Donna shares the story of her creature collection, from long-leggy dolls to squirrel fox families – and all the weird and wonderful characters in between.
Once upon a time…
It all started when I was at the Royal College of Art in London, working towards an MA in Mixed Media Textiles. I started working on the knitting machines and really enjoyed the fact that the results were quite instant. I could create patterns and textures and everything as I wanted to, but I wanted to make them into something – a product.
In between my first and second years at the RCA, I started to make my Donna Dolls. Their bodies were made out of recycled jumpers – at first I started out using my own old clothing, then when I ran out I would trawl the local charity shops for knitwear in all different kinds of skin tones. They were quite simple. For the face, I gave them two eyes, leaving the rest up to the imagination, then I’d style their hair and make clothes for each one. I never got bored of making them because each one was so different. Their outfits would vary by season, so in the winter they had hats, scarves and bags, and in the summer they might be wearing bikinis!
Initially, I made just six dolls and took them into college. My tutor, Freddie Robins, suggested I show them to some shops and see if they’d be interested to stock them. My very first customer was the London boutique, Couverture and the Garbstore. Freddie gave me the confidence to approach them – I think before that I’d have probably been too shy. I took my dolls into the store and they asked me to leave them there so they could show them to the boss. I got a phone-call pretty soon after saying, ‘We love them and we’ll take them all!’
It was my first experience of selling to a store and a great learning curve. Couverture went on to buy around twenty dolls a month, which paid my rent through college. People would send me requests for bespoke Donna Dolls. I made giant Donna Dolls, dolls for famous clients – I made one for my friend Thorsten who I interviewed recently for the blog, sporting embroidered stubble and wearing his signature flip-flops.
After the success of the Donna Dolls, I started to think about how I could develop them into a new product. Although they weren’t traditionally ‘pretty’ dolls, they were still quite conventional in form. I was inspired by how you draw as a child – when it doesn’t really matter how many legs or arms or eyes you draw; it’s just creative and free. I liked the spontaneity and freedom to just design a shape, and the idea of making a doll that was all-inclusive – it wasn’t about being perfect, but more about being imperfectly unique.
The very first creatures I made were amongst my weirdest and most wonderful. Cannibdoll, for example, was inspired by a TV documentary I’d seen about a German cannibal who was looking for someone to eat. I just thought that was the weirdest story ever! He was joined by Edd Red Head, Angry Ginger, Peggy Long Legs and Bunny Blue, who were all equally peculiar in their own unique ways.
Making my creatures by hand means that they all imperfect. You could never make two exactly the same. Even now when we make a big batch of Cyril Squirrel Foxes, they will all have a slightly different expression. What I love about them is that you might see two slightly different Charlie Monkeys in a shop, but one person will be drawn to one, and another person will want the other. The amazing thing about the creatures is that they appeal to adults just as much – in fact even more so in some ways – as children. They’re not too cute, but I didn’t want to make them too ugly or scary either. They’re somewhere in between, and that’s what I think has made them so recognisable.
It’s what’s inside that counts
It’s always started with the design, but right from the beginning the creatures’ names and personalities have been very important to me. Each one came with a tag or keyring where I’d write a little about them. It was as much about that as it was about the actual creature. I wanted people to know who they were; what they liked and disliked.
As I embroider their eyes and features, drawing out their personalities with a needle and thread, each creature tells me what type of character they are. The name comes along afterwards. I still look at them and think about their personalities – whether they’re sad or angry… I think that’s why people like the cats, for example, because they’re not cute cats, they’re quite grumpy cats.
I’m not picking favourites but…
It’s hard to choose a favourite, but I think Cyril Squirrel Fox is my long-time love. He’s my own interpretation of an animal. I didn’t want to make just a normal squirrel or a normal fox – I wanted to do my own take, so I thought I’d merge the two together and see what came out. Around 2006, Cyril was born. I made him a friend, Rudy Raccoon, then they had babies – Ralf and Rill – who had different characteristics from their parents. In Japan they think Cyril is a girl. It’s all open to interpretation.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Ed Redhead too – he has a giant red head with a tiny brown body. He’s just so weird – and kind of multi-functional in that he’s a creature, but also a cushion.
Handmade with love
We still make the creatures now as we did when I was making each one myself – knitting the panels on a domestic knitting machine out of soft lambswool, which is felted, cut and sewn into shapes and then hand-embroidered and stuffed. That’s a process I never want to change. I think that’s what makes them unique. Any little imperfections make them what they are, and the handmade process imbues each one with a little bit of love. It’s just as important as the finished product.
What has changed, is that today I don’t make them all myself. We have a full-time seamstress in the studio, Lora, who is a one-woman creature factory, and we also employ outworkers in the UK, who make the creatures in their own homes. There are three or four in total, but the longest-standing is Elaine. She lives on Orkney, a small island to the north of Scotland. At last count, she’s made close to 3,000 Cyril Squirrel Foxes, along with many other creatures, which she sends to me at my London studio. I love it when the creatures arrive and jump out of their boxes!
I don’t think I’ll ever stop designing and making my creatures – they’re a huge part of my story, and I love that they are so often the thing that people are first drawn to when they see my collections.
If you enjoyed a sneak peek into the history of Donna’s creatures, you might also enjoy learning about her cushions in her blog post, The Cushion Collective. You can also see and read even more about Donna’s work in the book Donna Wilson: Odd Objects & Textiles.