Christmas and Cabbage Patch Kids: They're synonymous in the minds of parents and children who desperately want to get their hands on the homely but oddly appealing dolls, still one of the hottest retailing crazes in the country.
Coleco Industries, West Hartford, Conn., which is licensed by Xavier Roberts' Original Appalachian Artworks Co. to mass-market the dolls, expects sales of the entire Cabbage Patch product line to top $500 million for 1984. "More than eight times last year's sales," according to spokesperson Barbara Wruck.
The hitch: nine-month waiting lists for the dolls, thousands of people ahead of you, and prices that range from about $30 to $150, if you can find one.
Here's one of the best-kept secrets around: For between $12 and $16 and a few hours of your time, you can make a doll that may be closer in spirit to the original inspiration for the Cabbage Patch dolls than the ones those yearning on long waiting lists are dreaming of.
Here's why and how:
The story of how doll-creator Martha Nelson Thomas was excluded from the multi-million dollar mass production Cabbage Patch phenomenon is widely known. As a young Louisville, Ky., artisan she created soft-sculpture dolls in the early 1970s. In 1979 she filed the first in a series of lawsuits charging Cleveland, Ga., retailer Xavier Roberts with copying them.
A protracted lawsuit settled out of court in September resolved that problem "very satisfactorily," says Thomas. Although neither party is allowed to discuss the settlement, Roberts' attorney Bill Needle says, "He [Roberts] was inspired by her doll" and came up with his own version. Thomas maintained that her dolls were "works of art" which did not require a copyright.
Less well-known is that Thomas, now 34, has developed a line of craft items called Doll Babies that have been selling like hot cakes for the past year. When sewn together, the components are so similar to the mass-marketed dolls that "people call them all the same names," says Thomas.
Here's what she offers: vinyl heads (suggested retail price, $7.98) "modeled directly from my original 1975 soft-sculpture dolls"; fabric bodies "somewhat simplified to make it easier for people to work with" (suggested retail price, $4.98); and "The Doll Baby Pattern Book" written under Thomas' supervision (suggested retail price, $3.49).
Add a needle and thread and you can make your own doll between the time you finish the dinner dishes and go to bed at night, say people who have done it.
Gaithersburg housewife Shirley Cox, 45, mother of five, made one for her daughter who "wanted a Cabbage so badly and you can't find them." Cox dresses the doll in regular baby clothes. She walked through the supermarket with the doll sitting up in her cart "like a real baby would" and "I got five orders immediately." She's been making them at home ever since.
Suzanne Stierle, 32, a Gaithersburg piano teacher and mother of three, first came across the Doll Baby components by chance last summer. An experienced seamstress, she developed a variation on the Doll Baby by using a somewhat different body pattern with the Doll Baby head.
"My dolls look very, very similar to Cabbage Patch," she claims. "They're the same size, similar features, with the outsy navels and rear ends stiched out. Only the thumbs are slightly different."
Stierle names all her dolls "by going down the alphabet." Both she and her mother Helen Wilson sell their Doll Baby versions through the Daisy Chain craft store in Gaithersburg. Dolls by many area seamstresses are sold at other craft stores and holiday bazaars.
Such homey variations are just what Thomas had in mind when she created their originals. Ironically, she says she was trying to get away from "the mass production look. I didn't want a doll that would be on everybody's Christmas list. I was making dolls for kids who wanted something that everyone else did not have, for kids who had not been brainwashed."
Thomas, who has been "making dolls all my life," says she spent years refining her soft-sculpture dolls, based on kids' reactions to each aspect of them. Although "the dolls were not beautiful and not ugly, wherever I went, people just wanted to pick them up and kiss them."
Thomas says she originated the idea of adoption papers, which come with both Doll Baby components and Cabbage Patch dolls, because "I wanted people to know how much I cared about each doll. I gave each doll a name, but I couldn't bear to write on them anywhere, so I attached papers to them instead."
Thomas says she "feels good" about the Doll Baby components she designed because they are so close to her original idea. "It keeps them handmade," she says.
The hand-sewn vinyl-faced Doll Babies fetch between $25 and $50 each. All-fabric, hand-sewn Cabbage Patch dolls crafted in Cleveland, Ga. (at Roberts' Baby Land General Hospital), sell for about $130-$150 each. Some of the older original soft-sculpture dolls made by Thomas herself go for about $300 or more.
Meanwhile, the doll phenomenon -- in all its extremes -- goes on unabated. According to Andres Klasters, manager of the 5th Avenue F.A.O. Schwarz in New York, "many adults have made it clear that the dolls are theirs and not for children" -- a reason, she believes, for the expensive clothing. The store has sold out of its lines and hooded rabbit coats ($60) and Shearling coats ($40).
One Washington area seamstress recently made clothes for a customer's doll that has its own room, its own Disney Cable TV and its own car seat because "she is under 3." One customer discussed having a mink outfit fashioned for her doll from her own stole. Another has said she wants to send her doll to a Cabbage Patch Camp she has heard of.
What does Martha Thomas say to all this? "It's a bit bizarre, but it's okay if they really need to do that.
"Everybody who's made their own seems to feel like their doll is the best that's produced. That's the feeling I wanted to get out."