"How do you detangle and restyle matted tangled doll hair?" this is surely one of the most frequent questions we receive in regards to restoring vintage plastic dolls. Luckily, provided that the recipient of our ministrations has not suffered either significant hair-loss or an over enthusiastic haircut from a budding beautician, patience and a lot of hair conditioner can work wonders. We recently went about the process of cleaning and styling our vintage Annette, a 32 inch black doll produced in the late 1960s/early 1970s by the Eegee doll company.
Poor Annette's hair was quite matted and pinned down against her head with multiple bobby pins when we got her, so it was necessary to clean, detangle, and re-set her curls back into their original afro style. Like many African American dolls produced in that era, Eegee Annette was sold at a lower price point than Ideals' Playpal line. Since she was a more affordable option than Patty Playpal and her siblings, this was reflected in the cheaper quality of the material used for her hair. This type of hair often becomes brittle and is prone to breakage over time. The difference in quality between the saran hair, which the Ideal dolls company used for Patti Playpal, and the lower quality synthetics such as polypropylene and nylon that other doll companies used is very noticeable. The hair on a real Patti Playpal as compared to a clone companion doll is almost always longer, thicker and shinier. With that in mind, when restoring hair from a companion doll, such as Annette, it is often very brittle and must be handled gently to avoid excessive breakage.
Clean & Detangle
Step 1: Wash the hair with liquid dish soap.
Before beginning the detangling process, it is important to clean the hair to remove any buildup of dirt, smoke and grease which makes the hair sticky and difficult to effectively straighten. We usually wash our dolls hair with a hand held sprayer - being careful not to allow water to run into the eyes, which can cause them to rust. Place a towel or washcloth over the dolls face to keep water from entering the eyes, then wash and rinse the hair.
Step 2: Slather with Conditioner and Comb Out Hands down the most effective method to comb out tangles is to slather the hair regular hair conditioner - the thicker the better.
We have found that brands such as Pantene work very well, and additionally leave the dolls hair smelling wonderful afterwards. (As a side note this also works just as effectively for Barbies and My Little Ponies as it does for vintage companion and Playpal dolls). A thick layer of conditioner makes the hair slippery and helps to prevent it from breaking while you comb it. Then, starting from the ends of the hair carefully work out the tangles using a comb starting with small sections and work up to the roots. Patience is key, you do not want to try to go too fast or get in a hurry - doing so can cause much more hair loss than is necessary. Don't worry too much if some hair comes loose during detangling - it's impossible to completely prevent it, the goal is just to minimize it. Once the hair is fully detangled, rinse out the remaining conditioner again, being careful not to allow any water to run into the eyes.
Set the Hair
Step 3: Set in Curlers
In order to set Annette's hair so that the curls were tight and close to her head - giving her a more natural afro style, we used straws and bobby pins as opposed to either foam curlers or perm rods. Straw curlers are ideal because they create a nice tight curl and can be cut to length as needed. Each straw requires two bobby pins to hold it in place while it sets. With the hair wet, the end of a subsection of hair was carefully secured to the straw roller with a single bobby pin. The subsection of hair was tightly rolled around the straw up to the head, and secured in place with a second bobby pin. In total 59 straw rollers and 118 bobby pins were necessary to set all of Annette's hair in curls.
Step 4: Steam Set the Curls
Synthetic hair such as saran, nylon and polypropylene can all be set with heat - however, you do not want to use a curling iron as you can easily melt the hair. When styling Barbie dolls hair, immersing the heads in boiling water (a boil perm) is the go-to method. However, it is not practical to immerse a large doll's head in boiling water to set it (plus you run the risk of getting water in the eye mechanism) so we use an alternative method: a clothes steamer. After all the curlers are in place, we use the steamer to steam the curls, heating them up just enough to set the curl permanently. Keep the steamer at least an inch away from the hair and be careful not to burn your fingers! As a side note, steaming can also be used to straighten hair, and works best if the hair is already wet.
Set 5: Let Dry
In order for the curls to set properly, it is very important that they are thoroughly dry before you attempt to remove them. I prefer to wait 24-48 hours, but Annette had to wait 2 weeks while I went on a business trip before her curlers could be removed.
Style the Hair
Step 6: Remove the Curlers
The straw curlers and bobby pins used here are very easy to remove, simply pull out the bobby pins and slide the straw out from the curl. This method does not require you to unroll or disturb the curl while the curlers are removed, the removal process is shown in the video below.
Step 7: Pick out Curls
When you remove the curlers, the curls initially looked like little sausages clinging to Annette's head. In order to give her hair a more natural appearance they were gently worked through with a pick, in this case the end of a rattail comb. You do not want to directly comb the curls as that will make them frizzy and cause them to lose their structure. Using the pick, I worked through each curl in several places, blending it into the curls next to it until a nice even texture was obtained.
I was initially concerned that Annette would be left with several bald patches at the back of her head due to the sparse rooting. However, as you can see, blending the curls into one another was enough to completely hide the areas that were under-rooted!
As you can see from the photographs, Annette now looks so much better. Her hair is shiny again since it is clean, and smells delightful (thanks to the hair conditioner). If you have any questions on the process, please feel free to comment below.
For more information about Eegee's Annette, and other black dolls please check out Debbie Garrett's excellent and informative blog: https://blackdollcollecting.blogspot.com