Etsy is the indie craft world's answer to the consumerist behemoth eBay. An online auction site for artists, DIYers, zine-makers and other creative types, Etsy is a online storehouse of unique and hand-made delights.
In the first of a series of artist profiles, I caught up with newly-launched Etsy seller, Beeper Bebe proprietoress and sewing whiz Holly Keller, who's doing her part to recycle and "reclaim" used materials.
So, how did you get started crafting, sewing & designing?
How did I start...Brownies in 1979? Honestly, I have been making things for as long as I can remember. My mom is very creative and was always making things with me. I can also remember I used to wake up in the middle of the night when I was a child and I would just lay in bed thinking about all the things I wanted to create -- and sometimes I would even get up in the middle of the night and start making things from old boxes, coffee can lids, pipe cleaners, whatever I could find around the house. Sewing did not really come until later—although I do recall doing some hand sewing when I was about 10 and making some accessories for my Barbies, little purses and teddy bears and stuff. I really started sewing in earnest and making my own designs though just a year and a half ago. And I started hand sewing some dolls and cashmere animals for babies. And then my mother-in-law donated her old sewing machine to me and I really started sewing in earnest, then. Guess my corporate straight-guy job just wasn’t doing enough for my right brain.
Tell us a little about what you make.
I make toys and clothing for children and babies from reclaimed materials—plushies, blocks, t-shirts, onesies, hats, little animals with their own wardrobe, dolls, bibs, booties. I try to make things that are safe for babies but also things that are cool for toddlers and school-age kids. My actual patterns are pretty basic, and I like that rustic, sort of made-by-a-kindergartener look. I use all-natural fibers for my creations, wool, cashmere, cotton, linen. And I make a lot of animal-inspired designs because that is what my little boy loves.
I really, really believe in the idea of making something from something else that already exists in an effort to be nicer to the earth and our resources. We have so much stuff in the U.S. and it ends up in the trash or in a heaping box at the thrift store, and I want to use that. Even when I cut apart a sweater to make one of my toys, I really try to use as much of that sweater as possible—the cuffs will become a little cardigan for one of Mini Menagerie animals, scraps of the multiple sweater hems might be sewn into a bird nest, and I lay my patterns out carefully so as to maximize my use of the material. I also sort scraps by color and they go into a set of bins and I use those scraps to make little pieces on my bigger Mangy Menagerie animals. Monkey hands or cat ears or a dog tail. And the scraps that are too small to made into anything, go into a bag and use that in the stuffing of my animals—I do use about 2/3 fiberfill, but about 1/3 of the filling is actually unuseable scraps. It is a bit like the Native American philosophy of using the whole animal as a way to demonstrate respect and gratitude for the animal and its place in the earth.
That's kinda funny - I'm thinking of the Dances with Wolves scene, except now Kevin Costner is looking at a prairie covered in discarded ric-rac and ribbon. What made you decide to make children's toys and goods over other types of products?
I dunno. I guess because I have always been interested in toys, really. And after my son was born I was really struck by how artificial and electronic and unoriginal so many toys are. There is no heart in a Leap Frog learning pad or whatever they are. And I was really drawn to the timeless quality of so many European toys, but could not afford them. So I just started designing my own. I like to make colorful onesies or tees with funky sayings on them because [my son] Julian is cooler than a plain baby blue onesie with a little car on it and should wear a bright orange tee that says, "I am the lizard king. I can do anything." [Keller also hand-dyes secondhand-onesies that have ironed-on funky quotes, which she calls Use Your Words Onesies.]
I know by day you work for corporate America - how has your work as a freelance artist and crafter been thus far?
Yeah. It has really been quite unexpectedly and weirdly wonderful on so many levels. I just did not expect to be so positively received since I really felt like I was bungling through making these toys on my sewing machine…and did not have a clue what I was doing. But I have been in the Powderhorn Art Fair as a community artist, the Seward Art Crawl, the Minneapolis Women’s Art Festival and the No Coast Craft-O-Rama since I started making toys. And have been approached by several retailers wanting to carry my toys - I do sell to Quince Gifts in St. Paul - but do not really sell to other retailers at this time because I just find that I like to make what I like to make when I want to make it, rather than filling an order for a hot pink cat. I was also featured in an Eco-Chic spread in Minneapolis-St.Paul magazine this past year, which was cool. I've also found the arts and crafts community to be really supportive — I had a textile professor approach me and ask to take photos of my stuff at an art fair because she thought it was such a great example of a use of textiles. And I've been approached by someone who works in social services asking if I would consider teaching a class on how to make one of my animals to people with developmental disabilities. It has just really been a cool experience doing this. And of course, I just launched my Etsy shop. So be sure to come by and visit while I still have loads of stuff out there.
Where do you get your inspiration for your designs?
My son. He really is my muse. He was really into elephants when he was about one year old so I had to make an elephant design for him. And I love to see which of my designs he is most fascinated and attached to when he comes prowling around my workshop — right now it is my ABC snake. He is in my workshop about every day, digging out the snake and trying to make off with it. But I am also inspired by so many of the other crafters and toy makers out there on Etsy and Softies Central. Discovering other people who did this was like an epiphany to me.
I love the work of Missy Ballance who makes these fabulous and queer mohair bears at Mohair Circus. And I love Abby Glassenberg's work - she really has moved beyond toys into sculpture with fibers. And there is this shop called Odkins on Etsy and I think the weird and simple designs are brilliant. Today, in fact, I just discovered this toy maker on Softies Central called Fern Animals and am in love with her deconstructed-looking plushies.
Where do you find your materials?
Thrift stores mostly. But friends also give me their old sweaters. And I save about everything that could be recrafted into something else: cloth ribbons on packages get saved for ties on a hat, an old white linen shirt with a stain on it will become the body of a doll, a shoe box will get covered in some funky paper and become the storage box for one of the Mini Menagerie animals.
Can you tell us some of your favorite places to search for good stuff?
Mostly Savers. I spend loads of money there and I am sure they think I am some eccentric, like those old ladies who have a million cats and their home is overflowing with cat fur and cat toys and empty food bags…except they probably think my house is overflowing with sweaters. I am surprised they have not called social services or something on my behalf.
What is your favorite part about the Beeper Bebe enterprise?
Dreaming up a new design, drawing out the pattern on butcher paper, then sewing it up and seeing my vision of it made flesh. [Or made "plush"? Couldn't resist! -- Ed.] I was so excited when I made my first Mini Menagerie animal from a secondhand tweed suitcoat that I had to go wake my husband up in the middle of the night so I could show it to him and force him to gush over it while still half asleep. But I do also enjoy meeting people at art fairs and craft shows and seeing them go off smiling with one of my animals.
So, what's next for Beeper Bebe - any dreams or ideas for the future you'd like to share?
I want to create a book of designs and patterns — a guide to making your very own Mangy Menagerie. And I want to be a main exhibitor at the Powderhorn Art Fair next year because that would just be a huge accomplishment. And then I want to make about five more toy designs I have lurking in my brain. And after all that I want to retire and become a cowgirl.
Want to see more? Click the links below for more Etsy and Beeper Bebe goodness!