What's it really like?
Kate Murray owns and operates Kate’s Soft Toys, a popular Welsh company offering a bespoke design and manufacture service for collectors of unique soft toys in England and Wales.
What made you decide or choose to get into this sort of career?
It was really by accident. I started as an artist with my own business and had booked myself in for a trade show. Of course I hadn’t checked the small print, which stipulated ‘no artists’! I was at the time making toys for the family and I took my latest creations along. People went barmy for them but they were only interested if they had CE certification.
After getting home, I called trading standards, who sent me the relevant information and came out to see me. I now have my own in-house testing facility, and we are able to manufacture toys that are safe for children. What started as a business to supplement my art has taken over and far exceeded my expectations!
Do you have a standard day or a standard type of ‘exercise'?
Most days are similar. If I am working on stock (for shops), I machine-stitch and cut out in the morning, and hand-sew and complete in the afternoon. If we have a design request come through then the designing will normally take one to three days. After that, samples are made and then sent off to the customer. Once we have the go-ahead on a company’s design the production will begin. Part-time staff are brought in when needed.
What is the most common type of problem/call-out/enquiry to which you must attend?
Our most common enquiry is for logos to be turned into toys. Sometimes the interaction stops at the quote and sometimes we make the toy, but we have about five design enquiries per month. At least one of those goes through to manufacture.
What do you like most about the job?
The freedom to accept or decline a job. For example, we do not make explicit toys, although we do get requests! I like the freedom to set work times. The business is run from an informal setting and I like to keep it as far away from a ‘factory’ as possible. Think Santa’s Workshop crossed with a quilting group!
What do you like least about the job?
The responsibility of finding new orders and keeping the work on schedule. Sometimes it feels like I do too many jobs. But the toys are competing with Chinese and Indian imports, so our cost control has to be tight.
What are the key responsibilities?
To make toys as cost-effective as possible, as safe as possible and to meet the requirements of our retailers.
What about academic requirements? Any formal demands such as A-Levels?
Design helps, as well as a creative streak. Maths and some business sense is a must, as well as a good grasp of English for marketing and publications (catalogues). As most toy-makers in Britain are self-employed you don’t need any formal qualifications. But in order to succeed you need to understand how to sell your product and how to make your toy as desirable as possible.
What is the starting salary, and how does this increase over time with promotion?
Being self-employed, the starting salary can be from £0 to £100,000, depending on your success. If you are working for a toymaker then you will probably start at minimum wage which would increase over time. However, as we are talking about small companies (10 employees or fewer), promotion opportunities can be limited. If you start your own business you must have a drive to succeed, as the wage in the beginning will not reflect the amount of work that is put into the company.
What advice do you have for someone who is looking to get into this as a career?
Produce a toy. What does it look like? Is it safe? Trading standards can help with this. Is it appealing? Is it gauged for the right age range? Then book a craft stall, produce enough to fill the table and try to sell them. Then you can decide whether to proceed further.
What are the most important qualities an applicant must and should possess?
Optimism, assurance of your own product quality, stubbornness, creativity, good people skills, business acumen and the ability to lead.
Any closing questions, comments or additional advice?
Have a go. It may not be as easy as you thought, but making soft toys for a living is very rewarding. If you don’t know how but would like to try then contact another toymaker. They will normally help. Read pattern books and just have a go. Remember that you must create your own designs as other people’s designs will be copyrighted to them.
A toy maker (or toymaker) designs and manufacturers a range of toys for the enjoyment of children or for customers in the toy collectibles market. The range of possibility is diverse, as it can also incorporate board games, outdoor toys and casino-type games for adults.
The toymaker designs and makes toys, and typically operates in two market sectors: toys designed for children to play with, and toys designed for collectors. For the play market, toys must be robust, appealing and carry CE certification. The CE mark seen on toys is a mandatory requirement for products released onto the European market, and demonstrates that the product in question has passed rigorous safety checks. The CE standard is required for toy makers who wish to export their products across Europe.
