Vintage Barbie Clothes Made by Someone Else’s Grandma

barbies hanging out by the closet

Two years ago, I went on a mission at Christmas: a vintage Barbie holiday for our 7-year-old.

barbie carrying cases whipstitch

I was especially focused on the carrying cases, honestly.

whipstitch barbie instagram

When I was little and we’d go visit my grandmother, she would permit us to play with the Barbie clothes HER mother had sewed for MY mother (and her sister).  They were in these amazing carrying cases, complete with cardboard drawers and tiny, tiny hangers for each garment.  Oh, how I loved those hangers!

barbie hangers

I confess that I didn’t so much “play” with Barbie as “organize her closet.”  That was the fun part for me, putting all the dresses and blouses and skirts on the hangers and organizing them on the racks.

barbie clothes on hangers

I have such happy, happy memories of all those clothes, with their tiny buttons and tiny snaps and teensy seams and perfect, perfect smallness.  I wanted to offer that to our daughter, as well–since the clothes I played with as a child, which would have been absolute heirlooms today, were lost somewhere along the way between moves and my grandparents growing older, and maybe would have been too precious to allow children to actually PLAY with today, anyway.  Isn’t that a tragedy?  Doll clothes too nice to let children pretend with?

barbies with closets

Turns out, Barbie clothes are super, super collectible.  Which I think I knew on some level, but not to the degree that I discovered while putting the gift together.  What I learned, though, fascinated me: the tagged Barbie clothes, produced by Mattel, are all catalogued and collectible and highly sought-after by folks who love All Things Barbie.  But the handmade clothes?  The ones made scrap by scrap by someone’s grandmother as a sacrificial act of love and devotion for a child to play with?  Those seem to have very little value at all, and can be bought by the lot on eBay for ten to thirty dollars a gallon.

barbie cardboard accessory drawers

Lucky for me, those are exactly the Barbie clothes I most wanted!  The ones that were of primary interest to me were the ones that were made with bits of lace and leftover fabric and unfinished seams and no tags at all.  They fascinate me, and I knew that not only would they be fun to play with for our daughter, but that they’d be fulfilling their purpose in this world by coming into a little girl’s home.

handmade barbie dress f

So I bought.  Giant lots, big bags.  Some of them were…not up to snuff, let’s say.  All of them had that odd thrift-store smell to them.  And some of them…  Some of them were heavenly.

handmade barbie dress a

It’s their hand-made-ness that I love the most.  Their stains, their imperfections.  These were made by someone who wanted to take the time to stitch teensy stitches just to see the joy on a little girl’s face.  And let’s be honest: our Barbies aren’t so pristine, either.  And no one cares even a little bit at our house.

handmade barbie shirt c

There are the teensiest little blouses, and sweet little cropped pants.  You can tell that these clothes were made over the space of decades, mostly in the 60s and 70s, but a few in the 80s, as well.  With such careful details–bust darts and itty bitty collars and hand-sewn snaps.

handmade barbie dress b


They have trim and lace and button details on them that I can’t even imagine.  But they take so little of each, I have to guess that most of them were made from sewing room scraps.  Something about that makes it EVEN BETTER to me.

handmade barbie dress e

A lot of them are made so, so carefully–and others are a little amateurish.  I can’t say in complete honesty that I love those the most.  I really appreciate good craftsmanship, after all.  But there is a great deal of charm in those little spots where a few handstitches were the only way to make it work.  Tim Gunn would be proud.

handmade barbie dress trim

Occasionally, I see a great idea applied on a small scale, like using ribbon to hem a full skirt.  Or accenting with tiny zigzags at the edge of trims.

handmade barbie dress g

The back neckline of this fabulous one with the black-and-white print and the kimono sleeves even found its way into one of my pattern designs!

handmade barbie dress applique

There are even KNITS!  Someone used the smallest needles you can think of to KNIT something for Barbie.  Can you even dream of such a thing??

handknit barbie coat and hat

Each stitch is so tiny, and they’re finished as if these are real clothes.  Which they are, just…for a toy.

