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'Lovely little doll factory' thriving in Idaho

The unimposing sign over the door simply reads "Porcelain Dolls."

And the shop is not located where you might expect to find an enterprise of this kind — across the road from the sawmill in Ovid, Idaho, a small dot on U.S. 89 between Paris and Montpelier in the southeastern corner of the state.

Yet dollmaker Gwen Nicholls sends her exquisitely handcrafted creations to customers as far away as Ireland, Germany, Japan and England, as well as a number of areas in the United States.

Ovid may be small but it is not completely off the beaten track, Nicholls explains. "I'm right on the way from Salt Lake City to Jackson." Many of her customers are tourists who see the shop — literally at a wide spot in the road — and drop in. Nicholls still smiles recalling the words of one German woman: "This is a lovely little doll factory you have out here in the middle of nothing."

Many of the people who stop at the "lovely little doll factory," Nicholls says, "take a look at one, fall in love with it and take it home." Others ask her to custom-make a doll — one that looks like a family member or someone in a photo. While she cannot sculpt the face to look like an individual, she manages to match coloring and dress quite closely.

Two examples in her shop, which she opened in 1991, show her skill. In one display case is a small photo of Nicholls at 3three years old. Standing behind the photo, at about one-third life-size, is the doll, complete with a crocheted copy (made by Nicholls' mother) of the dress in the picture. In an added touch of humor, the case contains one more doll — Nicholls' red-haired younger sister, bawling.

In another case is a doll that matches a photo of Nicholls' sister's grandson. In little-boy fashion, the pockets of the doll's jeans are stuffed with assorted boy things — a pocketknife, toy pistol, even a frog.

Nicholls designs and tailors almost all of the clothing that goes on the dolls, including the buckskin-and-fancy-beadwork dresses on her Native American dolls. One of these is "a gift I gave myself after I finished it" — a young Indian mother with a toddler in her arms and a papoose strapped on her back. The doll is not for sale.

Other Native American dolls wearing intricate beadwork go for as much as $800. That is the high end in the shop. The low end, Nicholls says, is around $65. The average doll goes for around $175, with custom dolls around $200.

What was her most challenging order? Perhaps a recent one from a Salt Lake man who had visited Italy with his family. He wanted dolls with traditional costumes matching those in a photo he took. His family was so pleased with Nicholls' work that he ordered four more sets.

She has regular customers in a number of Western states, particularly Arizona and California. About 75 percent of her orders come from out of state, she said. At times, she might have might have as many as two dozen orders to fill.

She doesn't advertise or sell her dolls anywhere else. And she doesn't have a Web site — or a computer. Her business is with people who stop and buy on the spot or take a business card and order later. Often the doll is a gift for someone — a spouse, a child or a grandchild.

But, Nicholls said, about 50 percent of her dolls are purchased by women who are buying for themselves. One customer told her, "Today is my 94th birthday, and I'm going to buy myself a doll."

Nicholls thinks of the dolls she makes as future heirlooms. "They could last a hundred years." She chooses materials to stand the test of time.

The small building that houses her shop is divided into two parts. About one-third is devoted to a showroom crowded with glass display cases. The larger part is a work area, with a sewing space; shelves containing sewing supplies and miscellaneous doll parts (heads, arms and legs in various sizes); and two kilns. Nicholls pours, prepares and fires her own porcelain parts for dolls. Depending on the porcelain mix she uses, the body parts come out with different skin tones.

This kind of attention to detail is not unexpected from a woman who used to raise sheep and spin the wool into thread, dye it and then use it in crocheting and small-loom weaving. Nicholls came to doll making after being involved in tole painting and cutting out wooden items for craft houses. But "once I started doing it (making dolls), it bit me, and I just ran with it."

A couple of days a week, she teaches classes in the shop. Students eager to learn from her travel regularly from northern Utah and Star Valley, Wyo.

Porcelain Dolls turns a profit, Nicholls says, but not enough to make her rich. The fact that she has happy customers who keep coming back for her work is more significant than the level of profit. She takes on only what she knows she can do, but not enough to make the work a chore. If it ever turned into a burden, she said, chances are that she would move on to something else.

And as long as customers keep coming back and Nicholls keeps finding satisfaction in her craft, she'll continue to turn out those works of art in her "lovely little doll factory."