Workshop wonders – Big Issue North

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We’re brought up with the image of Santa’s elves busily working away in the North Pole building toys for all the children, and it’s not so different for artisan toymakers up and down the UK who are feverishly working away in workshops to ensure their magical creations are completed ahead of Christmas Day.

“You can’t ask for anything better than to get up in the morning and make toys – it’s fab,” says Selina Ellis-Gray, a toymaker from the Forest of Bowland in Lancashire. “It’s long hours, especially at this time of year when I earn about 70 per cent of my income, but it’s fulfilling work, and one of those jobs where you feel very blessed to have it.”

Ellis-Gray has a PhD in design, so saw an opportunity to create a playful character for herself as part of her business. She goes by the moniker Dr Hellion.

“You don’t expect a toymaker to be serious but people are often bemused by what I do, especially being a woman wood-working toymaker. Most are men – that’s just the way it is,” say Ellis-Gray, a committee member of the British Toymakers Guild and part of the Heritage Crafts Association, which is keen to protect endangered crafts and methods.

“I’ve always been interested in designing toys and learning but left school and worked in childcare. Then someone suggested I do design because I spent all day making stuff for the kids, so I went back to college and then onto uni and followed an academic track initially, focusing on design teaching. Then, after my little boy was born in 2016, I set up a workshop and it’s grown from there,” she says.

The toymaker says she is fortunate to have ended up with a good following, but it’s taken time as an independent without a marketing budget.

“I do a lot of social media. Also, it takes time to know what type of toymaker you are, what age group you’re creating for, what you want to help them learn, and the purpose of what you’re making.”

From the brightly coloured blocks to arrays of animal figures, her aim is to inspire learning as well as play, and the toys are heavily influenced by her rural setting.

“I’m overlooked by Pendle Hill, so there are lots of myths and legends and folklore in this area, but it also ties into that social, cultural movement happening at the moment where we’re talking a lot about the environment and climate and ecological change,” says Ellis-Gray, whose collections typically take around six months to develop, including research, design and safety checks, to ensure they’re certified by CE and UKCA.

“When you get to actually making a toy, it typically takes a few days. You’re not feeding a piece of wood into a machine and it’s spitting something out – it’s traditional wood making methods, hand staining, hand painting and drawing. That’s where the quality is, hence the price point.”

An individual Little Folk figure – inspired by Waldorf peg dolls – costs around £6, while Ellis-Gray’s Tree of Time – a perpetual calendar and celebration tree inspired by the Waldorf Steiner tradition of seasonal festivals – sells for over £220. She’s been busier than ever due to the pandemic restrictions.

“When lockdown started, there was this sudden awareness and appreciation that people were making things locally, and people could see the logic and benefit that brings. As opposed to mass-manufactured plastic toys, you know where it’s made, who’s making it, and what it’s made out of. We’re also making products that don’t go anywhere near landfill. These toys are made to be treasured, last a long time and be passed on.”

Another company that understands the enduring appeal of beautifully crafted toys is Merrythought, the home of handmade classic teddy bears. It was founded 91 years ago by William Gordon Holmes, the owner of a spinning mill in Yorkshire, and is still based in Shropshire where it originally opened.

“We’re pleased to see some consumers starting to move away from cheap, ‘fast trend’ toys and towards higher quality, more sustainable toys that last. We’re also finding people are increasingly keen to buy British-made toys and support British businesses and employment,” says Sarah Holmes, managing director of Merrythought.

“The handmade, small-batch nature of our business means we have a naturally low environmental impact. We also use mainly natural materials. However, we are always committed to continuously improving what we do and identifying opportunities for making the most sustainable decisions. An example of this is our recent move to using 100 per cent recycled stuffing fibre for all our soft toys.”

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Although the teddy bears aren’t cheap, costing around £100, Holmes believes their longevity far outweighs the initial outlay.

“They may cost more to purchase initially, but it may stay with someone their whole lifetime. It’s why each bear is carefully handmade from the finest natural materials, to ensure he’s adorable to cuddle, and will stand the test of time. We also firmly believe our products offer better value and sustainability than many ‘throw away’ fast-fashion toys that are quickly relegated to landfill, and usually made from plastic-based materials.”

