Something about the combination of care, detail, and imagination give toys from Riley Construction Toys a spark of real happiness. Looking at April’s dolls, you’re transported to your own childhood, each one could easily be a friend with unique details like glasses, hair styles, and stylish clothing. Not only are her dolls glowing with cheer, each unique stuffed toy, print, or pin carries her signature good-vibe. She also has a new business, RileyMade, for patterns and designs for the DIYer. Read on to learn more about this joyful creative!
1| How do you describe your work to people who don’t know anything about crafting/art?
I create handmade heirloom dolls and soft plush toys that speak to the child in all of us! From plush campfires and s’mores to mermaid and Unicorn Girl dolls, all of my toys are imaginative, charming, and vibrant. I start by drawing and painting silly illustrations that sometimes are converted into sewing patterns and sometimes just stay illustrations. I’ve also started a line of simple plushie sewing patterns for the craft-curious.
2| Why do you make/design things?
I’ve been creating and making since I could hold a crayon in my hand. For me, it’s a natural expression of my thoughts and ideas and a concrete way of making connections with others. I was a passionate collector of adorable toys and I remember designing my own toys when I was a kid! I was convinced that Mattel or Hasbro or whoever would pay big money for my original designs! 😉
I love the way that the distance between the producer and consumer is lessened when we buy/sell handmade. Connect ions and appreciation is what it’s all about.
3| Do you ever do custom work?
I used to – but I don’t any more; I work full time and it’s just so hard to keep up with. I’m always happy to tweak something like a skin color or hair color tho, easy-peasy 🙂
4| What encouragement would you offer to first time sewers using your patterns?
Don’t stress – there are no “right” or “wrong” outcomes and your finished project will be unique to you. Don’t forget you have resources if you get stuck – YouTube is chock full of simple explanations and how-to’s. Most importantly, have fun and enjoy the simple pleasure of creating!
5| What do you love about your job?
I get to be a kid again! I love when the adults who come into my booth at an art show get excited about my work and feel, even if it’s just for a minute, like they’re kids again, playing in their blanket forts. I love when kids bond with my toys because it is supremely validating –it means I’ve found that magical formula that makes the pretend play happen and that’s an alchemy you can’t force – the magic happens when it happens.
6| Was being a working artist always your plan or was there an “aha” moment?
That’s hard to answer! I always wanted to make and create interesting, colorful art. I wanted to design toys when I was a kid, then I wanted to be a children’s book author and illustrator… but this was pre-internet and nobody I knew did these things for a living and I didn’t know how to start doing these things, so I just went to school and did regular people jobs instead.
Somewhere in my twenties, my husband and I moved to St. Louis. I started making accessories to sell for fun, discovered the world of indie craft online, and started a St. Louis chapter of the Craft Mafia because I knew the crafties were out there and needed to band together.
When my son was two or three, I started making some stuffed animals for fun. I’d been longing to do it but I worried that I might not be taken seriously as an artist and designer. But once I started, I couldn’t stop. I started making rag dolls about a year or two after I had been making animals and objects. The very first batch of dolls was so magical and adorable – I still have my first rag doll – that I knew I would be making them for a very long time after that. I’ve been making dolls and stuffies ever since.
7| How do you work, and where?
I have a day job, so I work on evenings and weekends. No holidays for this maker! It’s craft season all year round for me. We live in a two bedroom flat, and the “dining room” is my maker space. I’m a champion at storing my materials, tools, and inventories in a small space.
I don’t like routine so I jump into whatever process feels right and gets me in a flow – designing new patterns, tedious routine work like embroidering faces, putting in safety eyeballs, product photography, whatever suits my frame of mind. I have several different projects going at once, so I have lots of interesting tasks to choose from. I can’t work in silence, so there’s either music or Netflix happening, and there’s usually a cat or two nearby.
I’m always sketching, writing notes to myself, thinking of new ideas… it’s hard to turn that channel off when I’m doing other things.
I love to draw and paint and I try to incorporate those other artworks into my product photos – sometimes I draw a scene on a big sheet of paper – there is almost always a cat that wanders by and sits on the paper. I also love to design original display pieces for craft fairs and art shows – it’s kind of like a giant grown-up version of a playhouse or blanket fort full of cute handmade props. I put my jigsaw and drill to good use in the month before a big show and I rarely use the same setup twice. It’s labor-intensive to decorate a booth or tent this way, but my philosophy is “go big or go home!” If you don’t want to be noticed or seen at an art exhibition, why else are you there?
8| Where do you go for inspiration?
I’m most inspired visually – I love looking at children’s illustration and fabric design – but I’m also inspired by music. New music is like candy for me! Somewhere where those two types of sensory input intersect.
I need a jumping-off point sometimes – I might have a nebulous idea that needs fleshing out so I’ll go on Pinterest or Instagram and swim through the images until I see things that start to help me tell a story and then I’m able to put my pencil to paper and start sketching. If I can fully visualize a design, I know I’m ready to move forward.
9| If you could swap lives with another artist, who would that person be?
Maybe a surface pattern designer – because their work has the potential to be seen in a lot of ways and because they are so prolific. I would especially love to create multimedia artwork that is digitally manipulated to become surface patterns from the comfort of a high ceiling-ed, well-lit studio full of coffee and cats!
10| What makes a handmade object valuable?
Scarcity – the scarcity of time and materials used to create it. The feeling it evokes. Its story and its journey paired with your story and your journey. The way that a handmade object is embedded into your everyday life, not hidden away behind glass. The way it’s meant to be enjoyed and used up.
11| Using that definition, what’s the most valuable object you own?
My vintage Strawberry Shortcake dolls. They’re out of production, they created a lifelong love of toys and pretend play, they inspired me to create and design. I spent many happy hours playing with them, creating with them. Oh, and they still smell nice!
12| Tell us one true thing about yourself that people don’t believe when you tell them.
That my childhood idols were Elvira, Mistress of the Night, and Strawberry Shortcake. Those two characters combined pretty much sum up my personality. I am equal parts silly and dark.
13| Give us three more non-crafting-related details about you or your life.
-I write poetry, mostly for kids. I started writing poetry for kids when I was a kid, LOL. I think maybe it will end up in a self-published book of poems about weird, wonderful, angsty kids.
-I just teamed up with two other fiber artists to curate and sell fabric bundles – we are all three hugely passionate about quilting cottons and modern designs. Modern fabrics feature heavily in our own individual designs and products and we love curating new collections and coming up with creative ways to use the different fabric combinations. (Bundles + Bolts) www.bundlesandbolts.etsy.com
-I have a ferret. His name is Jack Bauer. He steals dry cat food, small potatoes, and earbuds and hides them behind the curio cabinet.
-I love planning indie craft shows and helping other makers tell their stories.
Wanna feel like a kid again? We’ve got a whole slew of dolls in all kinds of designs that you won’t find online here at the shop. Come and check them out and get one for your favorite little- or maybe even yourself! And be sure to follow April and Riley Construction toys on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter!
My grandchildren love April’s creations . One in particular aspires to work for April when she’s older ????
What a wonderful article ! I’ll share it with my granddaughter .
That’s so sweet! Those are great aspirations 🙂 Thanks for sharing.