barbie handknit detail

Not all the pieces I collected (or scored, depending on how you look at it) are for Barbie, of course.  There are some for Skipper, and others for the bevy of non-Barbie ladies who are nearly the same proportions.

handmade barbie dress bodice j

Genuinely the ONLY disappointment of the entire endeavor has been the rare occasion when a garment won’t fit a particular doll. The Belle (of Beast fame) doll we have isn’t quite the same measurements of Barbie, and it always bums the youngest out when she can’t get a dress on her or make her feet fit in the tiny shoes.

handmade barbie jersey dress

The other day, we were having a super rough afternoon.  Everyone came home so grumpy, and the kids were snipping, snipping, snipping at one another.  Out of nowhere, I asked the youngest if she wanted to play Barbies.  She replied, “Will you play with me?”  Uh, YES.

handmade barbie blouse h

Next thing I know, all of us–the two girls and our son and I–are all on the floor of the girls’ room, jammed up against the dresser drawers, dressing and organizing and searching for hangers and trying on tiny shoes.  And it was so fun, fun to see them re-discover these tiny treasures.  Exciting to show them how to operate the itty buttons.  And affirming to know that these things are meant to played with and loved–and they are.

handknit barbie dress

If you ever have a moment where you think, “Does sewing even matter? Does what I make at my machine MATTER?”  The answer is YES, in so many ways you may not even know.  Your stitches may survive you and your family and yard sales and eBay and storage lockers to someday land in the hands of a family who desperately needed exactly what you were making just to make it through the day.

Keep sewing.  Just keep sewing.

barbie waves goodbye

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  • Linda Gillian
    February 10, 2015 at 3:28 pm

    What a sweet article. My mom used to just love making Barbie clothes. I have no idea who she gave them to as I was never a Barbie person (I am too old. . . .we had baby dolls and bride dolls)

    This article made me happy just as I know my mom had happy hours making the clothes.

    • Deborah
      February 11, 2015 at 12:11 pm

      I never thought I’d be the kind of mom (or dressmaker) who had any interest AT ALL in making doll clothes, but remembering how much I loved all those tiny things has made me want to offer the same joy to our kids–and it turns out, it brings me the SAME joy! I wonder if it’s just the love children have for all things tiny? It’s contagious, and I find I don’t even mind sewing those itty bitty seams… I love hearing that others have felt the same way–your mom must have really enjoyed it to do it for someone other than you! 🙂

  • Samina
    February 10, 2015 at 4:06 pm

    Thanks for bringing back memories! I don’t remember if my Barbie had a closet, but I remember loving the tiny hangers, too! There are young ones in the family now & I’ll have to try to sew or make some stuff for their Barbies to wear when they get to Barbie age.

    • Deborah
      February 11, 2015 at 12:12 pm

      I mean, the HANGERS, right?!? So little, and they hold the clothes so neatly. I think it appeals to me so much because it makes them feel less like toys and more like miniature versions of “real” clothes. So glad I’m not the only one who loved them! 🙂

  • Cassandra
    February 10, 2015 at 6:21 pm

    oh, memories! My grandmother sewed beautiful clothes for my Barbie and my sister’s. They even had fake fur coats. I also loved the many, many accessories you could acquire for Barbie: shoes, purses… I saved them for years in my parents’ attic. Alas, the critters destroyed them. I do still have a box of doll clothes — beautiful pinafores and calico dresses with lace trim — that my first mother made. Handmade doll clothes are the best.

    • Deborah
      February 11, 2015 at 12:14 pm

      Oh, grandmothers are the best, aren’t they? The ones we played with were made by my GREAT-grandmother, my mother’s grandmother, and they showed an attention to detail that we just don’t see often enough any longer. I think we’ve become so accustomed to seeing poorly made clothing for US that we don’t appreciate it in doll clothing. Looking at the time and detail on these inspires me to spend more time really investing in the garments I make for myself to give them all those special touches that set them apart!

