Vanuatu Girl Doll

I've written about my neighbor Vivi before, an adorable five-year-old with a big personality and creative mind. She entertains me every moment that she's around.

Her family is moving off the island, and I wanted to make a farewell gift for her. She's so creative and loves to play, so I decided to make her a dolly from scratch. It wasn't going to be any dolly, it would be one she could dress for different occasions. Here's that doll!

Nemo and Vivi pose with their new friend

Basic Doll

Just like in the USA, the dolls you find here in town are mostly white girls with blonde hair.  I found a basic pattern online of a doll, and made it from brown fabric. Polyester stuffing is hard to find, so I used small chopped up scraps of fabric as the stuffing, which gave the doll a little heft. 

I used yarn and the help of some teen students to help me make a ton of braids that I could sew to the doll's head. I knew braids would be easier to fasten to the head than loose yarn, but I still wanted it to be long enough to play with, so I let it hang down. 

Vivi picked out the eye color (purple) and I stitched on a mouth. The final touch was a pair of underwear for modesty.

naked dolly with underwear

Vivi makes a hair bun for her doll

Skul (School)

The first outfit would pertain to school, as Vivi spends most of her time in school. In our area, the kindy students (kindergarten) wear a gingham plaid print. Girls have a sort of smock-type dress, and boys wear a gingham button-up shirt with a pair of black trousers.

I didn't have gingham print, but I did have scraps of this solid blue and blue plaid print, so I made the dolly a smock-like dress.

The accessories for the school outfit are a small notebook and a pen, which Vivi can really use to practice writing. I stitched a small backpack in which she can stuff her outfits and accessories into.

School outfit


school outfit and accessories

Lafet wetem Jej (Party or Church / Formal)

There aren't as many dress codes in Vanuatu as there are in American culture. For women, formal wear is often an island dress. Island dresses are worn for Sunday church service, for weddings, for working in the office, walking around town, etc. Its every day use doesn't take away from its formality, though, as there is nothing nicer you could wear to church or a wedding, arguably the most formal settings the average Ni-Van would find themselves in.

Island dresses, or Mother Hubbard dresses, were a modest design brought in with the influx of missionaries in Vanuatu. It's now adapted in most of Vanuatu's culture...the island dress is just as NiVan as some more traditional island outfits (see next outfit below).

I took a look at my island dresses (I've accumulated about 10) and studied their shape. They're relatively easy to sew as it's a series of rectangles with cinching: sleeves, torso, bottom skirt. Only the neckline is the tricky part, but in this case, I just cut a hole in it and lined it with lace. Island dresses are often decorated with bows, ribbons, and especially with lace. I used some scraps from my sewing kit and stitched up a formal dress for the little doll.

Since this outfit is the church outfit, I wanted to accompany it with a purse so that the doll had somewhere to stow its mini bible that I made. I bought a mini purse from my host mom (that she wove) to accompany the doll. My mom is from our island, and the design and style is specifically Nguna style. This would be a good souvenir for Vivi. I knotted the strap on the inside so when the doll uses it, it's short, but Vivi can easily untie it to make it human-sized once again.

As a finishing touch, I made a hair clip that matched the dress. If I've learned anything about church outfits in Vanuatu, it's all about the coordinated accessories.

dolly's ready for church!

formal wear and accessories

Kastom (Traditional)

Vivi's father is from Tanna and her mother is from Pentecost. The family that she most spends time with in Port Vila is from her father's side, which means that her family frequently attends Tanna kastom ceremonies. Tanna is especially traditional, as they celebrate many rites of passage throughout someone's life, and they have big dances and ceremonies for each one. I recently attended such a ceremony, and after talking with my Tanna friends, I made this simple kastom outfit for the doll.

The outfit is simple for a girl, as traditionally they go topless. First, there's a naio, a feather stick that the woman sticks in her hair for decoration. I had feathers in my house that were painted and used to decorate a mat that I received. They're a little longer and droopy than those used in a typical naio, but I made do with what I had. A piece of thread wraps around the stick to hold the feathers in place. 

The second part is the grass skirt. Traditionally, the grass skirts are made from the skin of a burao tree, but I didn't want to make one that could possibly rot. Instead, I opted for nylon twine that I found at the store. Sometimes, grass skirts are made with nylon twine, so it's not far off from what is sometimes used. Once I made the skirt, I got a pair of scissors to fray it up nicely, as the more volume it has, the better it looks.

I didn't want to paint the doll's face to allow it to change to the other settings, but this traditional dress would normally be accompanied by linear face paint. Check out my blog on a menstruation ceremony to see what that face paint looks like

kastom Tanna doll

kastom clothes

Vivi loved her doll, and even her brother Nemo wanted to play with it. I was so happy to see Vivi have a new friend! 


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