SAFETY HARBOR — Sus Devnani's home is spacious and airy, with sunlit Tampa Bay just beyond the polished windows. Devnani and her late husband Salu built the home in 1972 when he was manager and part owner of the nearby Safety Harbor Resort and Spa.
These days, though, Devnani spends most of her free time in a small work space without a view, at the top of a winding staircase. For 10 years she had been a caregiver for her husband. Now she finds comfort and joy sitting in her workshop and creating miniature dolls to hang on Christmas trees.
Several walls in the little room are fronted by cabinets filled with antique dolls, most of them European and some dating to the early 19th century. Devnani has collected these vintage dolls for decades.
The rest of the room is packed with the work of her own hands — handmade dolls about 5 inches tall, all meticulously crafted with no two alike. A small loop atop the head of each provides the means of hanging the doll on a tree. The dolls, either Santa Claus figures or Victorian-style women, are finely detailed.
Female figures might be adorned in fleecy jackets with buttons and pockets, fashionable hats and a bit of slip sticking out from under a full skirt. In the crook of one arm, each miniature lady clutches a tiny dog, a gift box, a purse or even a little Christmas tree. Every inch of the doll is handcrafted except the face, which Devnani cuts from paper dolls or magazine pictures.
"Most people hang them on Christmas trees," she said of the dolls, "but some people tuck them into wreaths on their doors or just keep them around all year on a shelf or in a cabinet."
On a small desk in her workroom and along several walls are the tools of her trade: bins filled with yarn, cotton batting, spools of thread and piles of felt and fleece. On the desk are containers of pens, markers and scissors, all neatly arranged.
"It all starts with three pipe cleaners," said Devnani of her small creations. "Creating something from nothing but these is very exciting."
Then the hard work begins. A Victorian lady is fashioned with lots of paper and cotton batting, material traditionally used to make quilts. Most clothing includes some felt and fleece and sometimes a bit of fur or ribbon. Fine detail work goes into the tiny accessories.
It might take weeks to create a doll. As she completes them, Devnani stores the dolls in an old-fashioned suitcase to carry to shows, such as the Sarasota Festival of Miniatures held in mid January.
Devnani, who has lived in Safety Harbor since the early 1960s and raised the couple's three children there, was born in Copenhagen in 1943, right in the middle of World War II. She traces her interest in creating dolls to the difficult years that followed, when she and her siblings spent hours making paper dolls.
"We didn't have much as kids growing up in Europe in those years," she said, "and in Denmark everyone made handmade ornaments for trees."
Devnani said her father taught her early in life that "if you can imagine it, you can make it."
While she imagined the miniature dolls many years ago, and even created a few for fun, Devnani didn't begin her business until sometime in 2003, after she and her sister Lise closed an antique shop they had owned for 18 years in Belleair Bluffs.
The miniature dolls typically sell for $22 each.
Most clients come to her by word of mouth, but the dolls are exhibited for the public from October through December at a variety of places, including Heritage Village in Largo and the Florida Craftsmen Gallery in St. Petersburg. At holiday time, the Safety Harbor Library also exhibits them.
"Very few people do this kind of handiwork anymore," Devnani said. "It's just a little business, but I feel like I've found a niche."