I’m a VERY proud auntie, but I struggle when buying my nieces and nephew presents – for one, the kiddos tend to be more interested in the box than the present itself; so many toys seem to be either disposable or fragile – which is not ideal for my rambunctious nephew, and lastly, most kids toys just don’t feel as special as I remember my own toys being – and what good is a gift if it is not special?
I met Jennifer Murphy, the founder of POLKA DOT CLUB, at Mille (one of the many amazing makers I’ve met at Michelle’s shop!) earlier this year when she was preparing to launch the PDC and I fell in love with her unique teddy bears and rattles… heritage toys that are meant to be played with. Special, durable, and something your kids will have forever – basically, these are the perfect present. AND it seems that the parents (at least my friends and family!) love them just as much as the kids do!
HOW DID YOU GET YOUR START? WHO INSPIRES YOU?
When I was seven years old my Grandmother taught me how to sew. A year later my mother began making teddy bears and before I was eleven years old I was using her scraps to make my own bears and animals. Now, nearly thirty years later I’ve begun to put this lineage into perspective and discover why after all this time I’m still so completely engaged in the act of sewing and making objects. I think it has something to do with constantly inventing something out of raw materials. The process of making- be it in textiles, ceramics, wood is so deeply satisfying. I love to get my hands on beautiful materials and create something that has function to be loved and used.
That has always driven me, but today, it also has very much to do with my children. I make things now because I want them to see that everything in our home -is made- it doesn’t just appear on a shelf ready for us, it came from someplace and someone. I like to illuminate that we can be the makers of our things, it takes time and care, but I hope that knowledge imbues everything around them with new value. Plus, it’s just flat out fun to hand them something that makes them want to play and keying into that always keeps things fresh.
WHAT DRIVES YOU?
I’ve always been really drawn to natural fibers. I like the way they feel, age, and have been used historically. I love that old bears made 100 years ago were stuffed with wood shavings and the fur was simply mohair (from the goat) woven into cotton. Mohair ages very differently than the contemporary alternative synthetic plush- it ages with dignity showing it’s years but gracefully and begs to be passed on from one generation to the next. I use these materials to make the POLKA DOT CLUB along with 100% cotton stuffing and safety eyes- but with the exception of these few tweaks for safety the PDC Bears are made using the same techniques, materials, and processes as stuffed toys were 100 years ago… I’m so passionate about making toys that will not be tossed aside when the child outgrows it, because of the quality of the fibers and craftsmanship these toys value is not diminished by the years of love and play, rather they become more special over time. I’m excited to be making modern heirlooms for now and forever.
WHERE IS YOUR COLLECTION MADE?
A small group of highly skilled crafts people in Minneapolis help me to make each POLKA DOT CLUB bear by hand, from start to finish. I design, gather all the materials, and then hand each bear off to be cut out, sewn, and stuffed. Once those detailed tasks are done each piece goes back into my hands. I add all the finishing touches- embroidering the nose, trimming the fur, hand sewing the ears in place, and choosing colors and clothes to make each piece unique and very hand made. It would be so much easier and cheaper to send it off someplace over seas to be made, but I can’t wrap my head around that idea. I want my hands and my care to be all over these toys. It’s deeply important to me to keep the whole process right here.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO OTHER MAKERS?
I started making and selling my bears when I was so young, it was a business that slowly turned into my living before my eyes. I sold one-of-a-kind mohair pieces under my name: Jennifer Murphy Bears, that looked like toys but were made for collectors world wide. I started a webshop before most artists were selling on the web back in 2001 and I keyed into what so many individuals found- the internet was a magically place to connect artists with patrons. I was so lucky to have my mother there to help me figure out how to make a go of it, but even after running a successful business for so long, basically making toys that weren’t meant for kids, launching the POLKA DOT CLUB was such a huge challenge. It took about 4 years to nail down all the details and legal issues not to mention the millions of little details I couldn’t ignore. I’m still working through all the little pit falls any new business runs into having launched earlier this year, but I’m wading through it all. It’s funny to think I’m basically doing the same thing I was doing, but repositioning myself within the “market” has been surprisingly hard.
I’m not sure what my piece of advise is. I’m still in the thick of trying to figure it all out, but from the beginning I knew this business wouldn’t work the way I thought it would. I knew that the only way I would be able to figure it all out was to do that from the inside. I had to throw myself head first into this new venture because I couldn’t wait any longer to do what I was so passionate about. The verdict is still out about the success of the PDC. But this work makes be happy and I feel it’s right. I’ll follow that any day of the week and advise everyone out there to do the same.
In the last month amidst all the rust to get holiday pieces out to stores and fill the studio for the coming rush, I’ve been day dreaming about new designs. I’ve been working on a handful of linen rabbits, cuddling toys, and thinking about making a doll. I like that the POLKA DOT CLUB comes directly out of heritage teddy bear making, but those principles can be applied in so many forms. We’ll see what the new year brings.
Thank you so much, Jen, for making amazing toys for my favorite kiddos and for taking the time to share your inspirations and advice with me! Be sure to check out the POLKA DOT CLUB and follow along!