I’ve been writing a blog that is, at least partially, about soft toy design for ten years now. When you do a Google search for “soft toy design” my site comes up first and this means I get a lot of emails like this one:
I came across your very fun and informative
website when searching for a
soft toy design/construction business.
Are you taking on any prototype projects?
I am a children’s book author/illustrator with
a new book coming out in September called
THE LADYBUG RACE. I would love to have
my two main character ladybugs with me (not the
typical red/black dotted bugs but ash gray ladybugs!)
during school visits for kids to understand a ladybug’s
anatomy and color types.
I can provide more details if you are interested.
Thanks for your time Abby,
Children’s book authors, video game designers, marketing teams, and environmental groups contact me all the time looking for a custom soft toy design for their main character or company mascot or personified vegetable or ash gray insect. Sometimes, like Amy, they just want a few finished plush to use in school demonstrations, but often they want to have their toy manufactured.
I’ve found that most people who are looking to have a plush toy manufactured truly don’t know where to begin because it’s difficult to find good information on how to do it. There is no directory of designers and factory contacts. How do you find someone to create the pattern? Where do you go to choose fabrics, stuffing, and features like eyes and noses and embroidery? How much should the design phase cost and how much, approximately, will it cost to get the toy manufactured?
When emails like Amy’s come into my inbox I forward them on to my friend, Karen Laude. Karen has been working as a professional soft toy designer for 35 years, first at Knickerbocker Toys (with Longia Miller – watch this video of Longia to get a sense of what the job entails), then at Coleco Industries, and finally as a freelancer. She’s worked on many projects you probably recognize including Alf, Cabbage Patch, Dr. Seuss, Hello Kitty, Curious George, Sesame Street, Cindy Loo Hoo, Doodle Girls, and Baby Twinkle Toons. Karen lives nearby and I first met her about a year ago when she invited me out for coffee. She brought her portfolio and I was totally impressed by her extensive experience and thrilled to have found someone to refer people like Amy to.
Earlier this week I asked Karen if she would tell us more about the process of bringing a toy idea to production, including time schedules and approximate costs, so that this information would be more readily accessible. She kindly agreed. Having just completed the ladybugs for Amy’s book, THE LADYBUG RACE, we decided to use Amy’s toy as an example, with Amy’s permission.
The reference materials Amy provided to Karen.
The first step is to create a set of reference materials. These should include sketches of the front, side or 3/4 view, the size of the finished toy, whether it should be floppy, sit or stand, and the age of the child it’s intended for. Amy provided Karen with the sketch above and told her, “The bugs have to be able to ‘hold hands’ and have working wings so kids can marvel in the anatomy of a creature that is so tiny.”
Next, Karen develops a paper pattern from the sketches and tries it out in fabric. This is called the “construction model” and she sews it in a brushed tricot fabric called alova. About two and half weeks after starting, she sends the model to you for critique asking that you provide very specific feedback such as, “Take 1/4” off of the arms.” Karen then makes edits to the construction model.
The next step is choosing finish fabrics, Pantone colors, and other details. Karen often recommends fabrics that aren’t available to consumers at a retail fabric store. “I often buy a toy and cut it up to get the fabric swatch. I’ve bought multiple toys for the noses,” Karen says. “At the Hallmark store the girl at the register would hug them and I’m thinking, ‘I’m going to go home and cut their heads off!’”
In the final step Karen creates the finished prototype. She makes a set of pattern drawings that include details like where to put cording, eye placement, and embroidery. And she creates sewing specifications and swatch cards for you. This last step takes another 2.5 weeks.
When you work with a designer like Karen you retain the copyright for your designs and Karen keeps all of the details of your job confidential. “The job is purely work for hire,” she explains, ” So I can’t say, ‘This is my baby. I get paid. I just let it go.”
How much does the design process cost? To work with Karen to design a small, fairly uncomplicated toy costs $1,000-1,5000. Karen charges $75/ hour. For that fee you get not only a professionally designed pattern and sewing instructions, but you also can tap into Karen’s knowledge of fabric and factories. You can also go to a bronze foundry if you need a cast metal object for your project.
It is possible to work with a designer at the factory where your toy will be produced instead of working with a domestic designer, but choosing to do so can complicate the process. The language barrier and wait time between receiving prototypes can be frustrating and often you don’t end up with a satisfactory prototype. Karen told me she’s often called upon to redo patterns for clients who at first tried to have them created at the factory.
At most factories the minimum order is about 10,000 units, but for an additional set up fee of about $2,000 some will do 2,500 pieces for you. If you provide digital artwork, the factory will print and affix the hangtags as well. Remember that you’ll need to do safety testing for the toy, too. Factories vary considerably in the quality of their communication and their products so it’s best to get a recommendation from your designer or someone else with experience.
Karen is truly passionate about soft toy design and sees each new client project as a puzzle to be solved. “I like thinking, ‘How am I going to make this thing?'” she says. And for clients like Amy connecting with Karen means bringing their treasured character to life. “Karen’s immense experience in the toy industry reflected in her problem solving and made collaborating a breeze. She even added her own touch by placing a handle on the underside of the toys – which I never would have considered and absolutely adored! Her execution was exceptional. I felt like I discovered gold!”
Edited 11/23/2021: If you need a custom stuffed animal made from a drawing, try Budsies.
Edited 12/26/2019: Please note that Karen has now moved on from soft toy design and is no longer open to new commissions.
Edited 10/8/15: I just learned about Stitch Texas, a company in Austin that helps people take their fashion design from idea to manufactured product. If you have an idea for clothing rather than toys, check it out here.