Every one an individual – the beautiful heirloom dolls of Zealous Design

When Snells Beach sewing aficionado Brenda Howson of Zealous Design was a child she had a precious big rag doll that she loved to pieces. Now she makes beautiful handcrafted dolls and soft toy animals so that a new generation of Kiwi kids can love a unique doll that’s made with care and love.


What do you make?
In my day job I fix computers, organise people and do various admin tasks, there is little room for creativity and flair. At home I organise my children, our home and (my husband). When I get my precious ‘me time’ I’m off to my sewing space to create. I sew all sorts of things from bibs to scrunchies, dresses to bags but my main focus and love, in this season, are heirloom dolls and animals.

Describe your creative process and tell us about some of the techniques involved in producing one of your pieces:
Creating a doll starts with a sketch. Often I have a notebook in my hands and I’m doodling ideas or making little sketches of dolls I want to sew. On paper I decide on eyes, hair and the colours I will use. Then I head to my fabric stash, and get matching fabrics. Surprisingly choosing the fabric and cutting it out takes a huge amount of time.

I have my own patterns I’ve developed over time, as well as some beautiful designs by amazing pattern makers. Designing the face is what I like to take a lot of time on. I use a mixture of hand painting and embroidery. This process can take hours and is very delicate work. Sometimes I’ve designed the face on paper and painstakingly transfer it to the fabric, other times I sketch straight onto the fabric and go from there.


Each limb is sewn and stuffed before being painstakingly attached to the doll torso and head. She is then flipped out through a small hole, stuffed and hand sewn closed. Stuffing a doll takes patience and practice, it has to be very tightly stuffed while keeping the integrity of the fabric and shape of the finished doll. Most of my dolls have yarn hair. I use a few different methods to attach the hair, but my favourite (and most time consuming method) is using a crochet wig that I sew to the dolls head then carefully place each strand of hair one by one. This gives the doll hair that can be styled by children over and over again, it also means if a piece falls out it can be replaced easily. I came up with this method a few years ago after being unhappy with glue and other hair placing ideas.

Now the doll is ready for her clothing – will she wear a dress or pants, a tutu or skirt? Will she have a cape or a little knitted cardi? All these details are fun to decide and create, making each doll unique and special.



How did you get into your craft?
When I was a child my mum taught me how to sew and I would dabble with clothes patterns but my sewing didn’t turn to dolls until I had my own children. I had a precious rag doll from childhood, I loved her to pieces, now my daughter has her and is loving her in the same way.

It got me thinking about all the plastic dolls that are sold… I never loved my Barbies as much as I loved my rag doll. What if I could create that same love for children today? I started off Googling rag doll patterns, tried a few free ones, bought a few patterns and eventually started designing my own and creating dolls that were uniquely mine. I am always tweaking my patterns and changing the faces because that keeps it fun and creative for me. I’m not a factory that is going to pump out endless dolls, each one of mine is made with love, thought and care.

Then when my dolls find their forever home, it makes my heart so happy and I hope each doll will endure more than one generation like my old rag doll did.

“As most creatives would appreciate, things can get a bit messy when you are in full crafting mode!”

Your favourite materials and tools?
One of my favourite materials to use is alpaca yarn. It’s so incredibly soft to touch, such a natural product and just plain beautiful. Alpaca yarn is only processed the minimum amount to produce yarn, so it’s chemical free and actually smells delicious.

My friend Kathy, at Gumtree Gully, has an alpaca farm and I am lucky enough to source my yarn from her. Mostly in its natural state, but sometimes I choose a hand dyed hank to get some colour. I use it to knit little doll cardigans or use it for my dolls’ hair. I even use the non processed fleece to stuff some dolls, it makes for a much more solid and ‘meaty’ doll.

My favourite tool would have to be my 40+ year old sewing machine. When I got her for my 21st birthday, she was already a grandma, but I wouldn’t trade her for a new machine. She never fails me and was built to last. I’m so precious about her, I bought another second-hand sewing machine to teach my kids on so they wouldn’t use ‘my precious’.



Describe your workspace:
I’ve been creating to sell for nearly ten years now and my workspace has changed many times. I started on the dining room table (you can imagine the mess), then moved to a spare room. When the spare room was needed, I moved into a corner of the garage, which was very dusty and cold. Then my brilliant husband built me the most amazing little cottage at the end of last year. A space just for me and my crafting. I also had the fun job of choosing colours to stain and paint it. It’s so nice to be able to just disappear into my cottage to get my ‘create’ on, without having to pack up a space after every use. As most creatives would appreciate, things can get a bit messy when you are in full crafting mode!

Your favourite feedback from a customer:
“Absolutely thrilled with the beautiful little pink haired doll I purchased. I’m sure it will delight the little girl it has been bought for as much as it has me (I almost don’t want to give her away:-)) The quality is excellent too. Highly recommend, a truly special little doll.”

“I’m not a factory that is going to pump out endless dolls, each one of mine is made with love, thought and care.”

What are you currently listening to?
Actually it’s the Frozen 2 soundtrack that my daughter loves, but you know what, it’s pretty catchy, perhaps I love it too. 🙂

Recommend an album:
Over the lockdown we’ve been following Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage shows as he has released them on Youtube each weekend for free. It reminded me how much I love the musical Phantom of the Opera and its soundtrack. I’ve loved it since I was a small child and now my daughter seems to love it just as much.

What are you reading now?
I’m reading a series of books titled the Seven Sisters by Lucinda Riley. Each book follows a different adopted sister as she discovers where she came from. I’m now awaiting the release of book seven to finish the series.


