For the month of December we are extending our Feature Friday segment, where we highlight amazing creatives, so that you can meet some amazing makers in time for holiday shopping! We’re starting off the first Monday of December with Joanna of Jo’s Handmade Friends! Her toys are completely adorable and they give back! As you know, we LOVE businesses that use their talents to create positive change. 15% of profits from your cute Jo’s friend will help children battling serious illnesses. So awesome! Being big fans of stuffed animals ourselves (as Joanna mentions in her interview, we too cannot pass a cute plush toy without giving it a hug) we think the idea of having a handmade friend is such a special gift for kids and adults alike. We were really inspired by Joanna’s journey of starting her business and we hope you are too! Read on to see some of Joanna’s creations and to learn more about her story.
: Tell us a little bit of yourself.
: I am from Gdansk, a beautiful city in the North of Poland by the Baltic. I have lived in London for 13 years now. To most people it might seem crazy to move thousands of miles across Europe to a country where I didn’t speak the language or know anyone but I was young, in my twenties, and looking for a better, more inspiring sort of life.
I am very happy I made the move, I have a richer more interesting life with friends from all over the world and best of all I met my husband here in London, he is also Polish though and we got married back home in Poland last year. Currently I am lucky to live near Notting Hill Gate, across the street from the gate into Kensington Gardens which is where I go almost every day to get inspiration for my ‘friends’ and to enjoy the beautiful park. Thanks to my friend Diana, a very talented retired sculptor and potter who shares her beautiful house with me and my husband, I live in a very creative environment. I love Pilates and fitness, the park is great for a run, reading, photography, laughing, smiling faces and obviously I LOVE handmade.
: How would you describe your business and the products you create?
: I think Jo’s Handmade Friends are actually for everyone, not just for kids. They are an ideal gift for anyone, family or friends and for any occasion where someone needs a smile. Most kids like teddy bears, dolls and other cuddly, plush toys but adults shouldn’t have to do without some love. Why should we? They help us express our feelings, take us back to the safety and warmth of childhood; that magic place of unworried memories where everything is easy and carefree. When I walk down the street and see a lovely special plush toy in a shop, I grab it and give it a squeeze. I have my own little collection of treasured teddies. Think about how you feel when someone gives you a plush toy – you get a warm feeling inside and a smile on your face…they never disappoint. Getting a present like that means you are loved. The act of passing a toy from one persons arms to the next is a joy and a responsibility, you love it the same way that they do. I believe this kind of gift is deeply meaningful. My products bring happiness and joy.
: Tell us about the mission behind your business and how it gives back to others.
: The original inspiration I had to create Jo’s Handmade Friends was a little Polish boy named Pawelek who at age 2 urgently needed a liver transplant. I met him over a year ago on Facebook and was moved by his story. His family and friends were raising money for him with a renowned Polish charity called Siepomaga. Pawelek needed a transplant that would cost over 100,000 euros in order to give him a chance for a new life. The doctors in Poland disqualified him for a transplant saying that his condition was too severe to warrant the surgery. His parents never gave up on trying to save him, finally finding a clinic in Brussels where he could have the transplant using his own brave mother as donor. Thankfully the money was raised, the transplant was successful and Pawelek has a new chance at life even though he will need special care for the rest of his life. So we, his friends, are still raising money for his expenses. I started making my friends as a fund-raising venture and found that sewing them gave me a lot of pleasure and happiness. Somehow the combination of making my friends and raising money to help kids in need was perfect for me, it’s a dream come true, helping others and making myself happy in the process. So I make them, selling them on auction sites and Etsy where the wholesale price goes directly to the foundation who care of a particular child. So, the origin was to help kids like Pawelek but then came the idea of turning it into a business.
: What has it been like turning your hobby of sewing into a business?
: It has taken me many years to find what I want to do in life that makes me happy and contented. But I always believed that everything happens for a reason and I believe that meeting Pawelek wasn’t by chance. Because of him I started sewing.
We all have talents and can discover them at any time. Some skills we are born with but for some of us it takes years to realise how we can use them, to reveal to the world our hidden talents. I remember my grandmother sewing but also my father who used to sew dresses for me and trousers for my brother, which was a bit unusual for a man. There was always a sewing machine in my house but I never tried to sew until recently. I bought the sewing machine in London 3 years ago and started making bits and pieces without taking any courses, just playing by myself. And it was amazing, I found I was sewing as if I had been doing it all my life. I couldn’t stop, sewing everyday, using my free time to make things. The sewing machine was running around the clock! I made pieces for my home, for myself and then I started making things to raise money for charity; aprons, cushion covers, tablecloths, napkin sets and many more. The idea of turning it into a business was very exciting. Just think, doing what you love and making a living at the same time! It’s a great, great feeling.
: The sky’s the limit when it comes to what you can sew! What made you decide that you wanted to create these handmade friends? How do you decide what animals to make?
