Japan has a long history of doll making (starting somewhere between 8000-200 BCE) and even has a festival celebrating dolls: Hinamatsuri, the doll or girls’ festival. Kimekomi is a special Japanese method of doll making, where the carved base has grooves cut into it and the material for the clothes is inserted into the grooves.
The ancestors of Kimekomi dolls are the Kamo (willow-wood) dolls, small dolls carved of willow and decorated with cloth scraps. It is said that the first Kimekomi doll was made by Tadashige Takahashi who served the Kamigamo Shrine in Kyoto 260 years ago, during the Genbun Era (1736-1741).
Between jobs, Takahashi amused himself by creating dolls from willow offcuts that were left over from the manufacture of shrine festival accoutrements. The dolls were made of willow grown by the Kamo River and Takahashi used cloth from the costume (kimono) of a Shinto priest to clothe it. The cloth, called kinran included very thin gold sheet called kin-paku into the grooves. These dolls were given various names: yanagi ningyo (Willow dolls), kamo ningyo (Kamo Dolls) and kamogawa ningyo (Kamogawa Dolls). However, in Japanese, this action of putting something into something, kimekomi. A doll was called ningyou. That is why this type of doll became to be called kimekomi ningyou.
People who want to become proficient in making kimekomi ningyou need special training as great skill is required. The body and the head are made separately and then joined together.
Nowadays, the carved and/or moulded base is of wood, wood composite materials, or (in some modern dolls) plastic foam. For example, the base material used to create the bodies of Edo kimekomi ningyo (wood and cloth dolls) is called toso. This is a resin compound that contains sawdust from the paulownia tree and other substances. The doll bodies receive five or more lacquer coats after grooves have been cut in them. Paste is then applied to the grooves and the body is then clothed in material. The edges of each piece of cloth are tucked precisely into the grooves. The dolls are dressed either in silk fabrics, or materials of a similar quality.
The heads are made of a bisque clay (hakuundo clay rich in dolomite or a similar type of clay) and the features are painted on. The hair is either part of the moulded head or a separate wig. The wigs are usually made of fine silk threads. Once the head is finished, it is attached to the body.
Compared to the kimekomi ningyo produced in Kyoto which are known for their regal bearing in terms of the manner in which the face is depicted, those produced in Tokyo tend to be typified by somewhat narrower faces and more clearly defined eyes and noses. Kimekomi ningyo have become a very popular handicraft and kits with finished heads can be purchased. This method is also used by some of Japan’s avant-garde doll makers, who nowadays adapt the old materials to new visions.
2) Kamigamo shrine – https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/56/Kamigamo-1559.jpg
3) Kimekomi doll on a cherry blossom – https://67.media.tumblr.com/370349c9f9ecebb4968e03f9d687e4c8/tumblr_nmcrdc17sL1sosecyo1_500.jpg
4) Base for a kimekomi animal – http://mrxstitch.tumblr.com/post/126098472610/balls-n-dolls-2
5) Male doll – https://cdn0.rubylane.com/shops/738907/A149.5L.jpg?52
6) Mother and child – http://cdn3.volusion.com/7gorz.q2kns/v/vspfiles/photos/JN5M1724-5.jpg