Why do you think it’s important to buy handmade and/or locally made goods?
As we head out of the Covid19 pandemic, it’s more important than ever to support our small NZ businesses. So much talent, time and love goes into each piece our local creators make. I’ve noticed NZ Made Facebook groups popping up, and I encourage you to check them out and go through Felt whenever you need a gift or product. There are some super talented people in our country. Let’s pay them instead of sending our money off shore.

Sadly I’ve been to too many markets and have overheard people complaining about the cost of handmade items. It seems we judge the price of an item against a mass made warehouse product, where no love was instilled into it. Please know that I appreciate every doll sale from the bottom of my heart, can mass warehouse shops say that?

What was the last handmade item you bought and what attracted you to it?
I found some gorgeous handmade leaf earrings, that are unique and pretty. With the couriers so busy after lockdown I’m waiting with baited breath for them to arrive.

“As we head out of the Covid19 pandemic, it’s more important than ever to support our small NZ businesses.”

What’s in store for the rest of 2020?
As I write this, we have just dropped to Level 3 in the Covid19 pandemic from over a month in lockdown. You’d think I would have had a month to sew and create but the truth is I spent most of the month rather anxious and only just coping with doing daily tasks and keeping my children occupied. Looking back I’m frustrated that I didn’t get more sewing in but this week my creative juices have started flowing again and I have a long list of ideas I can’t wait to create.

Prize draw and special offer for Felt readers!

Brenda has generously offered a sweet prize for one lucky Felt reader of Your choice of doll from Brenda’s Felt shop up to the value of $50. How fab is that? To be in to win an adorable Zealous doll leave us a comment below telling us what you like about Brenda’s story and her creations.

The draw closes at 5pm Monday 25 May and is open to New Zealand residents only.

And the prize draw’s not all! Brenda is also generously giving her Felt customers 10% off any of the stunning dolls and toys in her Felt shop for a month. Just purchase before 5pm Monday 8 June, and enter the code MAY2020 in the voucher code field at step 4 of checkout. Thank you Brenda!

32 thoughts on “Every one an individual – the beautiful heirloom dolls of Zealous Design

  1. What beautiful timeless dolls. It is so lovely to read about all the thought and care that goes into each creation, particularly your process for doing their hair.

  2. Gosh there’s something so special about a rag doll – creating what could become the most precious thing to a child – their best friend, mischief maker, confidant – out of scraps/offcuts.

    They remind me of Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colours, making something beautiful with love and talent that really do become a part of a kid’s childhood.

    I have my rag doll by my bed – she was given to me the day I was born and although worse for wear, Googie-Goo is my oldest friend!

  3. These are such beautiful dolls. I especially enjoyed reading about your painstakingly detailed work on the faces, and seeing each doll’s wonderfully unique expression. I remember the day I received my first doll, they are such special toys and yours especially, with all the love and care imbued in each one.

  4. You have found a wonderful niche for your creative talents Brenda! I LOVED my handmade rag doll, Raggedy Ann, and Mum even made us matching outfits! I still have her. I can easily imagine your dolls inhabiting the same special place with their owners today.

  5. Well done Brenda for creating such lovely handcrafted dolls that bring so much happiness. I showed the article to my youngest daughter and she loves the detailed outfits and the way each doll tells a story. We both feel that your unique creations will be treasured by generations to come. All the best.

  6. I love how she’s taken a fond memory from when she was a child and turned it into a reality and something special for generations to come. If i won i’d totally put it toward that gorgeous red-headed one that reminds me of my 2 year old Juliet who has red hair. I’d love her to be able to pass it on to her daughter one day xx

  7. Such beautiful dolls. What a beautiful creative outlet. I love how each doll has their own individual personality. Both of my girls have always treasured the hand made dolls and accessories they have been given over the years and I’m sure it’s because of the hours of love every piece has been given during the creative process can be sensed from a very young age. These really are magical creations. Keep up your beautiful work Brenda

  8. I adore handmade, homemade, craft and design and yours is gorgeous. I love how full of character you can create on their faces, that no doubt evolves as you make them. It’s wonderful that you’ve stuck to your guns and diligently grown your craft, especially to the point where hubby babe built you a special cottage. Kudos! Craft on ❣

  9. HI Brenda. I LOVE your beautiful dolls! The faces and eyes are so expressive. My gorgeous granddaughter is turning 2 years old next month and I would so enjoy gifting her one of your gorgeous dolls, such a wonderful memory maker and a wee friend for life. Keep on creating wonderful magical memories for special people. xx

  10. The dolls are gorgeous. I loved reading about your journey from kirchen table to
    now your own space.
    The way the dolls hair is attached is brilliant Looks so luxurious and soft

  11. Your dolls are beautiful Brenda and I love the variety. I found this really insightful and inspiring to read as I’m just starting down the road of selling the soft toys and bags I make after many years of dreaming of this. It’s really helpful to read about someone who has been doing this for a long time and to see how polished your work looks and to know that if I keep at it I might get to that stage one day (right now I’m still on the dining room table!). Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks Laura. The dining room table is a great place to start 🙂 and hopefully into your own cottage type space one day 🙂 Happy creating. Brenda

  12. I love your comment how each doll is made with love, thought and care ❤ I am sure I can see this in the faces of the dolls. They seem to have a look of that “being loved” feeling in their eyes. I reckon they must feel sad when they leave their sisters and friends in your home but so excited to be off on an adventure with their new family. Your creativity is such a joy.

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