The rising revolt against “fast products reflects a growing desire to make sustainable choices, and people are becoming increasingly conscious of what they’re buying across the board”, she says. “More than ever, people are shopping in line with their values, whether that means buying sustainably-made items or supporting diverse small businesses, and making considered choices about the items they surround themselves with, and toys are no exception,” observes Dayna Isom Johnson, trend expert at online marketplace Etsy, which specialises in vintage and craft items.

“Shoppers are increasingly turning to handmade and vintage toys as a sustainable and long-lasting alternative to mass-produced items, giving kids a break from screen-based entertainment and ‘fast’ toys and fostering creative and imaginative play.”

Aside from the good being bestowed on the planet, it also helps on a smaller but no less vital scale.

“When choosing to purchase a toy from a small business, you know your money is going directly to a real person who poured their heart into making something truly special. Not only does it feel great to build relationships with these independent makers and support their creative passions, but it also opens the door to create something truly personalised and one-of-a-kind that stands out from the crowd,” notes Isom Johnson.

Recent events have undoubtedly forced us to slow down, re-evaluate our priorities and question what’s important. We’ve also spent more time at home, which has prompted us to reassess our surroundings, including the clutter and toys that can otherwise be pushed aside and ignored.

“Fast toys add to the overwhelming sense of ‘stuffocation’ and through the pandemic, many people rediscovered the joy of simpler play while they juggled family and work life within the walls of their homes,” says Emily McCarthy, trend curator at Not On The High Street, a platform for small creative businesses.

“The pandemic also focused more people on community. We saw an increased focus on localism emerge in 2020 and that will remain a key trend for 2022, as will materials such as marquetry in wood, embroidery, crochet, quilting and rattan in toys and the wider product design sphere.”

McCarthy believes a resurgence of interest in more traditional toys is also fuelled by the increasing number of millennials becoming parents.

“Millennial parents grew up in the peak of fast fashion and cheap, plastic, throwaway toys, and with the current global climate crisis, it’s no wonder that this generation feels so much eco anxiety and guilt. Sustainable, wooden and cherishable toys feel like a bit of a remedy to the mass production of the 1990s,” she says. “This is a generation also obsessed with nostalgia. I’m observing lots of trends towards people recreating a kind of ‘fauxstalgia’ through toys, narratives, colours, materials and themes that give them the warm, fuzzy, comfort of their childhoods, when life felt a lot less complicated.

“Millennial kids knew what it was like to live without technology and with it, so for these parents it’s important to teach their children the value of imagination and creativity through being present and exploring the real world.”

Bob Duggan, a toymaker and recently appointed chair of the British Toymakers Guild, agrees customers are embracing all things retro.

“People associate traditional toymaking with a past era, which is on the romantic side, but that provides a degree of relaxation and easing of mind whereas nowadays it’s all pressure and targets. I think that’s part of the joy of traditional toys, and what will keep traditional toymaking alive,” says Duggan, who inherited his interest from his father, a traditional furniture maker.

“I initially started making toys as a way to help pay the bills, but it was too manic alongside my day job, so I stopped making them. It was only when I retired, I went back into it,” says the grandfather. He runs Wendover Wood in Buckinghamshire, focusing on bespoke wooden toys and gifts.

“People do admire you for being a toymaker but probably wonder how on earth can you make a living out of doing that. I’m lucky – I’m retired and have a pension to supplement my income. But there are people who are members of the Guild who do it as a living,” notes Duggan.

But he’s worried about declining numbers. “The Guild used to have members in the hundreds, and we now have about 50, and many of them are of retirement age, so it’s about trying to get the youngsters involved in learning traditional crafts and skills,” he says. “We’re currently working on amassing a collection of books from ageing and past toymakers who are keen to preserve methods and skills because there is the worry that methods will die out. But we’re aware that as much as you look back, it’s also about embracing changing times.