The more niche aspect of toy manufacture is for the collectibles market. Here, the designs tend to be more ornate and focus on either classic, innovative or extravagant design qualities. These products often take longer to build as the consumer market is more demanding. Conversely, the products tend to sell with a much higher mark-up (profit margin) than those designed for the rough-and-tumble children’s toy market.
There is a thriving cottage industry for bespoke toy manufacture in the UK, particularly in the collectible teddy bear market. Job profiles can range from the classic concept of the traditional toy maker (a single person toiling away in a small workshop), up to design and manufacture management positions with large, multinational toy makers such as Mattel and Hasbro.
Introductory roles with established toy making companies tend to begin with minimum wage which currently sits at £5.93 per hour for a person aged over 21, £4.92 for persons in the 18-21 age range and £3.64 for candidates aged 16 or 17 (source: Directgov UK).
As most cottage industry toy makers are small in scale, the possibility of promotion is limited, although the salary does increase with experience and additional responsibility. The eventual aim of most beginning toy makers is to own their own business, where the potential for earnings capacity (and risk) increases greatly.
- Design unique, alluring or appropriate designs for toys before they are manufactured.
- Specify materials and ancillary items to be used in manufacture.
- Oversee (or control) the actual manufacture process and approve final proofing.
- Market finished product to toy retailers, or through the business owner’s means of resale.
There are no formal academic qualifications required to set up as an independent toy maker, although some form of design qualification (either a BTEC or foundation degree) will give the potential candidate some of the skills needed in order to succeed.
Those candidates who wish to join established toy makers in an unskilled role typically only require GCSE level education. This might be the result (or reason) for the low entry-level wage. For candidates who wish to join international toy manufacturers, the specific skills or requirements necessary depend on the type of role (and where it comes in the manufacturing process) and the requirements of the relevant position.
- A broad grasp on design principals specific to the toy (e.g. wood, fabric, plastic).
- An eye for close detail work.
- An understanding of how to sell the completed product and its market requirements.
- In the case of a one-man band, the ability to handle administrative tasks and accounts.
Working ConditionsAlthough the manufacture of toys is typically classed as a low-risk profession, those candidates who choose to become employees of larger toy makers tend to be exposed to higher risk manufacturing processes, such as the use of pattern cutters and stitching machines. Health and safety inductions are a requirement of UK law under these circumstances, and a common-sense attitude is required when working in these medium-risk environments.
It should be noted that those toy makers who set up as sole traders are exposed to the typical small business stress factors, such as meeting financial demands for materials orders and finding new customers and potential retail markets.
Many toy makers begin as hobbyists, where a plethora of niche magazine publications and internet forums can offer guidance and support to budding toy designers in the initial phase of their learning curve. Those candidates who join established SMEs (small medium enterprises) will have access to on-the-job training and additional tutorial support.
It can take 2-3 years of consistent approach to become what the industry may deem to be of ‘professional’ standard, and additional years personal training can result in a more innovative approach to toy design.
Mattel, Hasbro and Corgi are three of the notable names in UK domestic toy manufacture, with large processing facilities and a suitably large workforce. Candidates may be able to join these renowned firms in areas such as accounts or administration, before making a switch onto the toy design side.
Candidates are advised to consult www.MyJobSearch.com and other careers search sites, as roles do come up on a fairly regular basis. It pays to have a flexible approach and a long-term career plan when approaching businesses such as these market leaders, and also do not discount the possibilities of a move abroad to pursue this career.
Many toy makers are happy to continue to retail simple designs which appeal to traditional children’s markets, but those who specialise in bespoke collectibles can charge appropriately for their unique and desirable designs, especially in the case of designer teddy bears.
Large designer bears can fetch around £200 at retail, and toy makers who accept this challenge then open up the possibility of selling their products to designer boutiques and luxury stores. Harrods of London is a notable buyer of these high-end collectibles, but candidates should note that competition for shelf space is suitably fierce.