For a long while now I have been thinking about how commercially produced stuffed animals are made. More specifically, I have wondered how the sewing patterns for these toys are created. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not interested in having my own designs mass produced. I’m all about making each toy one at a time and teaching the craft of toy design. But I feel like the product designers at the big companies like Gund and Ty and Manhatten Toy have something in common with me. Like we’re colleagues in a way.
(all images are of Annie Hulden’s toys designed for Ikea)
I spend four or five hours a day five days a week designing stuffed animals. Product designers for toy companys probably are doing the same. But what does their process look like? How does it differ from mine?
I did some online searching on my own and I wrote this post a week ago asking my blog readers for some possible leads. Joana left me a comment recommending that I get in touch with a designer for Ikea named Annie Hulden.
Looking on Ikea’s website I realized that Doggy, Josephine’s favorite stuffed animal, was designed by Annie Hulden.
(except this image – that’s Josephine and Doggy!)
My mom bought Doggy at Ikea for Josephine and Doggy has been played with, loved, and chewed on a quite a bit by my babe. I thought it would be really amazing to be in touch with Doggy’s designer.
I sent Annie an email asking if she would agree to be interviewed for my blog, and she wrote me right back and said yes! We emailed back and forth and through our conversation I learned quite a bit more about how all those stuffed animals you see in the children’s section of Ikea are designed.
Annie Huldén is a Swedish product designer and a graduate of the University of Gothenburg’s HDK School of Design and Crafts. She is also a children’s book illustrator. Annie often works collaboratively with her design partner, Sanna Dahlman. If you’d like to see Annie’s portfolio you can visit her website. And you can see all of Annie Hulden’s designs for Ikea on this page of their website.
“I often get a brief from Ikea containing a certain theme like “prince and princess,” “wild animals,” or “circus.” I watch movies and look at books for inspiration. Often particular characters come to me already at this early stage.”
“Then, I sketch a lot so that I can get the right look from all sides and angles. Once I’m satisfied, I have to work on the details.”
In this way Annie’s work as a product designer is similar to mine. We both do a lot of visual research, looking at images from children’s books in particular, when we are beginning a new toy design. And we both do a lot of sketching.
I asked Annie what comes next after the sketching. I was most curious about how her sketches become sewing patterns.
“Everything must be as clear as possible for the designers at the factory. It is their job to interpret my sketches into a textile soft toy. In order for them to come as close as possible to what I had in mind I create many detailed drawings to try to describe my ideas. I also write down instructions as complements to the sketeches so that I am describing in both words and pictures what I have in mind.”
“The Ikea soft toys are all produced in Asia. The Asian designers and I don’t always have the same ideas about how a soft toy should look. It is a cultural thing and I have learned that the more descriptions I give them, the better!”
I guess I wasn’t surprised to learn that although the concept for the toy is created by a Swedish designer, the actual sewing pattern is made by a factory worker in Asia. Sadly, I don’t think there is a way to contact that person to learn more about how the actual sewing pattern is created from Annie’s sketches.
For me the next stage is creating a prototype sewing pattern. Someone else does this for Annie (again, I wish I could interview them, too!).
“The pattern designers at the factory interpret my sketches and create a first sample. They send me the sample and I take to it with a pair of scissors and a needle and thread. I also create some new sketeches.”
“Then I send the modified sample back to the factory and they make a new sample. This process continues until me and Ikea and the factory are all satisfied. Sometimes, though, there isn’t enough time to go back and forth until we reach my ultimate ideal for each toy.”
Editing is a big part of the process for both of us. I just finished chapter 8 in my book and made nine (!) prototypes before I was satisfied with that particular toy’s design. It sounds like there is a fair bit of back and forth with the early prototypes for Annie, too.
I wondered how the fabric for the toys is chosen. Choosing fabrics is such an important part of creating a new toy design.
“Ikea has a very high standard of safety in everything made for children. That’s why I never use any ‘beans’ in the soft toys. I want my soft toys to be very soft and nice to hug so I don’t want them filled very much.”
“Ikea doesn’t allow loose parts like glass eyes so all of the my toys have sewn eyes. The eyes are very important for the character of the toy and I always work a lot with the expression of the eyes.”
I could not agree more!
“The fabric must be soft! That is very important. And it must be safe which means that the fibers cannot come off easily. For Ikea, of course, it musn’t be too expensive. Sometimes I make a pattern for the fabric, for example tiger stripes or dots on a seal.”
I generally stuff my toys super firmly, but the soft toys from Ikea are very squishy and huggable. And they are super soft. Safety and expense are concerns for everyone, from the home crafter making toys to sell in an Etsy shop to a huge company like Ikea.
I wondered if you needed a background in sewing to become a soft toy product designer. Annie said,
“I have always sewn, but I have no education in it except for all the help I have gotten over the years from my mother! I am helped by the fact that I understand where the seams go and how shapes and forms are created in fabric.”
“I haven’t sewn a lot of toys myself, but I have illustrated several children’s books and that work has given me ideas and training in creating characters. I think sketching is a great path into every design project.”
I really appreciate Annie Hulden’s responsiveness to my inquiries and generosity in sharing her process with me. You can read more about Annie in this article on Ikea’s website about a gender neutral doll she recently designed.
If you have any questions or comments about our interview, I would love to hear them and I will invite Annie to chime in, too, if she wants to respond directly to you.