“My father and his peers would have done everything by hand. Now, we have things to aid us like computers and laser machines, and it’s a completely different ballgame to 50 years ago. So it’s about adhering to traditional principles but lining them up with the modern world.”

Despite his concerns as to how these specially crafted toys might be supplied in the future, the demand is there, importantly, which is why the future of artisan toymaking remains bright.

Like Ellis-Gray, Duggan’s enjoyed one of his busiest periods of late, and is ever industrious in his workshop as we edge closer to Christmas.

“It’s just me and a chap I employ, and it is full on, but I love it. I love the buzz. You’re doing something you enjoy and feel passionate about,” says Duggan who describes himself as “a bit of an alternative chap, as most toymakers are”.

“We like tradition and innovation, and I just love making things work and seeing it develop from a plank of wood. But the best thing is to get lovely feedback of a child enjoying something you’ve designed, made and sold. I wish I’d been doing it all these years, but that’s life.”


Don’t bust the budget

In an ideal world many parents’ wish list would include shopping entirely sustainably for Christmas. Supporting local businesses and artisan makers in the process would be icing on the pudding. But this is the most pressurised and stressful time of year for many parents, especially those on a low income. Here are some imperfect solutions for buying sustainable toys on a budget

Second hand doesn’t mean second best 


That LOL Surprise bundle at the top of your six year old’s letter to Santa is the same one that’s sat at the bottom of someone else’s seven year old’s toybox since January. Although charity shops add another layer of ethical shopping, you don’t have to spend hours traipsing around them to find a bargain. In December selling sites such as Facebook Marketplace and eBay are abuzz with people clearing out the old to make way for the new, and there are tons of bargains to be had – that’s tonnes you’ll be saving from landfill too.

Wood you know it?


If plastic toys really do leave you feeling cold, there are cheaper options for toys made from sustainable materials. Most supermarkets, Ikea, Argos and other mainstream shops do a range of wooden toys such as train sets, building bricks, dolls houses, prams, puzzles, educational toys, musical instruments, play food and more. For fabric toys look for organic materials such as cotton, hemp or wool and don’t rule out recycled plastic – more of which is becoming available in mainstream shops.

Make do 


You can buy a set of 50 unfinished wooden Waldorf-inspired peg dolls in a variety of sizes online for around £10 and you don’t need to be an artist to whip up some super-cute creations. Felt, fabric glue and marker pens are all you need to make a family, a nativity, the cast of your child’s favourite TV show – the possibilities are endless and there are loads of inspiring ideas on Pinterest. While you’re there have a look at other homemade or upcycled gifts. Busy books, stuffed plushies, threading toys, felt puzzles, sling shots, fidget toys, no-sew dressing up outfits – the possibilities are endless and the skills required minimal.

Grandpa’s workshop


Not all talented people make a career out of their skills and there are plenty of amateur crafters out there making incredible creations for fun who would be only too happy to help put a smile on your child’s face this Christmas for a nominal commission. Have a scout around local craft groups, forums and marketplaces and you might just find a retired joiner making toy trains or textile crafters willing to whip up some dolls clothes or crochet a one-of-a-kind teddy.

The gift of giving 


Lots of charities sell reasonably priced gifts that also allow your child to do the giving too. Barnardos and the NSPCC both sell a range of new toys with proceeds benefiting needy children. Animal charities such as the WWF and the Wildlife Trust offer adoption packages. If your child would enjoy getting hands on why not have a chat with a local animal shelter and ask about them helping out for a few hours – you can design your own gift certificate for an experience day that’s completely free and does good too.

Call time


Inevitably sustainable gift giving on a budget takes thought, planning and time and that’s something many families don’t have in abundance either. Even with that effort, it’s impossible to shop 100 per cent sustainably and compromises are usually made along the way. Whether it’s the materials used in the toy you buy, the tax-dodging retailer you buy a sustainable toy from, or the carbon footprint of the vehicle that delivers your artisan toy – don’t beat yourself up in pursuit of the perfect Christmas for your children. The most valuable thing you can give your children on the big day is your time. There are endless ideas online for fun, free family games and activities which they will remember long after Santa has hung his hat up for another year.

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