: Pawelek was my first inspiration so naturally when I thought of him I thought of toys. But it goes back further than that. When I was born in Poland, in January 1981, it was a very hard time for the Polish people. The communist government had declared martial law and it was difficult to buy the most basic things, shops were empty and it was a struggle to find anything. My parents had to try very hard to get us oranges or our dreamed of toys for Christmas. Like every child I dreamed of that special gift that would arrive at Christmas time. I remember one Christmas my father left home in the middle of the night to stand in line at the Pewex shop, they had imported toys from the west, Germany for example, and you had to be lucky to even get the chance to buy something if it was available. He stood out there in the night in order to get me the doll I had always dreamed of.
What I am trying to say is that by making my friends I am thinking back to that time while being able to make the toys which I always dreamed about as a child. Nowadays you don’t have to worry about there not being something to buy in the shops but making something unique and personal is very important to me.
I started by making a cat because Pawalek’s favourite animal is a cat so I made cats and kittens and then of course, you can’t have a cat without a mouse. There is also a rabbit, which is a personal favourite of mine. They are nice, soft, cute animals that I think all kids will treasure and love. I have ideas for other animal friends which will be coming soon! Sometimes I make them without a pattern, the shape of the animal comes as I am sewing. Sometimes I am tempted to cut up my pretty new cashmere sweater just to dress up the friend in the way I imagine will be best. I get ideas from everything, if my day is happy and funny, the friend will look funny. If I am nostalgic or sad then you can expect a more serious expression! Each friend is handmade so there are no two alike!
: What is your favorite part about what you do?
: I believe it’s all that I mentioned above. Doing something that gives me a lot of happiness, a feeling of personal achievement and doing something that brings happiness to others at the same time.
My life hasn’t always been easy but I can’t use that as an excuse for not doing things. I have learnt a lot along the way. I was brought up to count on myself and that’s what I have always done and I think I’ve been quite good at it. It makes you stronger but it can also be lonely too. I know from experience that even if someone looks like they don’t need help, you have to make sure they don’t really need help after all. Now that my own life is easier I’m grateful to be able to help others in the ways I know how. Perhaps that sounds banal but I think it’s true. It’s one of the things which makes me happy so why should I stop? Every bit of help matters, even the smallest bit where one can make someone feel taken care of and not left to feel lonely. If each of us could do just a little bit for those in need the world would be in much better shape. This is why I decided to donate a percentage of each sale to charity or to a person in need.
This also makes me more faithful to my own dream. Share with others. Seeing happy little faces who are too young to suffer and know that each little brick you donate builds a priceless contribution makes it all worthwhile.
The thought that one of my toys may become the best friend of a child is a great feeling and I feel so lucky to be able to do this work. That is the best part of all.
: You just started your business this year! What are some of the challenges you’ve faced starting out?
: The biggest challenge was to believe in myself. Not to question whether things were going to work but to DO the work. I knew that on the charity auction website the friends were selling but that was for a good cause so it was even more exciting to discover that people also bought them because they just loved them! Many thanks to my friend Dan, very talented an artist, a great art photographer in the US who encouraged me, who made me believe that my friends were really good, which started me selling them on Etsy.
Fear was the biggest challenge, that and learning to spread the word about Jo’s Handmade Friends.
: Creating something that children get to enjoy must be rewarding! Do you have any stories or feedback from a customer that have made your hard work worthwhile?
: It has been so rewarding, no doubt about it! There are many stories, one of them is that one of my friends bought a little rabbit for her daughter and she loved it. A few days later the family went out together and she took her friend rabbit along with her. Sadly she lost the rabbit while they were out. I got a tearful video message from my friends daughter saying “I lost my little friend, could you please make another friend for me?” I got her a new friend in a couple of days and she was the happiest girl in the world. It made me happy too. Another friend bought a rabbit for a seven month old boy and her parents said it was the first plush toy their son had held on to while he slept. People email me photos with their kids cuddling their friend and tell me they love them.
: What are you hoping for the future of Jo’s Handmade Friends?
: One day I hope to open a little shop with my friends. I would have them for sale along with some illustrated storybooks that I am trying hard to write. They will be stories about struggling and helping friends for the little ones.
: Any advice to other Etsy sellers out there?
: Well, I am at the beginning of this business challenge but by now I know that you just have to believe in yourself and what you do. When you find yourself hesitating, please don’t. Remember you’ll never find out if you don’t try and if it happens that something doesn’t work out at least you tried, then stand up and move forward….there are never any limits for your dreams. Keep trying and your dreams will come true. It’s happening to me. But ultimately the most important thing is to be happy.
Be sure and confident, it makes others feel that you are standing on firm ground and that makes you a person to be trusted in their eyes. Real success comes from within. Isn’t it the most beautiful thing to be able to do what you truly love to do in your life and not just have a job in order to get by? Money is not the only thing in life. Yes, money makes the world go round but don’t forget you only have one life so make it the way you want. You can use your talents to make the world a better place and still make a living, and if you don’t race after money life will be much more satisfying and much, much happier.