for my dolls from scraps. My grandmother and aunt were sewers and sewed for the public. I was very thankful to be able to learn to sew with Home Economics classes. I worked with plaids and made lined vests, a tailored suit and lots of clothes. I quickly learned and made clothes for myself, my sisters and all my mother’s clothes. The first time I saw Barbie was at a Dressmaker’s shop in town. She had made Barbie clothes from scraps and the clothes were for sale. I never knew such a doll existed and it was love at first sight! When I left home for university in the city, I saw Barbie again and of course I bought her! I have been sewing and designing clothes for her ever since! I have sold a lot of Barbie clothes and given them to charity for years. Our 2 daughters had lots and lots of Barbie clothes all made by me. I make high heeled boots out of leather and suede all on the machine. I make earrings for Barbie, slippers etc. No one can imagine how I sew such tiny things, but I have had lots of practice and I do it with ease and love every minute of it! It’s just so much fun! Our home was a magnet for every little girl who loved to come and play Barbies with our girls. Needless to say our girls got invited to lots of birthday parties and the child always hoped I would create Barbie clothes for them…and I did! Doll clothes are my hobby and I love it! Thank you Barbie for finding your way to my house! Ha!

  7. Sharon Groves says:

    Wow, does this ever bring back great memories. My sister & I had baby dolls, Barbies, Tammies, & Skippers, but I only sewed for Barbie & on occasion for Tammy. Sis didn’t sew. I have sewn longer than I can remember. Mom sat me in the floor next to her before my 1st sister was born while she sewed on a treadle Singer. She would give me a big needle, buttons, scraps & thread spools to run the needle through. I have always loved having a needle or a sewing machine. My dad’s mom was appalled & afraid for me, but never had an accident. The patterns for Barbie that my mom used to make us Christmas presents, were to difficult for me when I was 6, so I learned how to drape fabric, make darts, etc. on my Barbie. Used all kinds of fabric & trims. Thanks for the memories.

  8. I had Barbie, Ken, Midge, ans Skipper dolls. When I was in third grade, there was a fourth grade boy that liked me. His mother just happened to make Barbie clothes. Every week he would bring me a new outfit for one of my dolls. My mom finally called his mom to make sure she knew he was bring me a wardrobe of clothes. She did. She said he asked her if he could bring them to me. I had the best dressed dolls in the neighborhood!

  9. Anna says:

    My Mom sewed all the time to keep us all in clothes. She gave us scraps and I would make Barbie’s clothes. Just simple things like a rectangle with a hole in the center and it would slip over the head and tie with a ribbon. Sometimes it’d be hemmed, sometimes not. lol Really got me into sewing though. I still do not like hand sewing to this very day. lol

  10. Joan MacKinnon says:

    I started both sewing and crocheting for Barbie. I could crochet in the round – dresses and hats, primarily, from the time I was about 8, in about 1960. Then I started sewing for Barbie. I particularly liked making historical costumes, and entered some of them in Exhibitions, starting about 1965. One was an outfit in satin and velveteen, made for a Empress Josephine character, who was actually a Barbie. I even made a wig for Barbie to fit the role, using the form from a Midge wig that I removed the original hair from. In my career, I ended up working for various historic sites and was in charge of costuming at a number of them – and it all started with Barbie!

  11. Katherine Anderson says:

    I was lucky to have a ton of Barbie dolls of all kinds (plus Tammy dolls), they were the only toys I really remember playing with from the time I was in kindergarten or 1st grade until almost jr high. My sister, friends and cousins were all big on Barbie. We made furniture from boxes and tins and set up whole houses for different occupations. The very first garment I sewing on a sewing machine was a wee gathered skirt with a waistband for my Barbie that my babysitter helped me with. I was hooked! My aunt made the most beautiful, stunning clothes for our dolls including wedding dresses and Little Women-replica dresses and undergarments but I sewed and knitted everyday clothes for my dolls. After I had a niece who liked Barbies I got to go into the section of the fabric store that was full of fun, fancy, glittery fabric and buy small amounts to make special occasion clothes from commercial patterns which I collected wherever I could find them. As a quilter this was so much fun, but could also be frustrating as those kinds of fabrics don’t always behave! But boy, did I learn important things working with those fabrics. I am eternally thankful to my babysitter, Kathy M, my Aunt Betty, my mom and my Grandma for starting me on my sewing journey. I would definitely say Barbie and sewing go hand in hand!

  12. Joanne says:

    I didn’t have a Barbie. A Shirley Temple doll, who is still beloved, a Tammy doll. But- I am a Sewer (dislike the sewist?? Whatever made that change) and I have a beloved grand daughter who absolutely loves her Barbies. Newest for this year will be a tent, that I found a vintage pattern for. A big stash of great fabrics, and yarn for knitting is mine.

  13. Ann VerWiebe says:

    I grew up in the ’70s with two twist-n-turn Barbies (or, actually, Barbie and her cousin, PJ). My first sewing projects were Barbie dresses – my mother would help me cut out the pieces from patterns and then I would sew them together. I remember having trouble making knots when I sewed on the hook and eye (I still have the dress, I taped down the threads). Because my mother taught me to sew, I had a leg up in home ec and later I got a job in the college costume shop. After college, when I was working at a professional theatre costume shop, we made Barbie clothes for Toys for Tots. It was easier doing the tiny rolled hems on an industrial sewing machine, because it had a middle feed dog.

