Dolls' Houses Past & Present

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Nostalgia in Miniature Workshops by Celia Thomas & Robin Britton

After months of planning, Nostalgia In Miniature Workshops finally became a reality in the summer of 2011 and the fun truly began!  As miniaturist artisans we have clocked up many years of professional trading between us, consequently are probably better known as Celia Thomas of KT Miniatures and Robin Britton of Coombe Crafts.


Robin & Celia with their WW1 project

Prior to the workshops, not only had we been great friends for a long time but had already collaborated on various commissions, projects and magazine articles so  were extremely familiar with each other's work style and skills. And as we both also share a passion for all things vintage, not just dolls houses,  it wasn't hard to decide that 'nostalgia' should determine our project themes.


Here is both the 1/12th and 1/24th scale version of  the village hall project.


Although Celia, as a seller of antique and vintage dolls houses, deals with all the various an artisan she prefers to work in 1/12th scale because she feels it is much easier to handle and more detail can be put into her creations. Robin, as a maker of sculpted character dolls and other miniatures including tiny houses, prefers to specialise in the smaller scales, so it was decided to offer most of the projects in both 1/12th and 1/24th scale where possible. 

From the outset, we wanted to demonstrate how anyone, regardless of skill and age, can make beautiful miniatures out of ordinary everyday objects and that you do not need expensive tools, an art degree or a bottomless pit of money in order to enjoy the art of creating your own miniatures. We also encourage people to take their creating just that little bit further and add a hint of realism to their projects. Some of the elements and projects made at our workshops could be of interest to those with antique and vintage dolls houses too.


Examples of ordinary materials used in our workshops that you may have lying around your own house and garden, can be seen in the photos above.  The rickety paling fence is simply constructed from household matches and wire, the stones that make up the wall are from egg boxes and the ancient water carrier is constructed from card. The vintage style coal bunker was made from mount board, grit and paint. Convincing old wood and iron panels can easily be made using card and paints.



Similarly, in this Edwardian Christmas scene, the floorboards were scored MDF but could just as easily be made from scored and painted cardboard. The wallpaper was  made from wrapping paper embellished further with paint on the end of a piece of barbeque stick used as a mini-stamp, and the fireplace includes scanned printed images of Robins old tiles. Screwed up miniature newspaper and match wood for kindling, plus a fire fret made from card, as well as a box of Christmas trimmings filled with streamers from old party poppers and old beads for baubles, helped to give this Christmas Edwardian scene authenticity.


And in this photo of our old shed you can just about see a hint of interior contents, mainly created from wood scraps and card.  Handmade contents of this project included an old watering can, garden trug and sieve, plus various other garden related items such as seed boxes and tools.


Initially our workshops were held at the local Girl Guide HQ in our home town of Thame in Oxfordshire, half day for the first few sessions and then all day when the projects became more ambitious. As attendance increased, it rapidly became apparent that we needed a bigger venue, so moved to the beautiful setting of Waterperry Gardens in Oxfordshire. However, as lovely as it was, this rural venue did have limitations.  Then at one point, heavy rain resulted in much flooding within the surrounding area, making access to Waterperry unpredictable and a little challenging. After that, we found ourselves nervously watching the weather forecast each time a workshop loomed on the horizon!!

Robin in the Conference Room preparing for a workshop at our spacious Bicester venue. Just outside the door is the main restaurant where refreshments are available to purchase throughout the day, including delicious cakes! 


So clearly a new venue was needed and after much searching, eventually we came upon the wonderful Bicester Avenue Garden Centre just off junction 9 of the M40.... far more accessible than Waterperry, no matter what the weather!  It has a lot more space than we were previously used to, as well as ample free parking. Set within a complex of other shops including Hobbycraft, Laura Ashley, Lakeland, gives anyone coming to our workshops plenty of opportunity for a little retail therapy.  Needless to say,  we have been there ever since!


Many hours go into the planning of each workshop. Ideas and inspiration come from varying sources - one of us may come up with an idea, then we pool our input and brainstorm, often over hot chocolate with all the trimmings at our famous local chocolaterie or down the pub! Eventually the project will evolve. Several times we have used our own back gardens as inspiration for certain elements in our projects, as we are both very much into cottage gardens. In the photos above and below, you can see different parts of our herb garden project, incorporating a combination of card, cardboard and sandpaper bricks for multiple paving.   Real life sized leaves were scanned, reduced in size and printed off on our computers.  Flowers and other convincing foliage can be made from all kinds of materials found around your house.


Cord and cardboard make convincing Victorian rope edging. A tiny piece of cocktail stick, tin foil, glue, paint and a bead make a realistic rusty old bolt on a garden gate. It is these tiny details which help give a miniature scene such a sense of realism. Given the vintage style of our workshop garden projects, they can easily sit alongside an old dolls house or of course simply stand alone as a scene in its own right, and are great fun to do. Celia has a collection of vintage woodworking books and often bases some of her constructions on real life size plans, such as this garden gate, and then scales them down to miniature size.


