One day back in 2005 I took my seven-month-old baby to the library for story time and while I was there I started looking at the sewing books. I ended up checking out a soft toy sewing book written in the late 1960s and later that day, when the baby went down for a nap, I flipped through it, found an elephant pattern that didn’t look too hard and sewed it up in white flannel. I left the elephant on the bed to show to Charlie when he came home from work. He was duly impressed, if a bit bewildered, and I was happy and all was well and good, until the next day when I made another one. And then another. And then I sewed more toys from that book, and from more books, and then I started making my own toy patterns. And soon our bedroom was full of toys. Too many toys! And I figured I needed to start selling them to make room, and to provide a little cash so I could buy more fiberfill. I set up a shop on Etsy in the summer of 2005 when Etsy was still in beta and I did a few craft fairs.
In the seven years that have passed between then and now I have become passionate, possibly to the point of obsession, about soft toy making. And I have explored many possible ways to make money from my toy making habit.
Recently, I have begun to think more about how to grow a business from toy making. I know that there are avenues I haven’t explored, and I know not all of them will work for me, but I think it would be beneficial to talk to those soft toy makers that have been really successful selling their work in all different ways. These discussion will surely help me to think about monetizing my own work in new ways, and maybe it will help you, too.
In this first post in the series I want to brainstorm all the ways to make money from making softies and I would love for you to add to my list. And then I will work on finding out more by talking with softie makers who have been successful at pursuing some of these avenues. I’ll share what I learn and I’ll also share my own experiences, and if you will share yours in the comments then we can build a great resource base for anyone interested in making money from sewing toys. Because one thing I have learned for sure is that it takes multiple income streams to make this work. My hope is that these posts will spark new business ideas for all of us. Softie makers unite!
Okay, here are all the ways I can think of to make money from making handmade soft toys:
Selling handmade toys one by one. This might include developing a few designs and selling multiples of those or sell one-offs or taking custom orders. You might sell the toys online in brick-and-mortar retail shops or in galleries.You might take wholesale orders or sell on consignment. Another way to sell toys one by one is to sell them at craft fairs.
Selling patterns for toys. This might mean creating digital patterns and selling downloads online (like FunkyFriendsFactory among many others) or creating paper patterns and selling them online or in brick-and-mortar shops. You might publish an ebook of your sewing patterns or contribute to soft toy sewing books (selling patterns to pubishers). Or write a book of soft toy sewing patterns (again selling patterns to a publisher).
Become a designer at one of the big toy companies. (See this interview I did with Annie Hulden, toy designer for Ikea, or watch this incredible documentary short on toy designer Longia Miller who designed the pattern for Tickle Me Elmo, among other toys.)
Licensing. Licensing toys to companies that sell toys (like Land of Nod) or license sewing patterns to companies that sell sewing patterns (like Simplicty or McCall’s). Design your own sewing patterns and work with a distributor (like Brewer) to sell to stores nationwide.
Teaching soft toy making. You could teach an online class or teach an in-person class either in your home or at a sewing center.
Okay, that seems like a mighty list, but I know there are more possibilities. If you have some, please mention them in the comments. And if you really want to learn more about one of these areas or have a lead for me on someone you’d like to see me interview, I want to hear your suggestions!
I would love to learn more about marketing my own patterns…I have several that people have asked about…but I really do not know where to begin. I’d love to see more about how to do that. And thank you Abby for all your wonderful, informative posts!
Could you clarify what about marketing you mean? Is it getting the word out that you have digital patterns to sell? Thanks!
Mary Ann says
I have no particular one of these topics that I am specifically interested in. I think any of them would beneficial to anyone who makes soft toys.
Thanks for being so open with this information. I think it can cross over to anyone who’s interested in making money from crafts, and a lot of people who are successful seem to keep their sources and trade secrets very secret. Like because they worked hard to find things out and get there, everyone else should have to, too. I think especially because multiple streams of income are necessary, there’s a lot of flexibility in the approach, which makes room for more people.
I couldn't agree more. I'm not sure why people are so secretive. I think the more secretive we are the more power we give to big companies to be manipulative. If we are open about the kind of deals we are being offered, the money involved, the ease (or difficulty) of pursuing various avenues, we take back the reigns. We will only be able to broker a good deal, or insist on our rights as designers, if we are fully informed.
Caren Adams says
I have not done any selling, though people keep encouraging me in that direction. What about the ups and downs of setting up your own shop online, since you know about that area? Are there pros and cons to selling patterns and/or product online vs. at a retail brick and mortar shop? What about the actual “selling yourself” aspect, i.e. – marketing your particular product? One more thought – what about doing design projects or fundraising kind of things for non-profits? That could be a win-win, since your name gets out there (marketing) and they get profit. The other thing I’m wondering is, how do you know if you’re prepared to actually sell? Us home-based folks may not know what it takes to start a business. Just brainstorming with you. Of course I’m not in the business (yet), so you’ll have more of a handle on these things than I. Thanks for pursuing these avenues for us and walking us along. Can’t wait ’til your (Elements) book is released!!!
