February 21, 2008
When you own a shop like Quiet Hours, you find yourself spending large portions of time looking at all manner of handmade goods for children. Sometimes you find yourself becoming fixated on one person or one type of toy in particular. Such was the case when I first spotted the cozy hand-knit animals of Barbara Prime of Montreal, Canada. Our paths crossed briefly back in early 2007 when she was juggling knitting and pattern-writing with a new job as a gardener. She was busy, then I was busy, and we did not talk again for almost a year. When we did get back in touch, I was excited to learn that Barbara’s toy-making business was going so well she had decided to take the leap into a full-time venture. She kindly agreed to create some custom toys for us this spring, and I am delighted to offer you this “sneak peek” glimpse into her work. So, without further ado, here are some images from the home studio of Fuzzy Mitten (Note: These are samples and not the actual toys that will be coming to the shop. We’re leaving those designs up to Barbara.):
left to right, top to bottom: spring group, Curry the Dog, Professor Twiddle-Tweed the Owl, Pete the Lamb, boxed group, Wayne the Cow, Clark the Bunny, Didi & Dori the Twin Pandas, Xiao Hu the Cat, Strudel Bear, Emma Lamb, Didi Panda
Barbara describes her soft toys as “small, sweet, cute…simple on the outside but stuffed full of good things”. I couldn’t agree more. Fuzzy Mitten animals have an inherently old-fashioned charm that makes children want to sit right down and start telling stories. Every critter has a personality – be it a cape-wearing superhero bunny or a wise owl named Professor Twiddle-Tweed – and each one is crafted to be a classic that will hold its place in your child’s memory long after the latest trendy gizmo has been cast aside.
I was curious to learn more about the person behind such sweet, fanciful characters, so I asked Barbara a series of questions about her background and interest in toy-making. Since so many of you are working at your own creative endeavors, I also thought it would be inspiring to hear a bit about her path from knitting hobbyist to full-time businesswoman. I thank her kindly for the thoughtful answers below, and hope you enjoy reading them as much as I did.
My family likes to make things by hand. In the case of things like sewing and knitting, my grandma was a Home Economics teacher, so my mom and her sisters all grew up sewing most of their own clothes. I was taught how to hand sew around the age of 6, and whenever we visited my grandparents we were let loose on boxes of crafty stuff, to create to our hearts content.
I made my first soft toy – a giraffe – out of a pair of navy blue socks when I was about 9 or 10. I abandoned my sewing machine for studies in Botany during my university years, but when I started graduate studies I met some fellow students who had a monthly knitting group. Knitting really appealed to the practical side of my nature. Once I’d mastered the basic stitches, I was off and running!
A small knitted bunny was one of my early projects. A friend’s relative was having a baby, so she showed me the toy pattern and asked if I could make it for a gift. A few years later, another friend was having a baby and by this time I was a much better knitter. I found a bunch of ways to change the original bunny pattern to suit how I wanted the toy to look. Shortly after this, I found myself with a lot of time on my hands, so I knitted a couple variations just for fun. Some friends saw those toys, informed me they were super cute and asked for some of their own.
A business is born
I set up a small shop on Etsy, and it didn’t take more than a few weeks for other knitters to see my toys and ask if I sold the patterns. I wasn’t sure about writing them up for others to use because I didn’t think I was knowledgeable enough. But I tried anyway! My first was a bear, then a bunny and a striped kitty. I kept having new ideas for toys, and for every new toy, knitters would ask for the patterns. Pretty soon I had over a dozen different patterns.
Making the switch to full-time
Around this time I started a full-time job as a gardener, so I could feel like I was putting my education to good work. Soon my Fuzzy Mitten business was going so well that I was faced with a difficult decision: cut down my gardening job or cut back on what I was putting into my own business.
My gardening job ended for the season last November, and so I had the next 4-5 months to dedicate to Fuzzy Mitten. So far it’s been amazing and difficult. My patterns are popular as ever, and I received several retail orders from popular shops. The difficult part has been balancing the knitting of toys with the writing of new patterns, so I can keep both types of customers happy.
I don’t know if any of this would have been possible without the support of my husband! He’s kept me going when I get insecure or frustrated, is willing to back me up on good ideas or offer constructive comments on the more crazy ideas. He also did a major part of the work in putting together a book of my patterns. Of course, he is also the one to come up with the sillier names for the toys!
Why plush toys?
As a toy-maker, I have relatively few other toys around. I don’t collect plush, although I often covet certain “cuties” created by other toy-makers. Art and being creative have always been a large part of my life. Even though I mostly studied painting, I’ve always felt sculpture was a true expression of my need to create. In a way, I think of my animals more as sculptures than toys. But I’m also a practical person, and the fact that they are cute and cuddly appeals to that side of my nature.
What inspires you?
When it comes to toys, sometimes it’s simply the yarn. I can see a particular animal and outfit form in the colour and texture of the fibre. Other times, I’m inspired by a character in a story. Sometimes they have names before I even pick up the yarn. For me, each one I make is an individual. The ones with the most character are hard to part with because they feel more like pets than toys – as crazy as that sounds!
As for other aspects of my life, I still adore sewing, and try to incorporate it into my work in small ways. My other love is reading, and I alternately devour fantasy novels and classic fiction. Fantasy is pure entertainment; classics are for brain stimulation. (Favorite authors: Tolkien, Tad Williams, Terry Pratchett, Patricia McKillip for fantasy; Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy, Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood for more intellectual reading.)
We anticipate having some original Fuzzy Mitten creations ready for the shop in late April or early May. You can either check back then or send an e-mail if you’d like to be notified of their arrival.
Photos of the toys are courtesy of Barbara. Photo of Barbara is courtesy of her husband.
Update: Barbara shipped us 8 one-of-a-kind animals in early April. They will be posted as soon as they navigate the Canadian/US border crossing and make their way here.