RAINSVILLE, Ala. — Lining the right wall of Jamie Helms’ Rainsville-based home office, there’s a row of cribs, one with custom-made silky white pillow bedding, two more with lacy pink frills. On the left, there’s a heavy wooden desk with 12 tiny arms and legs strewn across it.
Helms creates dolls for a living, and her baby making is serious business. She’s made about $42,000 this year, and production is about to ramp up for the holidays.
She’s stitched together nearly 400 babies since she joined the industry—one she didn’t even know existed until about two years ago.
Helms used to make tutus and embroidery baby clothes. One day, while searching for a life-sized doll to model some Halloween costumes she was working on, she stumbled across these eerily lifelike babies on eBay—starting at $700. She couldn’t afford that price, but she was intrigued—so she saved up some money and bought a kit to build her own; with new paints, paintbrushes, hair, clothes, etc., it cost Helms about $500 to make her first baby.
“Within five minutes [of opening the kit], I knew this is something I want to do,” she said.
Now Helms makes 3-5 a week, spending $100-200 per doll now that she has all the equipment on hand. Her biggest cost is time.
“It’s definitely a full-time job,” she said. “I’m constantly in here. There are so many layers to the process—last night I was up until 4 a.m. painting.”
There are seven vials of vibrant dyes lining the edge of her desk, hot pink, yellow and purple; it takes each one to create the mottled look of a newborn baby’s skin. Afterward, she traces each individual crease to highlight its wrinkles.
Creating lifelike blue undertones, veins and capillaries is a tedious process; there are 15-30 layers of paint on each doll. One by one, she paints each layer and lets it dry overnight; she does this again and again until the color is just right.
Then she bakes the baby.
“You don’t want to bake the baby in the oven where your family eats; that doesn’t seem healthy,” she said. “So you have to buy a special one.”
She pulls a deconstructed baby out of a round, glass oven sitting to the right of her old desktop computer.
“She’s still really hot because she just finished,” she said, and laughed. “They look really creepy in there.”
She carefully places four tiny feet on a cooling rack as part of her production rotation; she constantly has pieces to paint, dry, bake and cool. Near the end of the process, she paints the hair and hand roots the eyelashes with a felting needle. Some of the babies even have soft spots on their skulls.
In front of her desk, there is a gallon bucket filled with what looks like sugar granules; she scoops some up and lets it run through her fingers like sand.
“The babies are weighted with these tiny glass beads,” she explained. “So when you hold them, you feel like you’re holding a real baby.”
She even has a hospital scale so her babies’ birth certificates are accurate.
Completed dolls cost anywhere from $300-750 and come with a certificate, a care sheet and a hospital bracelet and blanket. She wants the experience to feel as realistic as possible.
“I explain to my customers these babies have to be cared for,” she said. “If your child is not very mature and responsible, they don’t need these babies.”
The vast majority of her customers are buying for children ages 3-14, but there are a few with personal collections. One woman owns 22 of Helms’ dolls; another, 19. Her customers are from all over the country—48 states, to be exact.
“I used to ship them at the post office, but I ship them at the house now; some people get really freaked out whenever they see you putting a baby in a box,” she said, laughing. “Sometimes I’ll still go up there because I like to get their reaction, and it’s really good advertisement. I enjoy it.”
As unusual as it is, Helms said she’s blessed with friends and family who support her business—but sometimes she’ll have clients who aren’t as lucky.
“People will say to them, ‘You’re a grown woman, why are you playing with dolls?’ and they’ll bash them,” said Helms. “To me, if it makes them happy then why would you bash them for that? There are plenty of men who collect cars and spend thousands of dollars on their cars.”
Helms said the dolls are therapeutic for her customers, some of which suffer from Alzheimer’s, dementia and other mental illnesses. She loves to donate babies to people in need.
One of her first customers was a woman in an assisted-living facility who was always screaming, angry that her husband stole her baby. She was constantly breaking out of the facility and being brought back by the police.
“I made a baby and took it to her, but she didn’t want anything to do with it,” said Helms. “The next morning, though, they found her rocking her baby in a rocking chair.”
Helms said the woman eventually stopped fighting and started focusing her energy on the baby.
“She didn’t want to break out; she wanted to stay home with her baby. It took her back to her childbearing years,” she said. “Eventually she was able to remember some details about her own children.”
She also donates to patients with special needs, like her cousin Matthew.
“He was diagnosed with leukemia at 13 months and was over-radiated, causing a lot of permanent damage,” she said. “He recently was in the Special Olympics and had a rough night of seizures and didn't feel good, so he refused to go without his baby, Jacob Ryan. He now has a purpose with his baby, and it is so therapeutic for him.”
She’s always looking for people to share her dolls with because she knows personally what a difference they can make.
“Before this I was never able to hold a job for more than three months; before this I was on bipolar meds, depression meds, anxiety meds—I’m no longer on medication,” she said. “They’re very therapeutic for me, and I know they are for other people too.”
She said that’s what keeps her focused.
“It’s a rewarding job, and it’s great to see people’s progress, too,” she said.
Though her business is still relatively young, it’s taken off on Facebook; her page, Jamie’s Reborn Baby Dolls, has more than 19,000 likes. She sells about 16 dolls a month.
One of her favorite parts of the business is seeing little girls save up money to buy their babies strollers and clothes. It’s a passion most of her older customers share.
“A lot of collectors do roleplaying, but mainly it’s just for fun; some wake up and dress their babies every single morning,” she said.
Helms collects them as well but said she doesn’t even have time to touch them because she’s always busy working on everyone else’s dolls. Her prized piece is a highly sought after, sold out, limited edition baby named Quinlynn, valued at $2,000.
There are thousands of kits available; babies can be awake, sleeping, blonde-haired, green-eyed, micro-premie to 24 months. She also makes realistic pugs, gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees and pigs.
“Some people are freaked out about baby dolls,” she said. “But if it makes them happy, I say let them do it.”