  14. Gracie says:

    Oh my goodness, my favorite sewing experience. I am 59 years old, 3 months older than Barbie, however I did not get my first Barbie until Christmas 1965 from Santa. There she was under the Christmas tree in her bright red bathing suit. It wasn’t to long after that, that my older cousin Rosie, sat me down with scraps of fabric, scissors and a needle and thread and she showed me how to hand sew skirts for our barbies. Soon we were introduced to Grandma’s Singer treadle sewing machine and we were sewing all kinds of clothes for our Barbies. Of course, a lot of our sewing techniques were acquired through Grandma who was a wedding gown professional seamstress in her younger years. I still have my Barbie to this day, and she wears a remake of my favorite gown that I made for her. Wish I could post a picture of my Barbie.

  15. Judy says:

    I had the first Barbie. My mother made clothes for her. Evening dresses, bridal, etc. I don’t know if it was by pattern. I assume it was. She made my clothes because no clothing was fitted for women in the 50′s and by 12 I didn’t want to wear sacks–shifts.

  16. Suzanne R says:

    What memories. I had the near original Barbie, Midge and Skipper. I remember hand sewing a dress for Barbie, after school, while sitting cross legged on the floor at my friend’s house. When I raised it to admire my work, I realized I had sewn her dress to my own! We all had a good laugh over that.

  17. Valerie says:

    I also started sewing by making doll clothes, using fabric scraps from my Mother’s creations. I do remember using the brand name patterns, but also making some simple dresses on my own. However, my mother said Barbie dolls were too expensive, so I got the equivalent – Wendy dolls. I think she bought them from the Acme grocery store. In the various moves I’ve made, sometime within the last 10 years, I sold my Wendy dolls and their homemade clothes. Memories remain.

  18. Sharon Allen says:

    I didn’t sew for my Barbies, but my babysitter (who became a fashion designer) did, along with my mother (who also made the majority of my clothes). Although I’ve pared down my collection through the years, I’ve kept my original Barbie and Francie dolls, as well as my favorite clothes which include a red velvet skating skirt and ruffled white blouse (made by my babysitter), and a very trendy one-shoulder wedding dress (made by my mom). Still bring me joy, and a few tears too!

  19. Vickie Perrine says:

    I am 60 in July, and remember getting my Barbie when I was 3. Barbie was the main model for my sewing creations, I think I was about 6 when I started trying my hand at sewing.
    I still have the leopard print flannel vest I made for her! (I still have Barbie too). I spent many many hours as a child sewing for Barbie, and Casey.

  20. Barbie !!!! and Ken and Midge and Skipper and Scooter and Francie and Casey …… LOVED them all !!! And their clothes !!! I had dreams about having clothes just like them !! And SEWING !!! For me , it’s all intertwined ….. can’t think about my beginning sewing years without thinking about Barbie . One of the first things I ever made on my little kid hand crank Singer sewing machine was a somewhat sleezy nightgown for Barbie. My Aunt who was/is an artist and amazing seamstress gave me some pink silky fabric scraps and little bits of white faux fur. Don’t know why the negligee idea popped into my 7 year old brain – maybe my mother was watching soap operas – but that’s what I made ! I’m pretty sure Ken was happy !!!

  21. Linda says:

    My best friend and I both had the original Barbie dolls and learned how to sew making them clothes. We never thought we were supposed to look like Barbie and it’s sad that someone decided that we did. She was different and those of us who never played with “baby dolls” loved her! I have been sewing ever since! We learned more about sewing and making clothes and were inspired to become life-long sewists. Barbie started all of that for us.

  22. When she saw me making clothes for my trolls, my Grandmother got me started sewing clothes for my Barbie dolls when I was six or seven…I don’t have any of the outfits I made for my dolls, but I have still have the boucle coat, dress, blouse, and headscarf my Grandmother so lovingly stitched by hand. I cherish them.
    Barbie’s ensemble
    The lining of the boucle coat

  23. Tammy says:

    I LOVED MY BARBIE! Yeah I said it. Lololol! She was every woman to me because of her clothes. She was a doctor, camper, stewardess…you name it. Our family didn’t always have it in the budget to go clothes shopping for Barbie so I learned to create her fashions with aluminum foil and paper towels. I loved every minute of it and thought my work was as good as store bought. I knew at the ripe age of 5 that I wanted to be a fashion designer because of Barbie. I’ve had some bumps in the road but I’m working on a capsule collection as a solo entrepreneur. I secretly wish I could back to those days. GREAT memories indeed. Thanks Barb!

  24. Nann says:

    Ah, Barbie memories. I’m from the generation where you had ONE Barbie (“and you’d better be grateful, young lady!”). Mine had a blonde ponytail. My sister’s had a brunette ponytail. Marcie, the girl next door, had EVERY Barbie outfit in the catalog, including the $5 ones — Solo in the Spotlight and the wedding dress. But, back to sewing: our closest approach to making Barbie clothes was a knitting kit that came in a metal canister (with a hole in the lid for the yard to feed). My mother was not a good knitter and neither my sister nor I became knitters. I guess that project was my first UFO. [Here’s the canister: https://www.ebay.com/i/183100616147?chn=ps&fl=a P.S. In the early 1990′s I met a woman who collected vintage Barbies. I gave her mine (sans striped bathing suit or high heels). She was ecstatic.

  25. Paula Miller says:

    I never had a Barbie either, but my Grandmother was an exquisite sewer. She belonged to a Hadassah chapter which took part in the annual Hadassah Bazaar. Her chapter’s project? Creating and sewing Barbie fashions to sell at the bazaar. Since my Grandmother was so petite, the leftover pieces of fabric from her own clothing were enormous and her Barbie designs and production output was prodigious. Her chapter’s booth sold out faster than any other booth, year after year. The sewing was coutourier quality…phenomenal!

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