Sandra Adams lays her delicate creation on a coin. "That's how small the doll is. It can sleep on a quarter." She then places it on a dime, where it could almost slumber comfortably, too. The representational doll in the garb of a Victorian street peddler, complete with dainty underwear, is 1! inches tall. It can rest easily on the joint of an adult's finger.

Everything about Adams is scaled small, too, except for her long nails, which she needs for the detailed work on her miniature dolls. "I'm a little woman with big ideas," she jokes.

She began designing and making miniature dolls in 1979 when she was nervous and trying to relax. "The exciting part was figuring out how to make the dolls. That's the challenge to working on this 1/4-inch-to-one- foot scale," Adams says.

Resourceful and persistent, she uses surgical tweezers, forceps, scissors and tweezer clamps to pick up and hold the dolls as she adds touches, and a beading-needle stuck through the center of a cork to glue the dolls' clothes on. It's a slow process: "I place the glue one drop at a time on the needle."

She handpaints features on the dolls' bisque-like heads, using "a 10-0 paintbrush, one of the smallest there is. Each doll has a 3-D profile. From every angle they look like people. I want to show the personality of each doll."

Adams spends at least a day completing a doll. "If I put myself to it, I can make two dolls a week," she says. Prices begin at $150.

"Most of the fabric I use is limited, so I can't make many dolls from it. My dolls are therefore collectors' dolls." She uses antique fabrics, ribbons and laces.

"It's hard to find antique ribbons, and they're expensive. I buy snippets of ribbon. I only need six to eight inches of material to make a doll.

"Sometimes people I meet at doll shows mail me boxes of snippets because they think I can make special designs with them. And other times I use materials, ribbons or lace that have sentimental value for them. What I make then is a one-of-a-kind doll."

She prefers antique material because "modern ribbon and lace are too thick and stiff. They won't fold or drape."

Adams claims to know each doll: "Each one has a personality," as different from one another as snowflakes. "It's like children from the same parents, but all the children are different," she says. "I like character types who're doing things. The more detailed the dolls, the better." Adams has 15 character dolls, each indeed engaged in a distinct activity.

"Look, this elegant lady's going out calling on her friends." Adams twirls the doll to model her turquoise dress and parasol.

"Children would have loved to see what toys and notions this peddler had. She called out her wares. She was like a local department store. Life was hard for her. She'd sell anything." Adams smiles at her make- believe world.

Heavily burdened, the peddler doll carries gold spectacles, a leather book with movable pages, leather gloves, a card of buttons, a basket with yarns and threads, seashells, a rubber ball, an ornate bottle and a toy top, all the wares recognizable. The doll wears a pair of glasses. "It takes about an hour to put the spectacles on because the head is so tiny, and I have to fix them on the nose and across the ears. I use tiny tweezers."

The pastry-cook peddler doll seems to have eaten too much of her own cuisine. "She's plumper than the other dolls because she consumes what she cooks." This doll peddles a cake with cherries, French bread, hot cross buns, a chocolate cake, a loaf of bread and cookies. Her temptations are always with her.

"The jewelry peddler is wearing some of her wares," Adams points out. On a tray that's five-sixteenths of an inch, she carries necklaces, ear bobs and glass jewelry. She's a buxom lady, as most of Adams' dolls are -- Adams doesn't concentrate on creating bosomy figures, but they turn out that way nevertheless.

The poultry peddler wants townsfolk to buy the goods she carries in a cage and the basket of eggs she also hawks. She wears a plumed hat. "Sometimes feathers come from my bed. I collect them immediately," Adams says. Usually, though, her creations wear tiny ostrich or peacock feathers.

The dolls are all flexible and don't break. Adams doesn't suggest that people play catch with them, but she doesn't treat them gingerly, either. She makes their head and shoulder plates and some accessories with Fimo, an imported clay. The armature is made of wire covered with kid leather. Adams molds the dolls and bakes them in the oven of her Alexandria home. They all have soft mohair curls. Sometimes Adams dyes the hair in instant coffee or tea to get the exact color she wants. All wear earrings.

Adams makes only women dolls: "Men dolls don't sell well. They don't have as great a variety in clothes as women." All the dolls wear floor-length dresses -- some d,ecollet,e, others high-necked -- and neck jewelry. The dolls' backs are as detailed as their fronts, with bustles or lace bows.

And she doesn't skimp underneath, either. Adams flips a doll over to expose the pantaloons, petticoat and shoes. "I concentrate on undergarments because no one else does. I want to be as realistic as possible." They wear pantaloons and petticoats and leather or satin shoes with buckles or buttons.

The dolls are so beautiful that it's surprising that no artistic training was needed to create them -- Adams taught herself how to hold a paintbrush, she says; her formal training is in English speech and drama and her work experience is on Capitol Hill.

Right now, her challenge is to design more and more dolls. "I can design as many varieties of dolls as there are people. I want to do Scarlett O'Hara, Queen Elizabeth I, Lillie Langtry, a strawberry peddler." It's an open-ended project.