  • Louise Fredieu
    February 11, 2015 at 12:08 am

    Excellent post. I wish I had the beautiful pioneer outfit that my grandmother sewed for my Barbie about 55 years ago. Thanks for the memory.

    • Deborah
      February 11, 2015 at 12:15 pm

      Oh, I bet that was lovely!! One of these lots of Barbie things had a pioneer outfit, too, but it was clearly a late-70s Little House version–I bet it couldn’t hold a candle to the one your grandmother made. What a great memory!

  • Rachelle - Warming Crafts
    February 11, 2015 at 4:46 am

    My mum used to make Barbie clothes to sell at the local store, I didn’t have a Barbie, instead I had a doll called Daisy which was a little less top-heavy than Barbie. Mum used the same patterns, but adapted them to the more realistic doll.

    • Deborah
      February 11, 2015 at 12:16 pm

      We’re realizing that there must have been a LOT of different dolls that were Barbie-like. I knew about Skipper, of course, and I think there was a Mandy? Maybe? But there are so many others, and we have clothes for a lot of them, based on the way they fit the dolls. BUT! The good news is that most of the patterns are pretty interchangeable, and fit lots of different dolls. I’m so inspired to try sewing a few of the free patterns online and comparing them to the vintage designs!

  • Laura J.
    February 11, 2015 at 9:55 am

    I love this so much. Recently when we visit my parents, my daughter has been playing with my old dolls and doll clothes that were made by my grandmother, who passed away too soon to meet her first great-grandchild. While helping my daughter with a little dress, I realized that my grandmother had used decorative stitching on the hem. Looking closer, I discovered that there were all kinds of decorative stitches, fancy finishes, and other tiny details that I didn’t notice as a child and can only appreciate as an adult who sews. And I sew because she and my mother taught me.

    Showing my mother all those tiny details was such an amazing moment for me, and it felt like such a moving tribute to the amazing woman my grandmother was and the legacy she’s created for us all with this incredible skill. I can’t wait to impart all of that to my daughter.

    • Deborah
      February 11, 2015 at 12:19 pm

      Isn’t that astonishing? The details! Even back in the mid-80s, when we didn’t have internet or streaming video (oh, the horrors!), and presumably had more time, I was amazed at how perfectly executed the clothes were that my grandmother made. I wonder if that was a product of home ec classes–people really learning couture techniques to make their clothing–or if it was a product of people taking their hobbies more seriously decades ago? Either way, I would really love to be able to apply that level of dedication and attention to detail to both my own clothing and the things I make for my children–it’s much more motivating to take good care of every stitch when you realize it will be handed down and treasured by your own family and beyond.

  • Tiphaine
    February 11, 2015 at 10:09 am

    I looove that post. I never had a barbie but the idea of those “old” outfit traveling through time… wow!!! I think it is magic!!!

    • Deborah
      February 11, 2015 at 12:20 pm

      Yes, exactly!! That’s the exact feeling I had! Like I was somehow connected with these other families, and someone’s grandmother had sent me a lifeline for a rocky afternoon, across the boundaries of time and space. Too nutty? Maybe, but I know I would love to have the same impact on another family 50 years from now–what an incredible legacy to leave behind! 🙂

  • Maureen
    February 11, 2015 at 3:40 pm

    Thank you for a wonderful post. I never had a Barbie, but now I wish I did. The Barbies they sell at the big box stores today make me queasy. I forgot how wonderful they were. And the homemade clothes are to die for!

  • Cherie
    February 11, 2015 at 11:29 pm

    Your last two sentences! Wow! I’m going to have to copy them and keep them by my sewing machine. I was wondering what patterns you have found to make for Barbie doll clothes?

  • Karen Z
    February 12, 2015 at 12:50 pm

    Love these Barbie’s. I have a wonderful group of friends and we try to get together but when some can’t make it – I have a Barbie doll dressed for the occasion. I have many clothes my mother made for my and my sisters doll but the clothes they sell in the stores now are horrible. Too many little pieces of velcro that get stuck to everything. Great memories.

