A few weeks ago I put the following question on Twitter: “What is your biggest source of income?”. Almost everyone in my Twitter community are designers or crafters of some kind and I got all sorts of replies and a terrific discussion ensued (I love Twitter for that). Selling handmade items at craft fairs and selling patterns through wholesale distributors seemed to be the cheif income sources among those who chimed in.
Gretel Parker and one of her toys. All images are from Gretel Parker and are posted with her permission.
One person’s response stood out to me from the rest, though. Gretel Parker said her greatest source of income was selling individual toys. She told me that she sells a few a month and that the profit from those sales is her largest income stream, although she does pursue other avenues in her business, too.
Gretel’s response helped me to reflect on my own path as a softie maker. I opened my shop on Etsy in the spring of 2005 (when Etsy was still in beta) and for many, many years I sold soft sculpture birds one at a time through my Etsy shop. Selling birds on Etsy and posting about them on my blog and on Flickr led me to a myriad of opportunites to sell my work in galleries and retail stores, to contribute to books, and to publish The Artful Bird. There were times during those years that selling birds was profitable for me. Recently I chose to shift directions to focus on making toys, and designing toy patterns, but that model did serve me fairly well for many years.
And for Gretel selling toys continues to be profitable. I think this is true for one primary reason: Gretel’s toys are amazing. AMAZING. She is truly a gifted illustrator (and a formally trained one) who brings her animal drawings to life in three-dimensions through needle-felting. And people will pay a premium to own one of her pieces.
In this installment in my series about making money from making toys I want to explore this branch of the softie business model: making toys and selling them one at a time. Specifically I’m interested in thinking about “art toys.” To me a handmade art toy is a toy-like object that involves such artistry that it crosses the line from plaything to fine art. Each one takes many hours to create and shows outstanding craftsmanship. These pieces become prized possessions for their owners, who are adults. Instead of being tossed into the toybox at the end of the day, art toys take pride of place on a display shelf. They might be taken down from time to time to be admired, but they aren’t meant to really be played with.
Perhaps you own one? Gretel makes them, as does Ann Wood, Mimi Kirchner, Abigail Brown, and Mister Finch. A lot of artist teddy bear makers and art doll makers fall into this category.
Gretel is a great example of a successful art toy maker so I followed up with her to ask her more about her work, its profitability, and her decision to stick with this model.
“The main reason I stick to needle felting is a simple financial one, which is that it sells best for me – for some reason, people love my toys and will pay large amounts of money for them, whereas my artworks and textile toys just chug along or don’t sell at all, even at lower prices. If my felt toys didn’t sell so well, I’d have to be hard headed and do whatever else I could to get an income.”
Gretel’s larger toys start at $240. She mainly works on custom orders and she clearly states on her website, “All my sculptures are for collectors only and not intended for children, being decorative objects which are easily malformed with over handling.” She books orders many months out.
Each piece takes a long time to make. “A simple design, such as a sitting dog, will take roughly twenty hours to sculpt – more intricate designs with jointed limbs and clothing even longer – thirty plus hours.”
Selling art toys one at a time online has brought all kinds of other income-earning opportunites to Gretel’s door. She has illustrated books with her toys, she was commissioned to design Christmas decorations for Gisela Graham (a seasonal decoration company in the UK), she is the anchor article in Mollie Makes this month, and she is creating projects for a UK craft publisher for a new series of books.
Last year, though, those income streams weren’t flowing in. One thing I’ve learned over the last few years is that design work comes in fits and spurts. When you are a self-employed art/craft entrepreneur there are times when you get flooded with emails for new jobs and other times when it seems like nobody is calling.
When the emails aren’t coming in and the phone is quiet, Gretel’s business is making toys one by one and selling them online.
“Toymaking keeps me solvent when I don’t have any book work, which was all of the last financial year! I have a sales target I have to hit each month, which is at least £300, so I aim to get at least two toys made from my order sheet every month, so that the larder is stocked.”
Gretel has recently started offering workshops, too, “but this [making toys] seems to have literally become my day job, and after all, there are worse ways to earn a living. And I’ve done a few of them! I did start out by selling my work for very low prices and built up demand – it’s taken me four years to get to the level I’m at now.”
Setting high enough prices is clearly a requirement for this business model, but I think that Gretel has a good point. She is at a place now where her work is in such demand that when her peices are put up for sale they are snatched up right away and for a price that actually pays her a good wage.
