Handmade in USA

The other day, I was minding my own business, walking up Vermont when I came upon a new store.

Very cool. Like hipster central. Check out this little owl.

It’s 28 dollars.


Now, when you read that it was 28 dollars did you have a mental flipout? Did you say something like “What does it do for 28 dollars? Cook me eggs? Slice and dice? Provide nourishment? Give me a hug? Make my life easier?”

Well, no. Of course not.

How about this little piggy puppet. Not as nice, surely, but it’s six bucks. You can get two and put on a puppet show. Now that’s a worthwhile expenditure. Right?

buy this six dollar pig

Hand-Made Puppets – Golden Pigs


Well, your mind is screwed up (as is mine). It’s been screwed up by Henry Ford.

What did Ford do? He invented the automobile assembly line. And this affects puppets…how?

The little Chinese piggy was made by, my guess, at least twenty people. Starting with designers and salespeople and ending with a number of people on a sewing line. One sews piece A to piece B, over and over, then the Sifu (the guy running the sample room) takes all those pieces and moves them to the next operator, who sews A/B to C. Then the next person embroiders. Same thing, over and over. Then someone stuffs. And someone closes. There are plenty of steps in there that I’m missing, but you get the idea.

Then, the result is shipped, by truck to a consolidator on the coast, put in a shipping container and sent off for a six week journey to (probably) Long Beach, California, where another consolidator sends the box to a warehouse in wherever. Or, of the item is shipped directly from China, insert UPS, FedEx, whatever.

And in the end? Six dollars.

I emailed Mary at Happy Felties about how her owl was produced, and here’s what she said.

Yes, Mr. Daytime Napper Owl is made in the USA – right in Newport News VA in my lovely studio (i.e. the living room sofa). 😉 I’m a self taught sewer – I got this little book for Christmas several years ago about embroidery stitches and when I started teaching myself, I fell in LOVE with sewing. My work still has its flaws because I’m not a professional, but I think that lends more character to each little hoot I make.

The entire sewing process is extremely organic for me. I’ve never been the one to follow patterns or specifics – it’s a very free-form experience each time. I basically get some sort of idea and then run with it. My intuition heavily influences the designs. I let whichever colors or patterns speak to me the most be my inspiration for each piece I make. Once I’ve nailed that down, I go right to work. I don’t have any fancy tools of the trade – no rotary cutters or templates or measuring apparatuses. Just a pair of scissors and some embroidery and tapestry needles.

It takes approximately 3 hours to make each hoot. Once I have all of the pieces cut, I begin sewing the base of the design onto the body of the owl. After that, I sew on all the other pieces (eyeballs, feathers, beak) with various types of stitches – running, whip, straight, scallop, detached chain, french knot, and back-stitch. The embroidery is what takes the most time because it is very detailed.

After the pieces are sewn on, I put the halves together, and sew it closed with a blanket stitch. I stuff my owl with supreme polyester filling. The filling process is not as straight-forward as it would appear. You can’t just take a giant glob of poly-fil and jam it in there. 😉 It’s best to work in small bunches because it produces a more even uniform result. Each tuft of filling is “hand-pulled”  before being stuffed into the owl.

I do have another job which takes up a ginormous amount of time. I’m a mother to three little boys. I get up super super early and I work for 4 hours. Then when they go down for a nap, I sew some more. After they go to bed, I sew some more. Basically, my life is my kids and my sewing. 

To figure out the pricing of my items, I “pay” myself about $8 an hour – not even minimum wage. It is definitely far more than what I was charging for things a few years ago, though. When I first started on Etsy, I was charging $5 for a brooch with FREE shipping. (edited for length)

Okay wait a minute, Mary. You pay yourself 8 bucks an hour and it takes three hours to make a hoot? That’s 24 dollars, and it doesn’t include shipping the item to Los Angeles, or that fact that Co-op 28 is taking a chunk of money because they need to keep their lights on. Nor does it include the cost of materials or paying your taxes.

Our dear Mary is running at a loss. Go buy something from her site.

So, how? Why? If 20 people are making the pig, and one person is making the owl, you’d think the pig-makers must be making one twentieth of the owl makers. Forty cents an hour.

But no it has to be half that, because the owner of the piggy company are taking half that. So it’s twenty cents an hour. Oh but wait. Overhead. Mary’s paying her utilities with her job money. Piggy inc. is paying with profits. Fifteen cents an hour.

But no.

Designers and salespeople are decently compensated. So, ten cents an hour.

This is possible, however, it is improbable in China right now, with their economy being what it is. So what’s the deal.


It takes three hours for Mary to make one hoot.

When that Chinese assembly line is broken out, it takes about ten minutes or less to make a pig, and the faster they go, the more money is being made. And the more they make, the better they get. And they can go even faster. Because a huge cost is setting up the assembly line. Once that’s done, the cost of making each consecutive pig goes down.

Volume. It’s cheaper to make five thousand of something than to make five of something.

If you like cute things that make you happy, visit Mary’s store on etsy.


Posted on by xtine in Frontpage Blog

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