It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that the entire first floor of LaVonda Howard’s Fort Washington, Md., home is a one-woman doll factory. Or, at this time of year, a one-elf Christmas workshop. In the living room, instead of couches and a coffee table, there are towers of hot pink storage tubs, a collapsible grocery cart or two, and a large sign featuring a unicorn decked out with 3-D curlicue eyelashes. A corner bookshelf in the dining room explodes with a ROYGBIV assortment of yarn. There’s a bin of rubber shoes, another with a dollar store’s worth of accessories. At the center of the room, beneath a crystal chandelier, a sewing machine stands loaded and ready for business.
“My husband says as long as I don’t expand upstairs, I’m okay,” says Howard, who is 44 and wearing slippers in the form of unicorns, horns aflap as she walks through the kitchen and into the family room, the true heart and de facto headquarters of Cute Little Crumbsnatchers.
It’s here, on a huge leather sectional, in front of a huger big-screen TV, that Howard sits, day in, day out, crocheting a fluff-filled menagerie of clowns, mermaids and superheroes that will soon be under the trees and in the arms of her customers. She has been crocheting since she was 10, when her family lived on MLK Avenue, near Bolling Air Force Base, and Howard had a closetful of dolls. “White dolls,” she clarifies. She began her company, she says, because “I wanted to be making dolls that looked like me.” It’s a sentiment that many of her customers appreciate. “Finally dolls that look like my little girls!” reads one fan note on her Facebook page. However, Howard emphasizes that she makes dolls of all colors. Right now, she has yarn representing 14 to 16 skin tones, from “warm brown” to “light country peach.”
Plopping down on the couch, she fishes out an orange hook, a size 5 to be precise, from a hot pink (her favorite color) utility cart. “If I’m awake,” she says, getting to work, “I’m probably crocheting.”
A good thing, because it’s mid-November and crunchtime. She already has six custom orders for Christmas (including a request for a doll dressed in a dinosaur costume) on top of finishing four of the 20 dolls she plans to take to the upcoming Sugarloaf Crafts Festival. At the moment, these stragglers are in various phases of completion. There’s one dressed in a teddy bear onesie, an Anna from “Frozen,” a Superman and a clown, which is currently in pieces on Howard’s lap. She needs to finish the hands — which unlike her other Crumbsnatchers have labor-intensive fingers (“after this, I won’t be doing fingers that often”) — and both legs; she also has to embroider a few stitches for a nose. Her creations have big, shiny eyes, barely bumps for noses and no discernible mouths, which makes them, says Howard, “childlike and innocent in the face.” Should a client prefer a mouth, rest assured: “I have a whole bucket of lips.”
Each 16- to 18-inch doll, from $75 to $175, takes two to three days to complete. “Once you get the rhythm down, it goes really fast,” Howard says. The production time is a marked improvement over her first Crumbsnatcher, which she made four years ago after seeing some crocheted dolls on Pinterest. Back then, it took her two to three weeks to finish a single one. Over time, she found that a Japanese stitch called amigurumi gives the doll a more molded shape. And a wooden dowel placed inside keeps it from flopping over.
Since launching her company in 2016, Howard figures she’s made around 200 one-of-a-kind dolls, single-handed. (“I like that it’s coming straight from me,” she says.) She sells them on her website (she has a degree in web design), at local shows like Sugarloaf and the Black Owned Small Business Expo, and at national ones like the Detroit Doll Show. Most of her orders come from the Washington area, but she has sent dolls as far away as Canada and Japan. Grandparents are her best customers. “They buy for one and then they come back and buy for another,” she says. “There are a lot of spoiled grandkids out there!” The business makes a small profit, but she isn’t really making dolls for the money. “I’ve always loved dolls, and getting the chance to create them is a dream for me,” she says.
Wrapping some yarn around her left index finger, she starts on one of the clown’s plump legs. “I really think of them as kids,” she says of her creations. “I can’t leave them in the booth overnight. I pack them up and bring them with me to the hotel or back home.”
Howard has life-size kids, too: a 13-year-old son whom she home-schools and a daughter, 20, who’s a senior at the Art Institute of Washington. Her daughter has already put in her Christmas request. “She just saw ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and wants me to make her Freddie Mercury,” Howard says. As for her other dolls, she gets her inspiration from cruising Pinterest and watching kids’ shows. “I have to stay up on which cartoons are popular,” she explains. “That way, if someone says, ‘I want Ryder from “Paw Patrol,” ’ I won’t be like, ‘Who?’ ”
The one doll she won’t be making? “Donald Trump,” she says firmly. “I don’t have enough orange.”
Cathy Alter is a writer in Washington.