Toy display at one of Gretel’s books launch parties.
What Gretel and other art toy makers have in common is remarkable artistry. Fine work commands a higher price and the pieces become collectibles. Customers know that each piece is made one at a time by the artist herself so supply is and always will be limited. Have you ever tried to buy one of Ann Wood’s birds? They are gone before you can blink.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not pretending that anyone is getting rich this way, but I do think it is possible to make at least a modest profit while doing something you love. And showing and selling your one-of-a-kind art toys online can attract other paying jobs that you might really enjoy, and profit from, too.
You can keep up with Gretel’s needle felting on her blog and see her books here and here.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. I have a feeling that online sales make up the bulk of the market for these higher priced toys. Having the whole world as your market certainly helps! Perhaps art toys also sell well in person at specialty shows that cater to collectors of fine craft? In galleries? If you are an art toy maker we’d love to hear about how your experience compares to Gretel’s and if you aspire to make art toys and make a profit, what stumbling blocks have you found? Any other thoughts about this path?
If you find this series helpful to you, I hope you’ll consider making a donation to help support it. Each post in this series takes several hours to research and write, and I love doing it! Knowing that you are willing to support it helps me to continue to write in-depth about each of these topics. Thank you!
Oh, thanks so much for asking me Abby – that’s a great article, and I hope it’s useful to others maybe just starting out in this area.
Another artist who came to mind as I was reading this is Jennifer Murphy – http://andothersillythings.blogspot.com/ I don’t know what portion of her income is from art bears and what is from licensing (season’s of cannon falls or whatever it is now or if she even still does that), but making toys seems to be the bulk of her sales. The other interesting thing about her is that her parents are also in the teddy bear business.
Tiffany Harvey says
I don’t make plush, but this is similar to how I sell my creations. I used to make patchwork clothing full-time (first just making whatever I wanted, later I had to start taking custom orders) & now I make custom ambigrams (graphic text art). I make more money now than I used to, but still not as much as a ‘normal’ job.
Wonderful read! As an art doll maker, I often wonder how others who make one of a kind art toys deal with the new CPSIA laws surrounding work that is classified as “toys”. I market my dolls as “artwork NOT for children” and try to avoid any mention of them as toys. I feel this can be a major stumbling block…particularly for my smaller dollhouse sized dolls.
What a great post about one of my favorite felters! An inspiring story that gives me hope that I’ll be at her level some day! Thank You!
Caroline B says
I’ve watched Gretel’s progress over the last few years since some anonymous benefactor sent her a needle-felting kit, and it has been inspiring to see her success. Well deserved too, as her work is some of the best needlefelting I’ve seen. Can’t wait to buy the magazine!
It’s always interesting to see how this kind of career takes shape – I started by making a few little knitted dogs using a pattern from a magazine and have ended up designing and making all sorts of weird and wonderful items – never thought I’d be earning money making such things as replica pets, knitted furniture and hunting trophies, yet here I am. It’s not a steady income though and very much a case of either feast or famine, so I still can’t afford to give up the boring day job. The internet has been the major factor in it all – that and never turning down a commission unless it is 100% impossible.
Great post! And very helpful to read about experienced art crafters.
I feel like i am at a crossroad. I have been making art plush for about a year now. For both children and adults. I feel like I have to decide.
Will I make art plush for adults, where every doll is unique and I don’t have to worry if it will survive the washing machine. Or will I make plush for children, where I make more creatures from the same design so I can keep the cost low. There is a bigger market for children plush, and people ask me to make them, but how can I make my creatures stand out.
I feel like the creatures I make are unique. Especially when I challenge myself to keep improving. But I cannot make as many as I would like. And will I really sell when I ask a high price?
Abby Glassenberg says
Yes, she makes beautiful work and is a great example of a maker of art toys.
Abby Glassenberg says
This is a big topic and one that I don’t know much about yet. Perhaps in the future I will be able to do some research and find out more.
Abby Glassenberg says
I didn’t know that was how Gretel got her start in needle felting! What an amazing story.
Abby Glassenberg says
Thanks for your comment. I just visited your site for the first time and your monsters are really cool. These crossroads are part of figuring out our own creative/business paths and they can be trying to sort out at times!
ack! What a wonderful post! I love Gretel’s work and continue to be amazed by how professional her creatures are…you can really tell that she spends a LOT of time on them!
