Interview with Jan Yong from Umami Baby

Jan is the face of Umami Baby’s custom Blythe dolls. She started customizing in 2014 and is now one of the top customizers worldwide. Her dolls are sweet, tender with a childlike expression. Jan likes to describe herself as a shy person who cares deeply about animals, loves to spend time with her children and working from home as a doll customizer.

Find out how to let your soul shine through your work, not someone else’s. It usually takes a lot of hard work and determination, but don’t take the easy way out – it’s all worth it.

Jan Yong / Umami Baby

DollyCustom posed 12 questions to Jan about her history as a customizer, her process, and techniques. Here are those questions:

Can you tell me a little about yourself?

Hello, I’m Jan ^-^ I’m also very shy and don’t really know what to say for a bio haha. Maybe, to begin with, I am from Singapore, a little tropical island in Southeast Asia. I live here with my family, as well as three cats and a dog. They (the pets) are all rescues because I care very strongly about animal welfare. I’m a full-time Mom, so I am grateful to be able to work on my dollies at home. Before I became a Mom, I was a writer and editor (which is also something I am able to work on from home, but which has taken a backseat to the girls ^-^). I love spending time with my kids, reading, drawing, sewing, going on walks by the sea, and collecting antique bears and other art, including cloth dolls, paintings, artist bears and anime figures.

When and how did you discover Blythe dolls?

I honestly can’t remember when I discovered Blythe anymore; it must be at least 14 years ago now. I was working in an office at the time, which was connected to a mall, and every lunchtime I’d visit the bookstore, and then the collectible toy store opposite. There were these big-eyed dolls there, and I’d keep looking and looking at them…

How long did it take for your style to emerge?

Hum… I think as with most artists, my style is continually evolving, hopefully improving haha.. but from the outset, there have been some stylistic elements that have endured, which I think I’ve narrowed down to four descriptive words — vintage, ragamuffin, beatnik, and minx. My girls have always had at least two of these elements, if not all, and “vintage” is the constant ^-^

Do you do this as a hobby or professionally?

I guess you could say “professionally”. I don’t want it to sound dry, like a daily job, but it’s also not a pastime that’s just for fun. I have bills to pay and mouths to feed, and with the amount of time and effort I put into each little girl, it’s definitely hard work, but I am very grateful that it is work I love to do.

What is your creative process like? Do you plan your custom dolls from start to finish or just go with the flow?

Yes, I do plan them, but often they take over along the way lol. Usually, I have my ideas about a girl from the outset, so I do everything — carve and paint her eye chips and so on — with her in mind, but I do think they all decide on their eventual look themselves ^-^

What is your favorite part of this process and your least favorite?

My absolute favorite part would have to be finally putting her altogether — after the carving, the faceup, everything. It is so wonderful to put in her eye mech at last, with her new chips, lashes and pulls, then her scalp and her body, and clasp the two plates together and then see.. this new little girl! Who is she? What does she want to say? Is she shy? Sweet? Naughty? Tender? It is so thrilling ^-^

But the least favorite part… o my, I think it would be the very beginning stage of carving. Right after taking off all the old face and just starting to carve the new one, they look terrible lol. You have to keep on and on.. carving and carving, sanding and sanding.. before you finally see her face starting to become reality. It really is an exercise in patience and endurance haha!

How long does it take you to customize one doll? Do you do one at a time or multiple?

I tend to work on one at a time because I want to give her my complete thought and attention. It takes me at least a week, because I have kids and Mom duties come first ^-^ I also wait for the full sun, which, despite being a tropical island, we don’t get every day.

Where do you work on your dolls? Do you have a dedicated workplace?

Yes, I have a dedicated workplace, a tiny one really — it’s an old table literally in the corner of our living room, where we have a huge window ^-^

Jan / Umami Baby customizing workplace

How would you characterize your style?

Hum, I think I made a reference to it in one of the earlier questions. From the beginning, people would comment that my girls had a “vintage” old-soul quality to them; I think it comes from my love for vintage things — vintage clothing, vintage film, vintage toys, etc. Over time, the terms “ragamuffin”, “minx” and “beatnik” kept popping up, and I realized the girls were always somehow showing some combination of these qualities ^-^

What are your favorite tools? What is your favorite Blythe mold to customize?

I love all my tools, but I tend to use my woodworking ones the most; I think they are called chisels? And of course sandpaper lol! 
Although I have worked on lots of RBL+ and FBL, I think my favorite mould continues to be the good ol‘ RBL ^-^

How did you develop the pricing model for your dolls?

I think I approach this in quite a personal way. I mean, since I collect other kinds of art, such as paintings or artist bears, I appreciate the enormous time and effort that goes into each work, and I am prepared to pay for every detail that went into its creation. So I consider all the days of heartfelt energy I put into the girl and ask myself, how much was all that worth, and price her accordingly, of course considering the “market” as well. Obviously, this increases over time, as one’s work improves, and sometimes you just go with the flow. I don’t have a great “economic” answer for this, sorry! For me, it’s something I feel in my spirit ^-^

For the beginner customizer, what advice would you give them?

Hm.. I think, don’t look around at what other people are doing – find your own unique style. Sometimes you see dolls that are almost replicas of someone else’s. Don’t do that. Find out how to let your soul shine through your work, not someone else’s. It usually takes a lot of hard work and determination, but don’t take the easy way out — it’s all worth it ^-^

Jan puts her heart and soul into her beautiful creations. Her custom Blythe dolls always make you feel as if there was a soul inside each one of them, a little being wanting to live beyond the plastic. I hope you enjoyed learning more about Umami Baby’s story, work and creative process with this interview.