Caren Adams says
Oh, and I know that you have sold to media (movie/tv) folks before – how did they know to contact you? Did you knock on their door? Just wondering. I guess now that I’m actually thinking about it, it is the marketing aspect (getting your name out there) that I am not really comfortable with – maybe it’s just that I don’t know enough about the big picture (how it all fits together)?
Caren Adams says
Oh, sorry, one more thought about licensing – what about new and/or established authors (publishing companies) wanting to market their written characters (I’m thinking of things like the Dr. Seuss and Clifford toys that I see at Kohl’s for their “Kohl’s Cares” promotions.) Has anyone ever made a “Llama Llama”? I know the character/books are under license, but SOMEONE has to turn them into 3D stuffies, right? Why not us? 🙂
Fascinating again . I have sold toys at markets and in an online shop, but now sell sewing patterns. I started selling patterns in an online shop and last year was invited to join a distributor, so they now do all the printing, packaging and selling. I receive royalties according to how many patterns are sold.
And before people get carried away with how awesome it sounds-I still have a day job…just saying.
I sell my sock animals on etsy one by one. I enjoy it but it is a lot of work and hard to feel like I can really make it grow since I can only sell as many as I make…and each one takes time. I have often wondered if there was a way to be able to take the business to the next step but haven’t been quite sure what that would look like.
Jeff Rutherford says
I liked your last idea. I know you have tutorials on your site, have you considered recording video tutorials? I think comprehensive how-to videos could help bring in an audience that would then purchase eBooks or digital patterns.
I wonder if creating a creative sock creatures how-to, either as a video or a pdf, would be good next step?
I think you raise a good point about donating handmade items to charity. In my experience, handmade pieces don't end up getting bid very high. I think donating a service, like an in-home sewing lesson, is a better option and more likely to raise money and get the word out about your business.
These are all very interesting suggestions and I can’t wait to see your article. I would like to suggest an article on law as it relates to the sale of soft toys. Particularly in regard to safety. Things like what materials are allowed to be used, what warnings need to be displayed for things like small parts or other hazards, and that sort of thing. People may also be interested in copy-write law as well.
Thank you so much for this suggestion, Emma. I know that Interweave is getting ready to release an eBook about copyright law as it relates to craft. I read a draft and it is fantastic. Hopefully I'll be able to review and recommend that soon! A post about the legal issues related to safety and handmade stuffed animals is a really interesting idea!
Alison Berry says
I’ve done a bit of selling on consignment, selling patterns, and selling one by one online. I’m trying to get into selling at craft fairs.
I need to work on my production methods, since I tend to get side tracked.
Your dolls are adorable, Alison. And I like the way you show a glimpse of the pdf in your Etsy listings for your patterns.
Caroline B says
I found all this really interesting and was awaiting to read more – now I need to ask you something specific which has come up since you wrote this. I’ve been offered a chance to design knitted animal-head scarves for a small company for sale in boutiques & college campus shops but as this is the first opportunity like this I have had, I have absolutely no idea how to charge. It would mean me coming up with a design, knitting a prototype and writing out the pattern and the company want to buy full copyright. As you seem to be very well informed, could you point me in the right direction as to what to read to find out a sensible fee to charge without ripping myself off? I don’t want to lose this opportunity by charging too high but likewise don’t want to be kicking myself further down the line for selling myself short. If you have the time to answer this, I’d be really grateful, thanks!
I don’t know that I am qualified to give you any specific advice. I can commiserate with the feeling of being torn between wanting to charge enough, but not so much that the company decides to look elsewhere. Most likely they have commissioned designers to do similar work in the past and I don’t think it hurts to be honest. If it were me, I would ask them how much other designers usually charge for similar jobs. Hopefully they are an honest company and will give you an honest answer (otherwise, don’t work with them!). I hope that helps
Caroline B says
Thanks Abby – they seem to be a fledgling company run by two brothers, at present working with art college students and a few other local knitters, so I don’t think they have much experience in this situation either. So far they seem very upfront and honest. I’ve asked for a couple of days grace in which to come up with a quote and they are happy enough with that. Fingers crossed it works out as I really would like to do this!
I’m so glad I’ve stumbled across your blog and this post. I have been thinking about how to start my own little home business sewing toys and other things and also making patterns but it all seems quite overwhelming. I am also particularly interested in copyright, legal issues and etiquette in regards to creating a design to sell and then someone claiming you copied them. I worry about being accused of copying when I didn’t know that a similar pattern or design existed. There are so many patterns and designs out there and it is often quite hard to find them if you do a specific search so I feel like it would be quite easy to miss seeing that your design is very similar to another.
I totally understand your concern, but at the same time I think you need to follow your ideas and make what you think is original, new work. I hope that the fear of being accused of copying won't stop you, or anyone, from the enjoyment of doing what they love!