2018-03-14 / Front Page

Chester doll-maker celebrates double 50-year anniversary

By TORY DENIS

TORY DENIS
Chester doll-maker Bonnie Watters holds two of her dolls, Emily and Kimberly. Watters will celebrate 50 years of marriage and doll-making this June.TORY DENIS Chester doll-maker Bonnie Watters holds two of her dolls, Emily and Kimberly. Watters will celebrate 50 years of marriage and doll-making this June.CHESTER — Chester doll-maker Bonnie Watters will celebrate two milestones this June: 50 years of creating colorful, custom handmade dolls in Chester’s historic Stone Village, and her and husband Lew’s 50th wedding anniversary.

Bonnie is the owner of Bonnie’s Bundles Dolls, a small home-based business with a big impact on customers of all ages. She estimates that over the past 50 years, she has made close to 15,000 dolls, and has created more than 450 designs. She has many return customers, sometimes over generations.

“It’s amazing — they keep coming back,” she said. “I get letters from little children, thanking me for the dolls.”

Inside the front entrance of the 1844 stone house Bonnie and Lew Watters have lived in for nearly 44 years, a cheerful and colorful family of soft cloth dolls greet visitors from antique cupboards, shelves, chairs and showcases. Some sport gingham and floral print dresses, some have “motif” eyes or braids. All are created with care by Bonnie and a handful of talented embroiderers and stitchers.

Bonnie said her sewing ability came from her grandmother, Nora McDermott, who was born in Sligo, Ireland, and was a dressmaker for Mrs. Vanderbilt. She would occasionally take the train to New York deliver the wares to the Vanderbilt’s home, bringing Bonnie’s father, a young boy at the time, along for the ride. Bonnie also has two very creative aunts.

Her doll-making began in June 1968, the same year Bonnie married Lew Watters. She was living in New York in 1966 and working as an executive assistant. They met in New York City, when Bonnie was dating an ROTC instructor who was in the same social circles as Lew, a junior CIC officer commissioning the last ship ever built in the U.S. Navy yard in Brooklyn. They all often spent time hanging out together.

When Lew returned to the area two years later, after his tour of duty was up and he’d obtained a job and an apartment, he bumped into Bonnie again, in a little pub in the upper East Side.

“I said, ‘Bonnie Edwards, I always wanted to marry you!’” Lew said.

Within six months, in mid-June, the couple was wed. On June 22, Bonnie also began her creative endeavors.

“I started making dolls right from the beginning of our marriage,” Watters said.

Her inspiration for the dolls was multi-purpose, she said.

“I wanted to be a mother,” and to stay home with her children while also having a stream of income, she said.

In 1971, with baby Kate now part of the family, they moved to Westfield, New Jersey. That year, her first foray into creative business — which included doll clothes sold at a drugstore, Raggedy Ann dolls, and framed calico animal pictures — developed into a full-blown creative endeavor. She created her first doll, Eliza, a long-legged doll with big eyes and gingham.

She has since sold her dolls in hundreds of variations at craft fairs and boutiques, and directly. Her dolls were been regulars at the Stratton Art Festival and at state craft centers in New Hampshire and Vermont, and now available at the annual Chester Fall Festival or by contacting Watters by phone or through the website, www.bonniesbundlesdolls.com.

In 1974, the family — which grew to include three daughters — moved to Chester, and in 1976 she hired about two dozen friends and neighbors to help make the dolls. Watters opened her Bonnie’s Bundles shop in her home in 1979, turning a room in the back of the house into a shop that visitors could browse.

In between sports practice, plays and ballet lessons, she was a stay-at-home mom, sewing and running her small business. The children also helped greet visitors.

In the 1980s, she was selling more than 800 dolls a year. Five of her original patterns were licensed by Butterick Patterns when a buyer noticed her at a craft fair in Woodstock.

Around the same time, the late Jerry Hulse of the LA Times mentioned the dolls in a syndicated article, coining the phrase “Your eyes won’t believe their eyes,” and helping to put her little Vermont shop on the map, according to Watters. People ordered from throughout the United States.

“In the old days, we sold dolls to Walla Walla, Washington,” Watters said. Her dolls have also been sold in the Faneuil Hall marketplace in Boston.

She later added the option to have “motif eyes,” such as rainbows, birds or flowers. She also offers customers the option of a “Portrait Doll” in a child’s image, using a photo for inspiration.

Many of her creations were inspired by her own children, grandchildren, or other people. The dolls can vary greatly: Courtney is a baby, Victoria is a lady with upswept hair, Violet is all dressed in purple and navy for Spring’s first flower, and Andrew is an old-fashioned boy in knickers, while Honey is a golden-haired girl with honeybees for eyes. Some are inspired by fabrics or nursery rhyme characters.

Now she has two stitchers at this time: Embroiderer Eileen Dulmer, who has been helping for 44 years, and dressmaker Katherine Allen.

When their work is returned to Bonnie completed, she stitches the doll together, adds snaps, bows, rouge and accents, then stuffs, wigs and finishes each doll, signing and numbering each on the left leg before registering it. Every doll is guaranteed forever.

These days, Bonnie and her helpers are still making about 100 dolls a year. Each takes about 15 hours to complete.

She also gives school and library workshops in the Cavendish and Chester-Andover area and writes a Connection blog on her website. She currently offers an afterschool workshop at the Whiting Library, teaching embroidery and other skills.

Lew, now retired, is her shop photographer and helps as webmaster. He is an historian and has maintained a history of the past 50 years of dolls, including a large timeline, complete with color photographs, that he shared with the Whiting Library for an exhibit.

Her children, now grown and living in Vermont and Arizona, are all very supportive.

“All three kids are creative, and everybody sews!” she added.

To commemorate the 50 years of doll-making, the couple hopes to secure museum exhibits featuring the evolution of of Bonnie’s Bundles dolls. They are also planning a 50th anniversary celebration this summer with family and friends.

Return to top