Saturday, November 30, 2013

Q & A About Reproducing Cotton Batting Ornaments

Temporary image
for pinning, folks.
The following Q and A is applicable to those ornaments that are being reproduced for maximum profit or gratification. I am not personally picky about everything that I make or sell! Advice given for highly collectable items is, of course, far more particular.

1. What is cotton batting? Cotton batting was and still is used prolifically to line the insides of quilts and to upholster stuffed furniture with. There are many sorts of thicknesses available. The term "cotton batting" when applied to ornaments does not necessarily mean that those ornaments were not made with wool or even silk battings. The term is a general one that describes the batting most frequently used to finish ornaments with. Wool and silk are by far more superior to cotton in the crafting of a very fine ornaments because of their unique qualities.

2. Who were the primary producers of cotton batting ornaments? Some of the earliest cotton batting ornaments were produced in Lauscha, Germany. But during the World Wars, Americans opened up their homes and started to build small cottage industries that supplied cotton batting figures for Christmas and Easter as well.
      American individuals also made many of these ornaments by hand at home. Ladies home journals, newspapers and other publishers would describe the novelties in detail and people would often craft their own versions rather than purchase them from overseas venders.  
3. Why is it so difficult to research the techniques used in the production of cotton ornaments 100 years ago? Well, there is a litany of reasons: One reason being that many ornaments were made of ordinary materials and processes that everyday folk took for granted and so they did not always bother to record those processes.
       Another reason, books describing old artisan methods are often tossed by librarians who believe them too 'dated' to be useful to modern crafters. Much of the information that I know concerning the making of doll and novalty (ornamental) items, came from a late 1800's volume that I just happened to have read about twenty years ago. That same book was eventually tossed by the library that once had loaned it to me.
       Vocabulary changes over the passing of time. Crafters don't always use the same terminology from one century to the next. So if you are reading very old descriptions, you may not understand the original meanings or  know which words to use in order to search a term via a computer search system. In order to research original news clippings or books about doll making, people need to use the vocabulary of the artisans that lived during the era being researching, capisci?
Antique clown made from
composition. He is about
the size of a penny.
       Partial knowledge is not full knowledge. For instance, "What is a composition doll head made from?" Unless you happen to have the recipe written down for it, you may never know the exact formula used to pour a doll head over 100 years ago. Chances are that composition head or mask was poured from a formula mixed with plaster, wood pulp, cat gut or ground horse hooves (glue), flour and resin.
       Many cottage industries one hundred years ago guarded their methods from the public so that they could "corner their market" so to speak. Just like crafters today, they were worried about competing with other craftsmen for just a few orders. Sometimes this made sense and sometimes it was an unnecessary precaution but irregardless, it makes the task of finding things out much more difficult.
       Some products used in the ornament making of 100 years ago are no longer manufactured. Therefore, it is difficult to reproduce exact replicas.
       The few remnants of antique ornaments that still exist are too valuable to dismantle without destroying their value. Often owners can not afford to look too carefully at 'how' an item is made without causing permanent damage. Many people, not me, pay thousands of dollars for antique cotton batting ornaments!
4. Are there old methods or practices used in the making of Christmas ornaments that crafters may be better off not reproducing? Absolutely. Wheat paste degenerates rapidly and small rodents will chew on objects made with it. Wheat paste is made from flour and water and folks often used it in crafting 100 years ago. This is one of the primary reasons that so few Christmas ornaments have survived over time.
       Crafting with inexpensive papers is also a very bad practice because these fade faster and have a limited shelf life due to the acid content in the papers. Select acid free and/or heavy weight papers for finely crafted Christmas ornaments to ensure their durability.
5. Are there old methods worthy of reproducing? Absolutely. Sand, prime, and paint objects and then varnish them. Do these things more frequently than printing out images that must be glued down, unless your ornament is made completely from acid free papers or the scrap included on the ornament is reproduction lithographed scrap. Printed images made from those printers used with a home computer will fade out fast even if the paper is acid free. The inks must also be acid free and these are not commonly used in those kinds of printers. Hand-painted faces, hands and added novelties are far more pleasing.
      Handcrafted miniatures make reproductions unique and far more collectable. Take the time to train yourself in some of these old folk crafts so that you can make higher profits and better product. Your only real competition will do this. For example, learn to emboss heavy weight papers by hand or learn to tool metals by hand. These few innovations will greatly improve the detailed ornamentations that may be included with your own original designs.
       Include reproduction Dresden-like, embossed, cardboard trims; pay extra and then do not hesitate to charge extra. Molded cardboard trims are most authentic to the tiny decorative ornaments and trims found attached to cotton batting ornaments. Angel's wings were often made from real Dresden ornamentation. There are contemporary companies that now reproduce similar embossed wings.
       Sign your work. When contemporary crafters sign their work they are proving not only that they are honest, i. e. not trying to sell a reproduction as an original, but also providing their work to a secondary and perhaps more prolific community of collectors, those people who are interested in purchasing contemporary folk art.
       Also, signed work just sells better. Even if you don't think that your painting is as professional as the next guy's. Some consumers prefer naive painters, you may profit better than you expect.

