Stephanie Dean of StepStitches creates rag dolls in four skin tones and a few different styles of dress.
The Start of Cinnamon Annie
Stephanie Dean of Step Stitches didn’t set out to start a handmade business—rather, she stumbled upon her signature product by chance. Back in 2016, she came across a doll in the style of Raggedy Ann but with a darker skin tone. “I was trying to find that doll and buy it because I hadn’t seen one like that,” she says.
Having always loved dolls, Dean eventually decided to sew a Black rag doll for herself. “I was not trying to sell her at first, because I thought, ‘Who in the world wants a Raggedy Ann in 2016?’” But after she shared her doll on social media, the requests slowly started to pour in.
“People started asking, ‘Can you make one for me like that?’ That gave me a reason to just keep on making the dolls, and the business just grew from there.”
Since she first opened her Etsy shop in 2018 to sell Cinnamon Annie Dolls, Dean’s creative work has been recognized by some of the biggest names in the business. Her rag dolls made it on the list of Oprah’s Favorite Things and were featured in ESSENCE magazine in 2021.
This exposure ramped up Dean’s business just as her own children were grown and out of the house (they’re now 23 and 25). “I didn’t start sewing until my kids were in elementary school,” she says. At first it was a hobby, and I didn’t start getting into the business part of it until they were graduating high school and into college.”
A former teacher and social worker, Dean has transitioned to running her handmade business as her primary job over the last three to four years. One major kickstart for her success was receiving an Amber Grant in 2020 for women-owned businesses.
Dean used the funds from her grant to publish a children’s book and companion coloring book, which she sells along with her rag dolls. “My Best Doll Friend follows the fun activities of a darling little black girl and her best doll friend Annie as they explore playgrounds, tea parties, libraries, and more,” she says. “It was important for the main character to be a brown skin girl with natural hair so black girls can see themselves in her. I want them to experience the joy and exuberance of childhood like she does.”
With extra publicity surrounding her grant, Dean was also featured with a nationwide non-profit organization called Buy From a Black Woman. “They have a program that is actually a partnership with H&M stores, so I was able to get my products featured in some pop-up shops at H&M stores that year,” Dean explains. This opportunity helped Deam get press in Atlanta (she’s based out of Decatur, Georgia) via some local newspapers.
“There were a couple of things that I was able to tap into at the right time, and it just built up, leading to other opportunities.”
Dean says the first publicity that really made a difference was in Shoppe Black, who featured her dolls for children of color. She took the leap and paid for a sponsored post on this site, which featured black business owners. “I’d been following along as a consumer of theirs, and they were offering a sponsored post for small businesses to get more exposure,” she says. “It felt like a lot of money at that time, but they did a really nice interview which came out in November 2000.” From there, Cinnamon Annie Dolls has had completely organic publicity—that is the last feature Dean has pursued herself. She started sewing doll ornaments prior to the holidays, and her product appeared out of the blue in a gift guide from ESSENCE magazine. “I had no idea about that one, but I believe that they probably saw my profile on Shoppe Black.”
Stephanie’s rag dolls made it on the list of Oprah’s Favorite Things
From there the ball really started to roll.
“The Oprah thing just came out of the clear blue sky,” Dean says.
She received an email from someone asking to feature her product in the gift guide, but wasn’t sure if it was the real deal. “I have no clue where they got my info—I just I don’t know. But that’s how that came about.”
Dean started sewing her dolls with one brown skin tone, and then a grandparent requested a lighter skinned doll for her biracial granddaughter. This new doll became popular, so she included it in her shop offerings. A different customer requested a deeper brown skin tone, so Dean added a mocha brown doll to her shop this year as well as a light-skinned redhead doll. “At the request of several people, I also added a boy doll, Andrew,” she says. Her Cinnamon Annie dolls come in three different sizes with the option to order additional clothes.
Offering representation and customization
In addition to sewing rag dolls with four skin tones and a few different styles of dress, Dean offers customization with a name embroidered on the outfit. “At first, I was just making the dolls, but people started to ask if they can get a name put on it,” she says. “So I had to learn how to embroider, and that’s been a good thing.”
About a year after she started making dolls, Dean received an order for a doll that would be gifted to a little girl being adopted out of the foster care system. Her adoptive mother wanted to give her something special, as a gift to welcome her to the family.
“The customer emailed me back later and said that the little girl saw her and she was so surprised and said, ‘This doll looks just like me!’ She was so happy about it, and they were so thankful.
Having always loved dolls, Dean decided to sew a Black rag doll for herself in 2016. After she shared her doll on social media, the requests slowly started to pour in.
Offering the gift of representation to her customers, letting kids see themselves represented in the dolls, has been a wonderful gift for Dean.
“It is so wonderful to hear back from people how much they love the doll. It’s cut across racial lines and people of all races are getting the dolls—and not necessarily of their race. So that’s pretty amazing to me.”
There’s something unique about gifting something from your past, Dean says. “I think one of the things that is so appealing for my customers is that Raggedy Ann is something that we all grew up with. To give something like that to a child today and see how they love it—it makes everybody feel good.”
Lindsay is a modern quilter, writer, and editor. A multi-book author with C&T Publishing, her latest project was designing sampler quilts for FreeSpirit Block Party (Stash Books, September 2018). She also works with Craftsy and Baby Lock sewing machines, and is an editor for Frommer's Travel Guides. She lives in Indianapolis with her husband, son, and two cats, who were the inspiration for her adult coloring book and Kickstarter "Project of the Day" Lazy-Ass Cats. www.lindsaysews.com, www.lazyasscats.com
I loved this story! I also love dolls and enjoy sewing them and their clothing. I’ve already related in a different post that I’m the oldest white child of a multiracial family including my biological sister and my sister and 2 brothers adopted from Korea, and 3 brothers adopted from Mexico. I have several nieces and nephews who are biracial- including black and white, white and Asian, white and Hispanic, and full Hispanic (technically step kids but we don’t make that distinction nor do we go to great lengths to mention my siblings are adopted, they are blood to me). I have also related how I contacted Mattel about an Asian Barbie doll and how it didn’t happen during my sister’s childhood but that Mattel contacted me years later to let me know it had finally happened. Every child is a blessing, every child is important, and every child needs representation. Thank you Stephanie for creating these precious dolls and thank you Craft Industry Alliance for this wonderful story and the opportunity to share these dolls with everyone ❤️❤️