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Ever wonder what goes into making Willow plush toys that go along with our picture books?

Updated: Jul 17, 2023

I may be a tad biased, but I think Willow the Wonderer is the cutest donkey (wise ass) around town. So, of course we had to follow-up our beautiful picture books with a gorgeous character plush toy of little Willow. Last July we released our very first design.

Hundreds of Willow plush toys have since found their way into homes all across Australia so I thought I'd share some of the work that went on behind the scenes to develop our first Willow plush toy. It was a labour of love.

A donkey plush character toy of Willow the Wonderer dressed in his striped purple onesie with a child and an adult holding the upper two hoof as if taking little Willow on a walk
Willow Plush Toy Character from Willow the Wonderer Picture Book Series

Books with character plush toys increases the joy of story time and learning

Willow the Wonderer picture books are stories about wisdom and knowledge. They explore the very existential questions about happiness and impart practical knowledge like learning counting and colours to the little ones. They are the perfect early years learning books.

But you can't make everything about the serious stuff. Ideally, everything in life came wrapped up in play - and this is especially true for things meant for the little ones. Play is how children (and adults) learn best.

This is why we decided to introduced adorable character plush toys to go with our picture books. It was to introduce an element of play and in all honestly, act as a bribe of sorts for the kids who need some additional inducements to read ;)

We were however very keen make sure our first character plush, none other than Willow the Wonderer, would be up to the task. So we (mostly Darren) put in a lot of work to ensure it did justice to our very adorable and wise protagonist in the book!

What goes into making a donkey plush toy?

The answer is, it depends. Very little, if you don't care what the toy looks like and there are plenty of examples that you no doubt have come across...

But, for a well crafted plush toy that does justice to the gorgeous illustrations in the picture books, that took eight months of design and over eight rounds of sampling!

We were also doing all this work during the lockdown era (remember those?) so the only interaction we had with the team doing the sewing, was online.

Not sure if you know, but it's next to impossible to tell the exact colour something is on screen. This is impacted by the different lighting and screen settings that we all tend to have. The only way to be sure is to see the items in-person.

So fabric samples had to be couried across countries for us to see the exact colour and get the feel of the fabric.

There was also somewhat of a steep learning curve about the process of moving from a flat picture to a 3D object; as anyone who has done crafts like sewing, knitting or crochet would know, there are more nuances to this than the novice can anticipate.

Adding to the complexity, almost everything had to be custom made.

No, there are no purple velour fabric with fine green and yellow stripes, sitting on the shelves, literally anywhere in the world - we looked! Willow's onesie had to be a custom print.

This should not have come as a surprise, as Willow's onesie was inspired by one of Darren's cardigans from his childhood years in the 70s.

And then there was the smile ...

Willow the Wonderer is an enchanting series of tales about the search for happiness. It ends with a smile - a content smile - and we just had to have that same broad smile on the toy.

Illustration of Willow the Wonderer, a little donkey in a striped purple onesie, lying back in bed with a broad smile across his face
Illustration from Willow the Wonderer picture book - Willow lying in bed with a content smile - he has just discovered happiness!

But it's not easy to have such a broad smile embroided onto fabric, especially when it needs to go across two pieces of fabric.

Donkeys have a prominant nose patch you see, that is a much lighter colour to the rest of the face; remove the nose patch and instead of a donkey, you'll end up with a horse!

It was back to the drawing board for Darren, who had to re-design the face and nose patch so that we could still have a broad, but contained, smiled. And we love what we ended up with!

I have one of the last samples of Willow plush toy sitting on my desk, and tell you what, seeing his ever optimistic smiling face, keep me going (and smiling).

Character plush toy of Willow the Wonderer in his trademark striped purple oneside. Willow toy is sitting down with a broad smile across his face.
Willow Character Plush Toy from the Willow the Wonderer Picture Book Series

Perfect imperfections

As much as our manufacturing capabilities have advanced, it turns out that our Willow plush toys had to be stiched by hand. The final set of stiches, after the toy has been stuffed, also had to be finished off by handstiching with a needle and thread.

