Selling handmade toys

 4 July 2013

Sue Quinn makes teddy bears and sells them around the world. She spoke about how meeting a buyer from Japan opened up a whole new market for her work.

Sue Quinn's handmade bears are sold to collectors around the world.
Sue Quinn's handmade bears are sold to collectors around the world.

Making and selling keepsakes

Sue Quinn's bears are made traditionally, by hand. Over the years she has been making them, they have become collectibles, and many are now highly sought after.

While modern toys go in and out of fashion, usually depending on which TV programme they represent, Sue has found that teddy bears continue to appeal both to children and adult collectors.

"Selling my work around the world is very hard work, but a magnificent experience."

"I don’t tend to think of them as toys," she says. "They are bought for children, but they’re more something to keep, as they are fairly expensive and traditionally made."

Sue has been making toy animals for almost 30 years. She first started designing things at about 15 years old.

"I started out as an illustrator, originally, and studied for a while at Nottingham School of Art. I did designs for greeting cards and for toys.

"I was making rabbits and mice at first, but in the 1980s there was a big rise in the number of teddy bear collectors, so I started making them too."

Building a base of clients

At first, Sue sold at trade fairs in London and Birmingham, building up her clientele.

At one trade fair, she met a buyer from Japan who was very taken with her bears. This opened up a big market for her in Japan.

"I found I had to move up a level in terms of quality and price to compete with cheaper imports coming in from China and the Far East, so my bears needed to be quite special."

Now she sells to the US and Europe as well as Japan, and some of her bears are now on display in museums.

"I go over to Japan about three or four times a year. I'm usually invited by one of the department stores there to be among their visiting artists at a British fair. 

"It’s very hard work, but a magnificent experience. People there are so appreciative of the work that goes into the bears."

Making teddy bears

Sue’s manufacturing work is an intensive process. After designing the bear, she draws the pattern pieces onto card. She uses these pieces as templates to transfer the design to the fabric. 

Sue cuts the pieces out by hand, stitches them on a sewing machine, and fills the assembled bear with polyester fibre, cotton fibre, wood wool or pellets, depending on the model. 

"I found I had to move up a level in terms of quality and price to compete with cheaper imports."

The limbs are jointed so that the arms and legs can be moved into different positions.

"The faces take a lot of modelling. The heads are shaped and moulded, shaved round the muzzles, and hand-blown glass eyes are inserted. Noses, mouths and claws embroidered. 

"Then, if the bears are going to be dressed, I design the clothes, and make them out of natural fibres. Alternatively, I knit or crochet them."

A large bear can take from one to two weeks to make while the tiny ones, which are hand-stitched, can take just an hour. Sue has her own labels and brass buttons to sew on to give the bears the finishing touch.

Working in a competitive market

When she started out as a ‘teddy bear artist’, Sue was in a minority. But now, she says, many more people have started making bears.

Consequently, she has decided to re-introduce her hedgehog collection, and is finding that they are selling very well.

Some lovers of Sue's work build up their collections, buying more every year. One customer, a scientist living in the south of England, has 30 to 40 hedgehogs, and in Japan some collectors have whole rooms full of her teddy bears. 

Sue can charge anything up to £1,000 for a bear depending on size. Some of the ones she exports to Japan or the US sell for £1,500.
Sue now works from premises in Scotland. Based in Paisley, near Glasgow, she has a workroom and a showroom, with a part-time machinist to help at the sewing machine.

Advice for toy makers

1. Start off by working from home

When she first started making bears, Sue worked from home. She says she would recommend others do this as well, as it helps keep overheads down.

"My business got too big for the house some time ago, so I’ve been using premises for about 20 years.

"But it’s so expensive – there’s rent, bills and water rates costing at least £600 per annum, and insurance is about £1,000. 

"When I first started, I had to buy fabric for the bears in huge quantities to keep the cost down, and I had nowhere to store it – it came in big rolls, like carpet. Nowadays you can buy small quantities from specialist suppliers, so it’s easier to do it from home."

2. Balance your artistic and business skills

While you need to have good artistic and creative skills to do the kind of work Sue does, you also need to be methodical and careful, especially when a metre of hedgehog fabric from Germany costs £100.

But you also need to do all the financial side and the paperwork, and Sue believes it’s often difficult to be both artistic and disciplined.

3. Know your markets

Sue’s main markets are galleries, specialist shops, department stores and places like Hamleys Toyshop on London’s Regent Street.

Once, she received an order from the menswear store Daks Simpson, for 600 bears to be used as promotional items.

"You’ve got to have the desire to create something, and it’s got to be a very original idea to succeed."

Sue doesn’t often go to craft fairs now – her bears are too expensive, so she finds it difficult to compete at the bottom end of the market.

So much, also, can now be bought over the internet, although Sue has found her website good for marketing and getting the message out about her bears to potential customers.

"It’s difficult making a living. I don’t think you would get far by just saying you would love to make teddy bears.

"You’ve got to have the desire to create something, and it’s got to be a very original idea to succeed."

Do you make and sell handmade goods? How do you keep your customers engaged?

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