Portfolio: Kathryn Gallagher Morton, the Dollmaker
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The Maplelea Girls, a popular collection of dolls, live all over Canada—from farm country in the prairies to the funky neighbourhood of Cabbagetown in Toronto—but their creator has local roots. For the past 19 years, Kathryn Gallagher Morton has called Newmarket home and that's also where you'll find Maplelea, tucked away on a quiet winding street.
It's a long way from British Columbia where Morton originally hails. Born in Ashcroft, B.C., but raised in Kamloops, she attended UBC where she got a degree in social work and then her master's degree in business administration. After graduation, she spent the next few years in banking before deciding she wanted a more creative line of work.
In 1985, she headed to Toronto where she spent a short stint at a toy company. It wasn't long before an idea took hold and she jumped head first into her own business—creating custom plush mascots.
During that time, Morton says that she was approached to create an Anne of Green Gables doll based on the beloved story character. Though interest fizzled from that second party, Morton was convinced that there was a market. In 1988, she launched Avonlea Traditions, a wholesale company that specialized in collectible dolls and giftware.
It was the success of the Anne dolls that eventually led to the Maplelea Girls.
“From being in the Anne of Green Gables business I realized that Canadians were really kind of starved for things that were our own,” Morton says. “Anne was really appreciated by visitors to our country who purchased a lot of Anne products but it was also Canadians buying them because there are so few cultural icons that are ours and ours alone.”
Another idea took hold—a collection of dolls that represented different parts of Canada—but it took 10 years to bring that vision to life.

A doll is born
In 2003, after years of research and work, the Maplelea Girls launched with four 18-inch (about 46-centimetre) vinyl dolls. The Maplelea Girls are more than just pretty dolls with pretty clothes, Morton says. “These dolls have significance—they have stories.”
Along with hailing from different parts of the country, such as Banff, Alta. and Lunenburg, N.S., each of the girls in the collection has her own unique history, interests and hobbies and a wardrobe that reflects her lifestyle. Doll owners can read all about that girl in a journal where, in the second half of the book, they are also encouraged to share their lives.
Since the initial launch, the company has introduced two new Maplelea Girls, Léonie from Quebec City and Saila from Iqaluit, Nunavut. Saila's trilingual journal (it's written in English, French and Inuktitut) paints an optimistic yet realistic portrayal of life North of 60 from the housing styles to the history to Saila's likes and dislikes. Alongside her trendy preteen gear, Saila's wardrobe reflects her Inuit heritage, including traditional kamiik (boots), Pang hat and amauti (parka).
There are still many stories to share with Maplelea Girls but Morton says that they realized they'd never be able to tell every girl's tale. With that in mind, the company introduced Maplelea Friends, 12 dolls featuring a range of skin tones and hair and eye colours. Each doll comes with a journal featuring story starters, prompts and blank pages to help doll owners tell their own stories and create ones for their dolls.

Distinctly Canadian
Dolls, furniture and most accessories are made overseas in what Morton describes as a “high quality, highly monitored factory.” (There are no doll factories in Canada.) Everything else from sculpting to design to writing and illustration is produced in Canada. The hoodies and some of the t-shirts are also made here as are Saila's hat and amauti. The latter two items are made by craftspeople in Nunavut, Morton says. “It just wouldn't be right to take their design and do it overseas.”
It was also a way for the community to be involved. “Whenever a person from down south tries to create a product that represents Inuit culture there's always a bit of scepticism,” says Morton, adding that she visited Nunavut and spent a significant amount of time doing research while in the development phase. Despite any initial concerns, Morton says once people saw the final product and read the journal the support was overwhelming. “In fact, the department of education in Nunavut bought more than 200 dolls to put in every child care program in the territory because it was so culturally relevant.” It was hugely validating that Maplelea got it right, she says.

More stories to come
The dolls are sold via a mail order catalogue and an e-commerce enabled website. It's a unique approach but one that has paid off. In 2006, Morton sold the rest of her lines (then representing 80 percent of the company's revenues) to focus solely on Maplelea.
Today, headquarters feature 17,000 square feet of space, including a warehouse. The company employs 12 full-time staff and several part-time employees. During the Christmas rush, about 30 people are added to the payroll to help with the increased demand.
It's a convenient location—Morton lives nearby with her husband, Gregory. (Son Stuart, 21, is currently travelling and daughter, Victoria, 19, is in her second year of post secondary school.)
If the offices are somewhat nondescript, the creations they hold are anything but. And fans of the dolls (typically girls between the ages of six and 12) can look forward to a new Maplelea Girl on the way later this year.
“Everybody wants a doll from their part of the country,” Morton explains. She notes that there are still many fascinating parts of Canada to create characters from and products to make that reflect the interests of Canadian girls. For example, 30,000 girls in Canada play ringette so the company made a ringette outfit.  
“I think there's a lot of potential for growth here.”


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