Left, traditionally figures were made from wire and paper wrapped between layers of wheat paste. I recommend, however, that students use masking tape for this process now. Both rodents and insects are highly attracted to wheat paste and they will feast on your handcrafted items if you don't take precautions. Right, my mushrooms/toadstools are ready to paint. On the right, I have yet to wrap a spider and his web, rabbit, and figures with cotton batting.
6. Were cotton batting ornaments entirely wrapped with cotton batting? No, and I am aware that many of you actually didn't think to ask this question. It is perhaps one of the most important pieces of "secret" information that those who wish to reproduce cotton batting ornaments must posses, in order to begin successfully producing these ornaments. 
       There is a difference between spun cotton ornaments and those antique figures produced with a final application of cotton batting; a very important difference. The former are made by the act of spinning the object while layering cotton until a shape is formed, the latter is constructed by applying batting to a small paper mache form. 
      Sometimes pressed cotton was molded by compressing it into either a prefabricated led mold or hand-carved wooden mold. Then it was glued onto the paper mache form. This was one of the most common techniques used to create such amazing detailing in the faces of those ornaments representing people and animals. When molded cotton, spun cotton balls or scrap lithograph faces were not used, inexpensive porcelain heads from Japan could be attached to the tiny doll bodies instead.
Angel with a prefabricated spun cotton head.
       As some of you may have discovered through trail and error, simply wrapping a wire armature with cotton and then painting it, can lead to an ugly mess. Hurray for the fact that you tried it! Sorry for the unappealing mess. You must learn to crush, twist, insert and manipulate light weight paper mache forms in order to successfully pull off the perfect cotton batting reproduction. I will include specific tutorials on this blog that demonstrate many of these methods in the future.
7. Were spun cotton fruit ornaments factory made or handmade? Yes, Both mechanical and hand methods have been done in order to produce ornamental spun cotton fruits. "Spun" cotton does refer to the spinning of cotton but it also refers to the manual method of spinning cotton around a form by hand in order to craft a hand-spun ornament. Some perceptive German translators use the term "wrapped or wound" when referring to hand spun methods.
       The term, "spun" was used by both those folks who were actually spinning cotton on a spinning wheel and those people who manufactured thread on a spinning jenny or spinning frame that displaced the foot propelled wheels used prior to the Industrial Revolution.
      However, both of these uses of the term "spun cotton" do not refer to the "spun cotton" ornaments hung on Christmas trees. These ornaments were made by hand in small batches by families of crafters in the Christmas cottage factories of Germany and then also later by crafters in America who made them by manual spinning means prior to the industrial revolution.

See how spun cotton shapes are manufactured by machine today. This video is from Spunnys.

8. Are millinery fruits made from spun cotton? Are these identical to spun cotton fruits? Sometimes millinery fruits are made from spun cotton but sometimes these are made from molded cotton or composition. Remember that composition is poured into a mold allowed to set and then unmolded, molded cotton is pressed into a mold as a pulpy smooth clay-like substance and then removed to dry hard. Usually these fruits have both a top and bottom side that must be glued together after unmolding. In other words they are molded from half molds.
       Vintage millinery most often refers to the fruits produced in Germany during the 1930s through the 1950s and these are made from poured composition. Antique spun cotton fruits and molded cotton fruits were crafted from as early as the 1870s in Germany.

9. Were cotton batting ornaments shaped with wire armatures? The armatures used in the vast majority of these ornaments were made from crushed paper, glue and sometimes the occasional nail inserted for strength. Sometimes the figures were even stuffed with grass, horse hair, lent or saw dust wrapped in rags and then the batting was glued to the surface. Many people would use the materials they had ordinary access to. These materials were relatively common to processes associated with upholstery, doll making and quilting. Some attachments like bunny ears or posable limbs were shaped structurally with thin wires; but this is not quite the same thing as a heavy traditional armature associated with big paper mache pieces artists create today.
       The word armature implies much more to our contemporary experiences in crafting. Technically there is such a thing as a small delicate armature, but I am certain that most Americans are not getting this image in their heads when they read about it. Why? Because the results have been miserable and the degree of misleading or ineffective writing on the web is too common. Don't think ARMATURE, think armature. As you read about these tiny figures!

10. I thought that cotton batting ornaments were sewn and stuffed, was this a uncommon method? This depended entirely upon the person making the ornaments but there were very likely many ladies who had the needle skills to accomplish this type of sewing. Remember, at the turn of the 20th century, many more women could sew and did so either out of necessity or to earn extra cash for their family. Needle sculpting has been found on antique cotton batting ornaments. That would also be a very helpful technique to learn when reproducing these kinds of ornaments.
11. What types of paints were used on cotton batting ornaments? I suspect that watercolors or dyes were used. If you look carefully at these ornaments, you will discern that the majority do not have polished looking surfaces. In the superior surviving examples the cotton looks soft and unaffected by the color added to it's surface. This can not be easily achieved with inexpensive, glossy, oil paints.
       Many Americans in the business of Christmas cottage industry had easy access to watercolor and fabric dyes. 
       Today paints like acrylics are color fast and consequently, much better suited to the painting of batting and untreated textiles. When painting my cotton figures, acrylics are my paints of choice.

More Tips for Professional Results:
  • Remember to use acid free glue when applying surface embellishments to cotton batting ornaments. It would be horrible to put so much effort into a fine ornament that may show yellowed surfaces within a few years time. The alternative to glue may be to actually sew trims directly onto your ornaments. Think carefully about "how" you will treat the final finished surfaces of the ornament.
  • Consider using a surface fixative of some kind to prevent soiling.
  • A mixture of cornstarch, glue and water may also be applied to larger surfaces areas with the fingers in order to smooth out some imperfections.
  • Visit merchant's who specialize in authentic supplies for your ornament making projects. Products like spun glass, dyed goose feathers, and antique looking clamps add that little extra touch of authenticity to reproduction ornaments.


  1. Thank so much for this post Kathy, I'm looking forward to seeing the ornaments you post on this blog.

  2. Thank-you, a lot of good information here !!!