CHARISSA DRENGSEN | NOVEL ATELIER | West Sonoma County
Charissa Drengsen’s connection to handmade dolls reaches back to childhood. She remembers her grandmother's extensive doll collection lined up on shelves and filling an entire room. She ultimately inherited the collection and revisited it years later as a mother. Her daughter attended a school that discouraged children from playing with toys made of plastic, but finding non-plastic toys was initially challenging. In response, Charissa began sewing new ones, employing skills learned from her grandmother. That initial venture into doll-making developed into the cloth dolls she began creating last year.
Charissa lives 30 minutes outside of Petaluma in the small township of Bloomfield. She jests that the place maintains a larger population in the cemetery than in the rest of the town. Her home sits on open land, surrounded mostly by hills, horizon, and an occasional neighbor. The lower level of her house functions as a cozy living area where the walls are peppered with analog relics and family heirlooms, including a painting of her grandfather as a sailor. Upstairs, her wood-floored studio stretches nearly the length of the house and is filled with diffused sunlight. The studio consists of stations for designing, constructing, and photographing her work. Another upstairs room serves as storage for velvet, wool, and lace. Finished and nearly-finished garments ranging from welding jackets to wedding dresses hang in the hallway connecting the two spaces.
“Her daughter attended a school that discouraged children from playing with toys made of plastic, but finding non-plastic toys was initially challenging. In response, Charissa began sewing new ones, employing skills learned from her grandmother.”
As a child, Charissa’s daughter attended a preschool located far from their home. The hours of daily commute compromised Charissa's availability for conventional employment. Looking for a creative way to balance work with parenthood, she revived her sewing skills and began creating and selling reproductions of vintage lingerie online, though with little profit. A more feasible path manifested when she shifted to upcycling. She created handbags from felted wool sweaters, which she sold at a farmer's market. Further evolving, Charissa found success in transforming vintage menswear into new garments for women. She attracted attention at the markets and was recruited by others to collaborate on the production of handmade goods, such as laptop cases made from repurposed materials. Currently, her work involves commissioned wedding dresses, which she sells online to people from all around the world.
When a friend requested that she sew a doll for his daughter, Charissa reconnected with her history of doll-making. Inside with a winter cold last year, she designed and hand-sewed The Owl and the Pussycat dolls, inspired by the Edward Lear story. She enjoys the variety of steps involved in producing the cloth dolls, sewing some parts by hand and others by machine. With vintage wool and cotton fabrics sourced from garage sales, thrift stores, and emptied attics, the resulting ragdoll incarnations are varied in color and pattern. Their embroidered faces and handmade clothes are also one of a kind.
As she explores new avenues of work, Charissa cites two primary objectives. The first: her work must leave a minimal impact on the environment. Second: her work must be meaningful. In the dolls she makes, these two objectives have indeed been realized.