The CE Marking Handmade Toys Collective spoke to Juliette Livesey-Howe, the designer behind Monster Orphanage, who makes wonderful fur and fleece monsters, with a fantastic touch of embroidery to complete their facial features.
Tell us a little about your business, what you make and why.
I’m the sole designer and toy maker at Monster Orphanage. At its heart, the Orphanage is all about making soft, friendly monster companions for kids.
I wanted to make toys that scream character and story and friendship, not just something to cuddle.
I noticed there was a need for a company to offer a bespoke service to aunties, uncles, godparents etc who want to buy a really special, unique toy for the little ones in their lives. A gift that says ‘I have a special connection to this child and I want to give them something that reflects that’.
This is especially important when those nieces, godchildren etc aren’t ones they can readily visit. A brand new nephew born on the other side of the world, for example.
As Monster Orphanage is an online business, which delivers anywhere, I can easily arrange that for them.
And I would say, based on the feedback I get, the customer service I offer is just as much, if not more important than the toys themselves. My customers get fully involved in the design process so it’s as close to making the gift themselves as possible.
As a way of scratching a creative itch and to trial new fabrics without fully CE testing designs, I also make baby blankets, hats, scarves, cushions, toy sacks, full nursery decor, you name it! I’ve become a seamstress for hire it seems sometimes.
How did you first find out about CE marking and what did you do in response?
I opened up shop initially on Folksy, and made a sale within 2 days. My immediate euphoria was shattered when my mum said, ‘What about CE?’. I had heard of it, but I’d just thought it meant you couldn’t put dangerous small attachments, like buttons, on the toy. So I didn’t understand what she was stressing about. But I googled it and spoke to a friend of a friend who had just started making memory bears.
I felt like the wind had been taken out of my sails. Like most of us, I’m a creative type, and that does NOT sit well with making just one or two designs and then farming them out. What’s the point? Big companies can do that much faster and more cheaply than me.
But I’m extremely stubborn by nature and I’d made up my mind to give the business a go, and I figured even making a couple of designs was still better than sitting behind a desk working for someone else in the corporate world of market research.
Along the way, someone had suggested the Facebook support group, which the CE Marking Handmade Toys Collective developed from. Via that I spoke to Conformance and immediately bought their self-testing pack. I followed all the threads on the support page (there were a lot fewer members then so it didn’t take too long!).
It became clear that you COULD still offer unique toys by tweaking elements that don’t affect the overall design.
Plus when you get the hang of self testing, it actually doesn’t take that long. So it wasn’t long before I had a few different designs I could sell.
I now don’t solely make toys, but a whole range of accessories (for adults too), so the CE marking part of my work is only one element.
What advice would you offer to makers that are new or in the process of CE marking their own toy designs?
Don’t be disheartened! It seems like a big hill to climb at first but it really does get easier.
How have you made changes or adapted your designs over time, because of the requirements for CE compliance?
I’ve made sure that features I can make ‘bespoke’ are ones that don’t have to be fully retested each time, but added on as an addendum. Like fabric colour or appliquéd features.
It IS a bind and I’d much prefer to have more freedom, but it’s not as bad as I’d initially feared. And largely my customers don’t mind! They’re happy with the options available. It’s more my own irritation.
Because of that I’m exploring offering more high end, ‘art toys’, though I need to discuss it with my trading standards.
What happens when you have a new design idea and how do you make sure it’s safe and CE marked?
I have them all the time! But mostly I don’t have time to follow them through. I’d say only once every 3-4 months I might think about a new design.
Often they don’t make it past the paper stage. I’ll scribble with pattern ideas. Though I make life difficult for myself by designing an end toy then trying to figure it back. Which usually ends up with ridiculously complicated patterns as I’m not in anyway formally trained.
If I think it’ll work, I make a small test version. If my kids give it the thumbs up I’ll take pictures and put them on my facebook page to gauge reaction.
Then I might ignore that and make it anyway!
So far, touch wood, I’ve never had anything fail. Mostly because I use largely the same types of material I already have certificates on (fleece and minky plush) and I construct them in the same way, i.e. same types of stitches I know are the most secure for stretch material etc.
My first toy only JUST passed the flammability test because of the faux fur I used. So I’ve never designed anything with more fur than that model.
Though separate to my own design I am starting to get more commissions from small companies who want their logos/ mascots turned into real toys that they can use in child music play groups for example, and then want simpler versions to sell on themselves to their customers.
In those situations I thrash out a design with the customer until they’re happy with it, and send them mock ups. Once I have the green light I then CE test and of course charge them separately for that aspect.
What do you think are the most important aspects of being a toy maker?
Thinking like a child! And of course taking responsibility for the fact your products are being played with by little ones, so their safety is paramount.
How do you organise your paperwork and document your CE compliant makes?
I do all my tests by hand. I print out the paperwork and scribble direct on that. Then I go through and copy them onto my computer and store the files that way.
I have way too much paper in my office already to have them as physical files.
Then any changes I may want to make, I just tack onto the end.
Individual toys sold are documented in my financial spreadsheets.
What have you learnt from being a toy maker?
That I’m never going to make a million from it! Or certainly not whilst still keeping them handmade.
But I’ve learnt how much I love the customer service aspect of it. I never expected that.
Each time I wonder why I’m spending all hours making less than I could working at a pub, I get some amazing feedback that makes it worthwhile.
How do you fit in working around family time and routines?
With difficulty. I have two young boys, 3 and 6. One is at school and the other one wasn’t at nursery until my business warranted it. Now I have enough regular orders to justify him being in nursery 3 days a week. In reality I still often have to work in the evenings or at the weekends whilst my husband takes the kids away to do the weekly shop or a walk in the woods.
Is there anything you wish you’d known earlier about CE marking, EN71 legislation and making your own products and designs?
Not really, otherwise I may have not even considered making toys! As it was I was already mentally committed to becoming a toy maker so I didn’t want to give up at the first hurdle.
Though I was lucky that I hadn’t already financially committed myself by buying material. Everything I’d used up to that point I already had in my stash or I upcycled old clean clothes.
I do feel sorry for those who have paid out for fabric they subsequently can’t use.
What do you enjoy the most about what you make?
As I had little experience in making anything other than clothes (and even that was limited), I love surprising myself by a) making toys that actually look like my designs, b) people actually wanting to buy them and finally c) getting amazing feedback!
You can’t get a better feeling than that.
Where is the best place to find out more about your products and business?
I’d say my Etsy page is the best place to get an instant overview of my basic line, and looking at past sales to see a better range.
But my Facebook page is probably better to interact with me and past customers and to see what I’m working on, future ideas etc.
Though one of my new year resolutions is to sort out my own web page, especially as Etsy has changed to include third party retailers so it’s much harder for genuine hand makers to be seen in searches.