Moravian Ladies Sewing Society
Polly Heckewelder (1781-1868) established the Soldier's Relief Society in 1861 to sew for the soldiers in the Civil War. After the war ended in 1865, the group decided to continue sewing but to help freed slaves and became known as the Freedman's Aid Society. “Aunt Polly”, as Polly was called, as a much loved member of the church and community, died in September, 1868. The following year the ladies of the sewing society changed their name to the Moravian Ladies Sewing Society and decided to make a cloth doll which they named in honor of Polly Heckewelder. The name has not changed again and the group is still making Polly dolls. Members of the society came from Moravian churches in the Bethlehem area. Presently, most of the members are members of Central Moravian Church.
Their first rag doll, dressed as a young girl of the 1870s, was sold in 1872. At that time, the society members sewed at home and used scraps of materials available in their homes. There were similarities in the shape of the bodies and style of dresses, bonnets, etc. In 1915, there was a standardization which took place in the making of the dolls. Patterns for the bodies of the dolls and their clothing became more uniform. Those standardized patterns are still used to make the dolls today. Also, the checked gingham fabric in blue or pink started being used for the dresses. The dolls were intended to be played with by children and could be returned for a new face, or new clothes could be purchased too. The clothes made today fit dolls from about 1915 and younger.
Each member of the group specializes in making a specific part of the doll. Some of the members know how to make several parts of the body or clothing. Our assembly line process takes more than 80 hours to complete one doll. Some of the seams of the body, undergarments, under cap and the ruffle on the dress are done by machine and the rest, which is most of the doll, is stitched by hand. The ribbons in the crocheted bonnet,and shoes are purchased ready made. Over the 143 years of making the doll, there have been a few changes when materials were unavailable. Basically, the dolls are the same Polly dolls and this doll is the oldest continuously made cloth doll in America.
The purpose of the society in making the doll has always been to benefit church and mission causes and to have fun. The doll originally sold for $3 and presently for $200. For a period of a hundred years or so (1900 to 2003) of the society’s history, proceeds from the doll sales were also used to provide surplices for Northern Province pastors who were newly graduated from the Moravian Theological Seminary. The remainder of the proceeds from the sale of Polly dolls, not spent on expenses for making the dolls, are given to church causes at the end of each year. Over the years of doll making, it is estimated that between 5000 and 6000 dolls have been sold.
The Sewing Society meets on Tuesday mornings, 9 to 11:30 a.m. September to June. Some of us still work at home too. We welcome sewers to our group to sew Polly dolls while having a wonderful time of fellowship and contributing to church causes.