Many, many articles have been written about restoring Barbie dolls: rerooting or restyling hair, removing and repainting her face, etc. But almost nothing has been written about restoring her clothing. Ironically, that is what I started doing almost immediately 30 years ago when I began collecting, probably because I know how to hand sew. I’ve never attempted to restore a doll, and have no desire to, but I try to fix her outfits when I can, and it seems that other collectors seldom do this.
This is what I do:
1. If the clothing is woven cotton, nylon, tricot, rayon, silk, polyester or polyester knit, you can hand wash it in cold water with some Woolite©. Rinse the clothes in cold water. The water may get a little brown. (Yuck! Don’t try to think about what the “brown” could be!) You can try lightly rubbing/scrubbing set-in stains such as ink, but the stains may never come out completely.
2. Then let the pieces dry flat. Line drying is tempting, but you run the risk of the getting the ridges of the clothespins imprinting on the fabric. The fabric will be wrinkled after it has dried and you can iron it. A washed outfit may not look 100 percent better, but the colors will be brighter and any mustiness will be gone.
3. I’ve given up bothering to wash satin, velvet, cotton yarn knit such as that used in sweaters, and wool, both yarn and woven fabric. There’s a tremendous risk of the dyes running and of the fabric shrinking. I’ve learned to live with their imperfections.
4. Now you are going to need sharp eyesight, or at least a very bright light. Sewing in direct sunlight is very helpful. Another suggestion is if you have one of those full spectrum lamps that people with Seasonal Affective Disorder use during the winter. The bright light will allow you to see tiny details.
5. Turn the outfit inside out to resew any loose seams or hems with a skinny needle. (Before you do this, go to the store and buy a small repair kit with many small spools of various color threads.) Necklines and underarms seem to be the worst victims.
6. If the fabric itself is torn, you can resew it, but you can never “fix” it or “patch” it. See #3. In the Barbie universe, as in our own, stockings get runs, socks get holes and moths munch on wool. You may want to keep the item, just to prove you have it, but some things can’t be repaired.
7. Next come snaps. Usually it is the knob part of the snap that is either missing or attached to the other piece. Why? It’s because you pull on what I call the “male” half to remove it from the “female” half, the piece with the hole. Your problem is easy to solve if you have both halves stuck together. Just unsnap them and resew the piece to its rightful fabric edge. If you have a matching loose male half in your sewing kit, just sew that on. Otherwise, cut the threads to unattach the remaining half (you may want to save it for another time), and stitch a new set onto the outfit.
8. There are two types of buttons on Barbie clothes, functional and decorative. You can get tiny replacement buttons at craft stores or you can cannibalize another outfit and steal its buttons. Some of the 1960s and 1970s outfits instead use a small button on one side with a tiny loop closure on the other. Surprisingly, the button is often intact, but the little loop made of thick thread is gone. What I do is create my own loop by sewing three itty-bitty circles of regular thread (just don’t pull the thread taut against the fabric) and then on the fourth go-round wrap your thread around the arcs. A sure sign that a clothing item is NOT Mattel is if you actually can close it by placing the button through a buttonhole!
9. A third type of closure from the 1960s is the hook and eye. For some reason, Mattel used only the hook part on outfits, instead using the aforementioned loop rather than the eye. Again, the hook may be loose, but is seldom missing, and is easily reattached. You just need to create a loop like I explained in the previous paragraph.
10. Then there are ribbons and ties, quite common for the 1970s. You may need to tighten a ribbon against the fabric by re-tacking it with your needle and thread. The other problem is knot removal, which can be time-consuming. Use a pin to start tugging on the knot to loosen it. This is another situation in which you may need a really bright light to help you see.
11. How do you replace elastic or a drawstring thread inside a seam? If you’ve got the original, attach an end to a tiny safety pin, or you may need to get a replacement strip and attach it to the safety pin. Find the end of the seam where there’s an opening and insert the pin. Start pulling/pushing the pin through the seam until you get to the other end. Remove the safety pin and knot the strip so it won’t slide through the seam again, or sew the strip to the end of the seam.
12. I’m afraid I can’t give you any advice about zippers, other than to resew one to the fabric if it’s come loose. I don’t have any experience replacing zippers.
13. Last but not least, cut any loose hanging threads. These include threads from frayed hems or seams.
14. After making your repairs, you may want to touch up the clothing with an iron again.
Is the outfit perfect again? It may or may not be, depending on the condition that you started with. Is the item wearable? Yes. Will it stay on the doll? Yes. Is your doll happy that she has another item of clothing to wear? YES!