We ended up loving this aspect of the process.

It meant that no two Willow toys are the same; each containing some unique quirk that can only be found in handmade things.

Willow plush toy is safe for all ages

A decision we had to make during the design process was whether to put our toy through safety testing.

Knowing that our toys were going to be used by young children, this was a non-negotiable to us.

It did not matter for a second that the safety testing was expensive; it simply had to be done. No two ways about it.

The product saftey test happens at the end when a few samples are sent to an accredited and independent lab, where it is tested against toy safety standards mandated in Australia and New Zealand (which are consistent with international safety standards).

The safety tests where conducted by EuroFins Modern Testing Services against the following standards :

  • Safety of toys - physical properties: AS/NZS ISO 8124-1:2019, AS/NZS ISO 8124-A1:2020 & AS/NZS ISO 8124-A2:2020

  • Safety of toys - flammability: AS/NZS ISO 8124-2: 2016

  • Migration of elements: AS/NZS ISO 8124.3:2021

  • Phthalates content: Competition and Consumer Act 2010, Consumer Protection Notice No. 11 of 2011

The Willow the Wonderer plush toy passed all the tests and was deemed suitable for all ages.

What you need to know when buying soft toys for babies and small children under three

Admittedly, I was rather surprised that saftey testing was not a compulsory requirement for all toy manufatures...

Most toy manufacturers get away with it by labelling their toys as: "Recommended for ages 3+" . Product Safety Australia only has mandatory standards in place for toys for ages up to 36 months ...

On one level this makes sense, as kids under the age of three are at a greater risk of injuries and illness from choking and swalling small parts.

Having said this, families often have children of multiple ages who end up sharing toys. It's not a stretch to think that if the two year old toddler came across a toy meant for say their four year old sibling, they wouldn't start playing with it...

Product Safety Australia also makes an important caveat with regard to age labelling: They say that regardless of the manufacturer's age labelling, if a toy would generally be seen suitable for children under 36 months, it has to comply with the mandatory standards.

Soft toys are deemed to be one such toy that in the ordinary course of life get gifted to children of all ages. Indeed it is not uncommon to see them gifted during baby showers and first birthdays, etc.

However you will find plenty of soft toys in department stores today that are labelled 'for ages 3+'. To what extent these comply with mandatory safety standards, is anyone's guess...

My warning to buyers, now that I understand the dynamics of safety testing, is to be wary of soft toys that have a 3+ age labelling. They likely have not been saftey tested.

Product Safety Australia also has a list of common sense tips for buying and safe use of soft toys for small chidren that are also worth noting.

Plush toys are a friend for the little ones

At the end of the day, toys mean more to children than we can imagine.

The love, devotion, if not obsession, was beautifully captured in the infamous series of Pixar animations, Toy Story And a part of me likes to think that this love and devotion goes both ways.

As Woody rightfully points out,

"Being there for a child is the most noble thing a toy can do."

We hope that our little Willows are out there forging strong friendships with all the little ones that they have been gifted to.

And we have no doubt, that long after the little ones have outgrown their Willow plush toys, the seeds of wisdom in his stories will continue to be there, guiding them in their journey through life.

We leave you with a few drawing of beloved Willow toys that the little ones have sent our way. In case you have any more on-hand, be sure to send them through; they keep us smiling :)

Drawing of Willow the Wonderer character plush toy by a child.
Willow Toy by Saisha

A child's drawing of Willow the Wonderer character plush toy
Willow Toy by Heidi & Grace

Reeta Dhar is the author of the Willow the Wonderer picture book series and co-founder of independent publisher, Wise As Stories. We are creating beautiful stories we wish we'd grown up with - stories that plant seeds of wonder, wisdom and joy. Our picture books are the perfect early years learning books and together with the character plush toys, make great gifts for the little ones. Check out our bestsellers today!

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