It’s a business that Bartnik says she sort of fell into, but really, she’s been practicing for it artistically since childhood. The daughter of artists, Bartnik grew up around creativity, but never quite found her own artistic niche.
“Over the years I’ve tried every kind of craft imaginable and I finally fell upon the Santas and it just exploded from there,” says Bartnik, who works from her home in Franklin. While she used to buy the heads from a doll-making supplier, she just wasn’t satisfied with the final product, so she simply started making her own.
“I can see the improvement in my work every year,” says Bartnik. “I really work hard on the expressions, as if they’re just going to almost say something to you. Last year I threw out over six faces that I wasn’t happy with.”
Because she’s intent on making sure each Santa is unique, Bartnik’s Santa hobby has turned into something of a full-time pursuit in her retirement. She says a lot of people ask her how long one Santa takes, but because each is a unique process, it’s hard to pin down. However, her best estimate is that each takes between 60 and 80 hours from start to finish.
It started around five years ago, with a fur coat she’d inherited from her mother-in-law. She wanted to do something meaningful with the special bequest, but occasions to wear furs are somewhat hard to come by. So it found new life as a coat for her very first Santa, and demand for her creations began to grow from there – first from her daughters and other family members, then friends and others. Now her business has grown exponentially, and thanks to the power of online commerce, her customer base has expanded, too.
“I’ve sent a couple of Santas to a lady in Alaska, I just sent two off to Texas. A lot of young girls like them, a lot of husbands will contact me and get them for their wives who are collectors,” says Bartnik, but a lot of her sales come from local buyers in the area. Bartnik produces all her dolls from her home and sells them in local shops and other local venues, like the John C. Campbell Folk Festival.
Instead of a studio, Bartnik keeps all her supplies and inspiration in a walk-in closet in her home, and to keep on selling her dolls is the only way to make more room for the collection. She stockpiles vintage fabrics, notions and buttons for potential future Santas, to make sure she gets just the right period look on every one.
“The past two years, I’ve been making all the accessories. I do a lot of research to make sure they’re accurate to the era, and you can’t buy those things,” explains Bartnik. “I think that’s what intrigues me the most is I have to figure out how to make all that stuff, things that children would normally receive as gifts in that era. I make a lot of the clothes out of vintage clothing. I’m always buying hand-me-downs and at second-hand stores because the old quality fabric, you just can’t find those anymore.”
For St. Nick’s flowing white mane, and of course his epic beard, she sources mohair from a farmer.
While she knows many other doll-makers who can juggle multiple projects, Bartnik herself likes to maintain a monofocus, working on just one Santa at a time, giving all her attention to the details from start to finish. It often starts with a single idea that then turns into hours of research and even more hours of hands-on handicrafting. But one thing you’ll never see in her collections is the classic red suit draping a belly full of jelly.
“People have asked me to do the red and white ones and I won’t because there’s no creativity involved,” says Bartnik. “I like to explore all the options, and with the research involved, I try to be as accurate as I can to the history of all the regional folklore that’s out there.”
It may require more time to give the Santas a regional character, but to Bartnik, it’s much more satisfying.
Though she’s had other creative businesses before this one — she was making and selling purses before getting into the Santa business — she doesn’t see herself moving on just yet.
“I’m lucky enough to be retired, so this is fulfilling my dream of just creating,” says Bartnik, and as the good feedback from her many customers has confirmed, a good Santa never goes out of style.