  • Tiffany
    February 12, 2015 at 6:20 pm

    Oh my… you’re speaking to my heart. I have so many Barbie dresses that I loved as a little girl (that were made by my great aunt) that I passed along to my daughter, and I never pass up the chance to play with them, with her. It DOES matter! A whole heap-of-a bunch.

  • Jane
    February 13, 2015 at 4:53 pm

    Not sure why you get sniffy and snobby about the hand stitching! Beats clumsy unravelling machine stitching I think.

  • pat sloan
    February 13, 2015 at 9:18 pm

    What a WONDERFUL trip down memory lane. My great-grandmother and great-aunt used to make Barbie outfits for my birthday. They would sew them to cardboard and wrap them like they came from the store. I wonder if any outfits made it through time in my memory shoebox?

  • Shalini
    February 15, 2015 at 3:12 am

    This is such an interesting story. I think you will enjoy this Deborah

  • Faby
    February 28, 2015 at 2:12 am

    Those dresses are really nice, my grandma use to make me dresses for my barbies and my mom used to search for matching bag and shoes on the markets back in Mexico such a nice memories’. By the way did you bought all the Barbie stuff on eBay? 🙂

  • Jenn
    March 1, 2015 at 9:30 am

    I learned to sew by making Barbie clothes with my mother. Friday nights we would sit around the table and work on these tiny clothes while my mom visited with friends.
    I learned a lot and I can’t wait to teach my daughters.

  • charlotte m.
    March 3, 2015 at 8:36 am

    A wonderful post, with wonderful pictures. What great memories it brought back for me. Not just my Barbies from the early 60’s, but the ones my girls played with, also from the early 60’s that belonged to my husband’s sisters. Loved to death and very beat up, but no less glamorous to the children. Some home made clothes, some store bought, all treasured and loved. I have only grand sons today, but maybe some day there will be a little girl in need of a Barbie in her life. I hope so.

  • Jean C.
    March 13, 2015 at 7:33 pm

    Hi…. love your post on Barbie Doll clothes. Yep, nothing like playing Barbies with your kids to take you to another time/place.
    When I was all of 9 my brother and I were at a family friends house in the woods. He being all of 11 had his hunting knife (he was a scout). Lonnnng story short a huge dog scared us terribly and we both started to run. Yes, you have it… never run with a knife! It ended up in my upper thigh and on the way to the hospital mom told me that if I didn’t cry she would make my Barbie doll an outfit. I was sold! I didn’t cry…. at all…. I yelled a bit. The doctor put in 90 stitches (it was quite deep) and used 3 spools of surgical thread, all while he counted the stitches out loud! Some times I wonder why he did that, I was 9 and a wake the entire time. I loved that dress and my 3 girls did too. I think my youngest has all the Barbie stuff now. Some day she may have a girl and she will get to play all over again with the things that made us happy.

    • Suze Q
      January 9, 2016 at 10:30 am

      Enjoyed the posts! Great remembering my playful days with my Barbie and Francie dolls. My mother brought home all her scrap fabrics from work and at the age eight she taught me how to sew. I made many an outfit for my dolls, adorned with lot of lace, beads and faux fur. For my ninth Christmas, I asked only for a small sewing machine, turn crank, chain stitch by Singer. I did get it and spent about four years sewing doll clothes. Too bad, I gave them away to a little girl in the neighborhood, who then played but tossed them away. Today, as a grandmother of a seven year old, I too have started her on sewing lessons and having her start to enjoy her Barbie. She loves to visit and always brings along her Barbie and together we sew and even play. The hangers are not as great as we had, but she too enjoys the clothes we make and fixing the closet.
      We are now making a wardrobe, to hang the many outfits made. Will post the finished piece when finished.
      Glad to hear other grandmothers enjoyed and have fond memories of their Barbie years!

      • Deborah
        January 11, 2016 at 8:18 pm

        I love everything about this story! I have also found that the newer Barbie hangers aren’t as good as the older ones–I found some great ones on eBay that are firm and more like what my grandmother had when I was smaller. I love that your granddaughter is playing with handmade Barbie clothes, and learning to make her own! 🙂