As a kid, Aniqua Wilkerson never questioned why none of her dolls looked liked her — but something felt off. She doted on a white, blue-eyed baby doll until she turned 8, when her mother's friend gifted her a Black doll.
"Something clicked immediately in my brain that this doll was different," says Wilkerson, 39.
With its long, flowing hair, the doll was perfect for Wilkerson to practice hairstyles like box braids and twists.
"There's something to be said about seeing yourself in something that you love," she tells PEOPLE. "There is an extra aspect of being excited, proud and feeling valued."
In 2013 Wilkerson left her job as a teacher in pursuit of a more "fun, creative" endeavor as a crochet doll artist. Inspired by her favorite doll growing up, Wilkerson set out to create similar toys that would empower children of color — but she quickly realized that the world of fiber arts was overwhelmingly white.
"I didn't find very many Black crochet dolls, and the ones I did find weren't made by Black creators," the Bronx-based artist says.
Then there was the issue of yarn. Companies carried limited shades of brown, if any. She would visit multiple stores and mix yarns just to create one doll.
"Yarn colors were ashy, or a little grey, dull and almost like a zombie's skin tone," Wilkerson recalls. "It was a huge challenge trying to gather accurate shades that would actually resemble a Black or brown person."
Wilkerson's online store and blog, My Kinda Thing, features crochet dolls of color in different imaginative outfits and professions: ballerinas, doctors, military officers. Her goal is to build up Black and brown kids' confidence and help them combat self-hate.
"We are constantly bombarded with imagery that doesn't look like us," she says. "When you don't fit that description, it plants a seed of doubt in you that says, 'What I naturally am isn't okay.'"
Now Wilkerson is leading the charge to diversify the yarn community. She's teamed up with the New Jersey-based Lion Brand Yarn Company to create Skein Tones, a palette of 12 acrylic yarns in neutral shades of browns, creams and taupes, including varieties titled honey, cedar wood, cocoa and nutmeg.
Shira Blumental, the company's ambassador and a fifth-generation member of the family that started Lion Brand, worked closely with Wilkerson on the new line. Blumental says she recognizes the slow progress the fiber arts community has made with representation and inclusivity, but hopes Skein Tones inspires other companies to act.
"Creating this line with meaning, thought and awareness was really important to us," she tells PEOPLE. "We may not have done it 20 years ago, but we're doing it now, and we mean it … we want people to feel like they're a part of our family, and a family is inclusive."
Skein Tones has already helped Wilkerson be more ambitious with her designs as she creates dolls that are reflective of the wide, beautiful spectrum of skin tones children have — and she wants other creators to feel similarly invigorated to create art and toys that people of all races can enjoy.
"Being a Black person doesn't always mean your skin is one shade of brown," Wilkerson says. "It makes me proud when a parent tells me their daughter sees themselves in my dolls … that feeling is super, super important."
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