Entrepreneur

This S'porean Handmakes Dolls For A Living - Sells One For An Average Of US$2,000

[Editor’s Note: A previous version of the article included calculations of the profile’s total sale earnings based on the current average price. This is inaccurate as prices have significantly changed over the years. Article has been amended to reflect this.]

Janice Yong is a full-time mother and part-time doll artist.

The woman, who is in her late forties, is the founder of Umami Baby. A look at her Instagram page is bound to leave you feeling intrigued with the collection of wide-eyed dolls, which she painstakingly handmade.

In an interview with Vulcan Post, Janice revealed that she has always had a strong sense of crafting.

In fact, she used to run a crafts business, where she sewed softies and accessories for children.

She later worked as a writer and editor, but left the the job after the birth of her first child. She became a stay-home mum since then, but started tinkering with doll-making one afternoon and eventually founded Umami Baby in 2014.

“I’ve always been strongly drawn towards anything artistic and collectible toys especially, so an art form that combined the two was a dream come true,” said Janice.

One Doll Can Take Up To A Few Weeks To Complete

The dolls that Janice makes are unique and nothing like the slender Barbie dolls that we are used to.

When asked to describe her dolls, Janice threw out two words: “wistful” and “nostalgic”.

“I think my dolls have a vintage, old-soul quality to them, and words I’ve often heard used to describe them are “beatnik”, “ragamuffin” and “minx”.”

Recounting her first sale, she said that she had put up her first doll on Etsy. It was immediately “adopted”, which encouraged her to keep making dolls.

That first sale helped cover the costs for her doll-making materials. She already had the colouring materials, but had to purchase woodworking tools like chisels, scalpels and sandpaper.

nara base doll umami baby singapore
Original base doll of Nara (before carving) / Image Credit: Umami Baby

The biggest investment is actually the base doll, which starts at over S$100.

This base doll, which is made out of hard plastic, has to be substantially sculpted.

To start off, Janice cracks open the head of the base doll and takes it apart. Every single part of it is transformed, including her face, body, eye mechanism and even hair.

For Janice, doll-making depends largely on two factors: time and weather.

umami baby doll singapore
Janice Yong’s workspace / Image Credit: Umami Baby

Whenever she has free time away from parenting commitments and responsibilities, she would park herself at her personal workspace — a small corner of her living room — to work on her dolls.

If the weather is really good, I can complete a doll in about four, five days. But the reality is that the weather isn’t always really good, so I spend a lot of time waiting for, and chasing the sun. I only like to work in daylight — in full, broad sunshine that can show every detail.

With cloudy, rainy skies, interspersed with my mom responsibilities, a doll can sometimes take a couple of weeks or more.

– Janice Yong, founder of Umami Baby

Average Price Of US$2,000 Each

umami baby singapore nara doll
Before and after of Nara doll / Image Credit: Umami Baby

It’s clear that a lot of time and effort goes into making each doll, which is why they are priced so highly.

Each doll costs an average of about US$2,000 (S$2,731), said Janice.

In a previous interview with Channel NewsAsia, she revealed that she makes an average of two dolls a month, “sometimes three or more” if she’s doing a commission.

According to Janice, she has sold over 170 dolls so far. She stressed that it’s not accurate to assume that she has garnered sales of over US$340,000 to date as prices of her dolls have significantly changed over the past six years.

“When any artist starts out, they have to hone their skills first; so for at least the first two or three years, my dolls did not cost what they do now. My very early dolls cost only a few hundred,” she clarified.

umami baby dolls singapore
Image Credit: Umami Baby

Janice currently puts commissions on hold as her older children have important exams coming up, so she wants to dedicate more time and attention to them.

“When I was accepting commissions, I’d get several in a month, and usually there would be a waiting list. There could be three or four people waiting while I work on a current commission,” said Janice.

“An artwork takes quite some time to complete; it’s not something (that’s) churned out every few days, but dolly people are very patient.”

When one thinks of a freelancer, one would associate it as having unstable salary, but this just isn’t the case for Janice.

“Thankfully, it (Umami Baby) was well-received from the outset, such that it never lacked a sense of stability,” she said, adding that she pursued doll-making because she simply loved the creativity and artistic breadth of it.

Money is not something artists actively focus on or calculate, she stressed. “We are generally content to just keep making and creating.”

Shooting To Global Fame

Beyond dolls, Umami Baby also sells other items like tote bags and phone cases, which are more commonly ordered by customers.

Her customers hail from all over the world — from America, Australia, Japan, China, Korea, Europe and Southeast Asia.

elle fanning umami baby phone case
Image Credit: Stefanie Keenan / Getty Images for Just One Eye

Her phone case has even been used by Hollywood actress Elle Fanning.

Janice herself isn’t sure how the celebrity chanced upon Umami Baby, but she was photographed using it at several events.

“At the time, there were articles speculating about the maker and conjecturing that she had gotten the doll specially made to look like her, which of course wasn’t the case since Eleanor (the doll on the phone case) had been made almost a year and a half prior,” explained Janice.

On social media, Umami Baby has a rather strong following of over 13,000 on Instagram despite her not being an active user on the platform.

From what I understand, regularity and frequency are key to effectively use social media, but I mainly tend to just post updates.

The thing is, I didn’t know anything about Instagram when it first started, so I got into that pretty late. But certainly, platforms like Instagram and Facebook are very helpful in sharing your work with the world.

– Janice Yong, founder of Umami Baby

Besides Instagram and Facebook, many of her customers contact her directly through email or Umami Baby’s website to place an order.

When asked about future plans, Janice said that she hasn’t really thought about it. She simply wants to keep honing her craft and make as “many little souls” as she can.

When working, she makes it a point to apply her personal life values such as honesty, kindness, generosity, and fairness.

“(Artists should) find their own unique style — don’t copy or replicate. Find out how to let your soul shine through your work, not someone else’s,” she said.

Featured Image Credit: Umami Baby

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