Fabric dolls are a direct descendant of the homemade rag doll, and no doll typifies the American image better than the red, white and blue smiling faces of Raggedy Ann and Andy.

No one really knows the details on the birth of Raggedy Ann, since there are so many stories. But we do know the doll first appeared as a family rag doll — an old toy, faded and worn, tossed in an attic. And there, the legend has it, a little girl named Marcella Gruelle — or maybe her father, artist/cartoonist Johnny Gruelle — found her.

Gruelle went ahead and decorated the rag doll with button eyes and a whimsy smile and called it "Raggedy Ann." Raggedy Ann soon became a character in the stories Gruelle made up to amuse his daughter. In 1915, Gruelle patented the doll, but it wasn't until the P. F. Volland Company published his first book of Raggedy Ann stories in 1918 that the doll was introduced to the public as a tie-in with the book.

In 1920 Ann's brother Raggedy Andy was introduced. Today, these old collectible dolls can demand up to $2,000, as collectors consider these to be the most desirable. In truth, Raggedy dolls manufactured by the Exposition Doll and Toy Company from 1934-1936 are rarer than the earlier Volland dolls, simply because they stopped producing them in 1936 and never made an Andy, so the original is very hard to find. Probably only about 20 or so have survived. One in excellent condition is valued at around $4,600.

Other companies went on to make Raggedy dolls — Molly-'Es, Georgene Novelties and Knickerbocker are a few — and they're also worth looking into, as their dolls can fetch from $70 on up to $2,000. According to the Raggedy Ann & Andy Family Album, the licensing went to Applause and Hasbro in the early 1980s, but the confusing part that most collectors don't realize is that the Applause Toy Company began as a division of Knickerbocker Toy Co. in 1979. Knickerbocker was a subsidiary of Warner Communications and sold its toy line through Toys 'R' Us stores. Applause, on the other hand, was a gift line marketed through Hallmark. Applause merged with Wallace Barrie in the early 1980s and presently does its licensing through Hasbro.

The fabric dresses and hair color on Raggedy Ann may change, but the smiling face always stays pretty much the same. Today we can find seamstresses making Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls using patterns from McCall's and Simplicity, but we also find other fabric dolls on the market, such as the whimsy rag dolls or those that look like the shabby chic doll.

Winona doll maker Penelope Frederickson, owner of Penelope in Stitches, said, "I have been sewing dolls since the beginning of time! I have only been sewing my whimsical rag dolls since 2010. I do call them shabby chic only because the style of the dolls is shabby and chic and they are made from vintage floral tablecloths."

Many doll-makers are doll-collectors themselves, but not Frederickson. "I haven't collected dolls in years," she said. "However my favorite that I have collected would be Ginny dolls. I have three daughters, and we have quite a few collectable play dolls."

Inspiration can come from old dolls, books or just a passion for sewing. "I remember watching the Muppets when I was a child and being inspired to create unusual dolls full of character, not puppets," Frederickson said. "My love for sewing was my own. As a child I was fortunate enough to have a close friend that shared my sewing passion. For my particular rag doll, I was inspired by the 'pencil'-type doll from a photo on the Internet. I haven't seen any of my particular dolls anywhere and I shop on eBay quite a bit."

Like most other collectibles, doll prices have been impacted by present economic conditions, and it's a great time to buy. But you can make money selling if you know your stuff.

Condition is everything, and in collectors' price guides, the value of dolls refers to those in excellent condition, so it's important to see before you buy at auctions, flea-markets and even on websites.

"I haven't had any luck selling on eBay," Frederickson said, "though I sell my dolls on Etsy, which is a shop that sells handcrafted items. It's always best to find sites that have many photos and close-up photos of the doll you want to buy for size, color, craftsmanship and information of the doll.

"Of course, the best way to purchase your doll is to be able to feel and touch the doll," she said. "The doll that I was inspired by sells for $120-ish. I sell mine (for) around $30."

Linda Dennis, who owns Magnolias in Winona, said, "I had several (Raggedy dolls) on display during the holidays, with other collectible Raggedy Ann items such as pillows and aprons. They were all such great sellers to grandparents and mothers that I will have more over the summer months for children's gifts that later can be a very nice collectible. The price range (is) around $12 to $15."

Sarah Kieffer, of Sarah's Uniques and Jim's "Man"tiques in St. Charles, said, "I have two different sets of Raggedy Ann and Andy sets in the shop right now. They are older ones but appear to be about 10 years apart in age. The older set is priced at $45 and the newer set is $25. Seems to me that mostly women collect these, either women who want to buy them for their grandkids or women who collect them and have for many years."

Trista O'Connor, of Generations of Harmony Antique Mall, said the shop gets a few Raggedy dolls every year "but they usually sell rather quickly. Often the buyers are Raggedy Ann and Andy collectors.

"A pair that sold here recently," O'Connor said, "went to a woman who just saw them and thought of the 'perfect' spot in her home for them, as they reminded her of her childhood. On average, we usually see them priced anywhere between $10 and $35, depending upon the size, age, and condition."