Our current workshop project -The Little Vintage Toy Shop, was inspired by an antique miniature shop which we found whilst visiting the Bethnal Green Museum Of Childhood in London. Although the original as seen to the left of our photo, was a double fronted shop and large scale, it would have proved just too complicated for a one day workshop project so we created the frontage with one big window and door instead.

It has turned out to be the most popular of our workshop projects to date - attracting quite a few antique and vintage dolls house enthusiasts too, as some of the techniques could be useful in old dolls house restoration.  The brickwork for instance is similar to that used on certain late 1800s/early 1900s dolls houses.

It was great fun researching the toys for this project and although the original shop in the museum was based on the late 1800s, we chose to design the toy shop contents around the 1920s/30s era instead. But they could easily be adapted to suit a later era and in some cases, even an earlier era.


Probably the most eye catching of all the contents included with this project is the Tri-ang toy laundry set consisting of a mangle, washtub and washboard .... all made from card - apart from the wooden rollers.  It is surprisingly easy to make, once you know, and quite effective!


Once a project is decided upon, we begin by making up the 1/12th scale prototype first and our focus then has to be on how it can be put together in the easiest way possible for a workshop setting.  Even now we can get caught out from underestimating how long it may take someone to carry out a certain step in the project, probably because we have been artisans for so long, we tend to work quite quickly.  


Celia explaining to some of the participants an intricate step during the making of the herb garden. The booklet of instructions included in every workshop helps each participant work at their own pace.


Kits are always provided with detailed printed instructions which we encourage everyone to follow as part of the main core of our workshop. And then if a project isn't finished in workshop time, it can be completed at home at leisure. Attendees are invariably of mixed capabilities,  ranging from extremely experienced miniaturists to absolute beginners and we try to be very much "hands on" for the duration of the workshop, helping people to work at their own pace. By creating a relaxed atmosphere we have found that attendees support each other too, which is an added bonus. We derive much pleasure from seeing participants enjoy creating just as much as we do, and it is even more pleasing when people who arrived with low expectations in their own ability, leave at the end of the day hugely surprised and delighted in what they have been able to achieve. Often participants become so involved in creating that they actually forget to eat as they work all the way through the day, such is their enthusiasm!  When everyone leaves us at the end of the workshop, we hope they are inspired enough to use the tips and techniques learnt from us, to extend further in their own future projects.



As far as we're concerned, we don't expect people to create perfection because does it really matter if a table leg is slightly wonky, or if a door is set slightly crooked or that a fireplace may have a considerable tilt to the left? In real life if we look around our own homes, particularly in older houses, our floors, walls, doorways, fireplaces etc. may not be completely straight. Even our real life size tables may have a slight wobble...Celia's big old kitchen table most certainly does! Apart from anything else, we are both firmly of the opinion that it is the quirky little imperfections that actually can give our miniature creations true character and style. The garden table and bench set seen above, proved quite challenging for some and there were most definitely one or two wonky legs by the end of the day (and not just table legs - ha ha) .... but they were still magnificent and each one took on their own character! One of the main aims that we hope to give anyone attending any of our workshops is to have the confidence to  just have a go, plus have fun along the way. Obviously we will endeavour to keep any eye on what you are doing and try to intervene if you trying to stick the fireplace upside down, or a door frame to the window, etc.



Although our interests in miniatures are similar, our skills in some ways are quite different. We both obviously enjoy working with paint, paper and everyday materials, but Celia particularly loves working with wood and experimenting with ageing techniques, whereas Robin enjoys making almost anything out of card and loves working with natural materials.

So we each have our own niche in every workshop project. Since 2011, we have undertaken twelve main workshop projects and sometimes repeat a project in a duplicate session if we are oversubscribed.  Plus there are quite a few of our "how to make" projects that we have jointly made for the Dolls House & Miniature Scene magazine over the years, which also share the same ethos as our workshops.

Our next workshop project which is already in the planning for 2016, is to be an early 1900s German Style Shop, very pretty with a faded elegant finish. More details plus galleries of past projects can be found on our website:


And Finally.....


We thought we would finish this feature with our WW1 Officers Dugout And Poppy Field Scene, which was created as a special project for the Dolls House & Miniature Scene Magazine in the summer of 2014. All kinds of ordinary household materials were used in the construction, including corrugated cardboard, wood scraps, bubble wrap, card, garden grit, sand, fuse wire, hemp and even stones from our name but a few. It is probably the most ambitious and challenging project we have both ever undertaken in our entire careers, and of which we are extremely proud of. Not only were we acutely aware of the poignancy of the topic but it was also a very emotive topic too, but we like to think that we succeeded in our brief.  It was exhibited at the Thame Museum as part of their WW1 Centenary Exhibition throughout the summer months of 2014 and consequently attracted a fair bit of media interest. A video of this project can be seen below, but please switch on your speakers in order to experience the full impact.




Finally in the late autumn of 2014 this was put up for sale and sold almost immediately. It has gone to a very fitting new home and if you have a minute, please do go and take a peek at the following link- as the French lady who purchased this has a fascinating story to tell.


© - Nostalgia In Miniature Workshops - 2015

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