Great post Abby. It is always interesting to see how other art toy makers do their work and if they make a living. I think I am sort of in the same situation as MonsterMatti in that my pieces take a fair amount of time, but I am not sure if they would sell if I charged more. I suppose part of it is building up a reputation, but for now I need my day job (actually, it just became jobs). I’m not complaining, although it does in some ways become a fine balance when you would like to build up a following but you aren’t able to devote the time to develop that following. I very much admire both those who sell art toys successfully as their main career, and those who branch out into other related avenues as well (like you), but realistically I don’t expect that for myself.
janet metzger says
My name is Janet and I met Gretel about 2 1/2 years ago when was smitten with her Profile on Etsy. I wrote to her and we have been fast friends ever since. I ADORE Gretel…as an artist and as person.
The stunning blue elephant, Oscar…I own him. Oscar was my first large toy purchase. I have since become an avid collector of Gretel’s sculptures. I presently am the very proud owner of about 5 larger toys and an assortment of smalls. I cherish each of them for their detail, whimsy and because of Gretel herself.
I have been happy to have introduced Gretel’s work to my friends and in turn they have purchased from her. Gretel deserves all the accolades she is now receiving because she is humble and one of the most sincere ladies I have (never) met.
Sitting down to a cuppa with Gretel is for sure on my ‘bucket list’.
Thanks for a lovely feature about my friend,
The Empty Nest
Thank you for your comment, Janet. It is great to hear the perspective of a customer who enjoys purchasing and collecting art toys, especially from one particular maker. I think that special relationship between the buyer and the maker is a wonderful thing that makes these art pieces truly treasures.
Kris Keese says
I loved this article not only because of the theme which I am very interested in but because of Gretel’s work. I have loved her creations since I first started needle felting two years ago. I have enjoyed getting to know her and see all of her new work as I follow her blog.
I have also loved your work and was so excited to see one of your birds in a shop here in NH.
I guess I am exploring where I would like my needle felting to take me. I just know I totally enjoy the process.
So thank you for a great article and it has given me more things to think about.
I, too, am a fan and friend of Gretel…. and like to think of myself as a fellow needle felter …. I’ve been following her blog for years as well.
Love her work…. she is an amazing artist and her needle felting is second to none. What great artistic imagination she has…. her creations, … so whimsical … still don’t own one, but will some day…
Jilly Lovett says
Many thanks for this really useful information and news from other sellers. I’ve been selling my art dolls for a few years now but have no luck whatsoever through my etsy site http://www.etsy.com/shop/jillylovett . All of my sales come through displaying my work at art markets, Christmas Fairs and a couple of retail outlets. I don’t sell many as I have a day job but when things get tough it’s hugely therapeutic to be able to look forward to spending the evening cutting out a new doll…
Jilly – That is interesting to hear that Etsy hasn't been a successful format for selling your art toys. I wonder if seeing and touching them in person is what really wins buyers over?
I just found this article, and was so pleased to read about an art doll maker who is making a living from it.
I hadn’t seen her work before, and I think it is just great.I am dabbling with felt, but haven’t made anything for sale yet.
I have been making plush-ish animals since 2009 through my etsy shop http://www.etsy.com/shop/crazyhoundstore and friends. I sell one at a time and I have taken on commissions and enjoy the interaction with customers making these. I have found the etsy experience really useful to test designs, but I want to grow a bit more now.
Some designs are really popular in terms of hits, but no one buys, and I have played with the price to no effect.
It is feast or famine, dead in the summer, so I think I will have to diversify to get a steady income.
I have tried craft fairs, but my designs don’t seem to fit with the “conservative” craft fairs we have in these parts. I am thinking about taking my animals to a UK show this year, but have to weigh up the outlay costs. Part of me thinks for quirky designs the net it the place to be, all I have to do is to spend time marketing etc etc, and balance that with making..
Thank you for sharing your experiences. It certainly can be challenging to find an audience for distinctive, handmade art dolls and soft sculpture animals. Etsy can feel so overwhelming. It is harder and harder to stand out in the crowd, that's for sure! And not all craft fairs attract the right kind of buyers for weirder, more quirky pieces.
Im a bit behind with reading blogs,thanks very much for the mention here Im really flattered.