The art of toymaking

By Kaylin Brian

Today’s world is a booming landscape of electronics, blinking lights and AA batteries, but Hoosier toymakers across the state are hard at work creating a variety of handmade, quality toys meant to inspire the creativity in young minds.

Bebito |

Rachel Hedges’ business, Bebito, began in 2006 with a gift. “A friend of mine gave me a vintage sewing machine,” she explains. “And I just started making stuff. I just played around.” Based out of Indianapolis, she creates plush toys using upcycled and repurposed materials.
“I like to use repurposed fabric,” she says. “I enjoy making something that’s good and worthwhile and new out of waste, things that would be landfill waste or mindless waste.” She finds much of her material, such as corduroy, at thrift stores, and the patterns are all her own. The end result? A unique brand of toys that Hedges describes as “weird.”
“I feel like my toys don’t really look like other toys,” she says. “I struggle to explain it because I feel like you either get it or you don’t. They’re weird little toys.” A look around Bebito’s website shows a truly eclectic cast of characters like Delores the Librarian, Square Dude or Lucky Bunny. Each character comes with its own little back story, but Hedges emphasizes that there is room for interpretation. “There’s a relationship that happens between me, the item and the person who owns it. I leave a gap for people to instill their own idea what that toy means to them. They fill in that information themselves,” she says.
That relationship with the customer is important to Hedges. “A piece of the artist’s heart is in everything they make. The physical items you own, they carry a story and they carry energy. I think it’s important to fill our lives with things that are created from a good place,” she says. And, for her, the relationship goes both ways: “That person that you buy the artwork from is going to be putting that money back into the community as well. It stays there.”
Hedges also points out that there is a balance to toymaking. “It’s a combo of freeing creative process and also a very structured business,” she says, “like bookkeeping and filling orders. It’s not all playing around.” Despite that, however, she says it’s joyful work, a way for toymakers to remain connected to their inner child.
Bebito can be found online at, in addition to its studio in Indianapolis, which also hosts open houses every first Friday.

My Unique Wooden Toys |

Since 2006, Silver Lake-based My Unique Wooden Toys has been proving that old-fashioned toys never go out of style. Teresa Martin-Gay and her husband, Darren, work side by side to make a variety of handmade wooden toys that are meant to cater to the imagination. “We try to bring out creativity,” Martin-Gay says. “No batteries.”
Their products focus on simplicity, from building blocks to stick horses to puzzles. They are not branded with the shop’s name, and most of them are made without stains or finishes. Martin-Gay says the products they choose to make are inspired by her children: “We thought about some of the stuff that my kids played with the most, things we bought at festivals. Stuff that farm kids played with.” Their top-selling item is a wooden fishing pole, but their toy guns sell regularly as well. “‘Nutcracker’ season is right around the corner,” Martin-Gay says, “so we sell muskets for productions and props for plays.”
Without a doubt, their simple, carefully crafted toys have held their own in a world of electronics. The high demand for their products keeps them busy. “Right now, we’re working on a shipment of 500 planes that will go to Minnesota. We do a lot of wholesale. We ship almost daily,” Martin-Gay says.
Their business itself has proven to be just as durable as the toys they create. “In November 2013, we lived on our farm, and a tornado came through on a Sunday afternoon. It tried to take us off the map. We lost our toy shop,” she says. “The community came, and within a few days everything was cleaned up.” After rebuilding their home, she and her husband put their toy shop in the basement, and it has operated from there ever since.
As for the community that helped them rebuild, Teresa’s business gives back by keeping things local. “Anything that we can buy local, we pretty much buy local. We buy all that raw wood from a local mill. We draw people in from other areas,” she says.
In addition to their storefront, My Unique Wooden Toys can be found online at, on Etsy at MyHandmadeToy and in various museum gift shops across the country.

Barclay Blocks |

Hebron-based Sandy Galvin is not out to reinvent the wheel. “Our toy is so old historically that trying to patent it or obtain a trademark would be impossible. Rather, we are engaged in a tour de force — making something old better than ever before,” he says.
Galvin established his business, Barclay Blocks, after he retired in 1998. “I needed something to do, and so I decided to start a woodshop in the garage,” he says. He began selling his creations — craft cubes and unit blocks — online through a website he built himself in 1999. “To my surprise the business instantly took off, and we’ve sold blocks ever since.”
He notes that his pieces are not the type of blocks that may immediately come to mind: “These are standardized unit blocks, not to be confused with alphabet blocks, and they are a toy as old as the hills.” Made of American hard maple harvested in the northern Midwest, the blocks are meant to be educational and simple.
Although Galvin has seen success with his business (selling about 4 million blocks per year, according to his website), it is increasingly difficult to work as a toymaker in modern times. In a world where plastic toys come cheap, it’s difficult to entice people to see the value in a set of quality, handmade blocks because they don’t always understand what goes into the price.
For Galvin, the heart of it comes down to creating well-made, simple toys that spark creativity. “The right toy for encouraging creativity is something crude, something that requires a child to use imagination,” he says. “Though the most important thing is to know that toys work best when parents get down on their knees and play with their children.”
Barclay Blocks can be found online at

A classic with staying power

Indiana’s toy history includes one instantly recognizable figure: Raggedy Ann.

With her red hair, pinafore and striped stockings, Raggedy Ann is one of the world’s most beloved toys, spanning generations of children. And she was born right in the heart of Indiana. Created in 1915 by Indianapolis-based artist and writer Johnny Gruelle, Raggedy Ann was introduced publicly in 1917 as part of a tie-in to his children’s book series, “Raggedy Ann Stories.”

Katherine Gould, curator of cultural history at the Indiana State Museum, calls her an icon. “She’s been around for so long that she is her own thing. You’ve got Elvis, Madonna, Marilyn Monroe, and then you’ve got Raggedy Ann. She’s up there with these common figures who are icons.”

Gould attributes Raggedy Ann’s longevity to Gruelle’s book series. “I think it’s a lot to do with the moralities in his books. There’s a niceness to the whole thing that you get in his prose instilled in the doll itself,” she says, “and the books have lessons about sharing and humility and compassion. There’s a tie-in between word and doll that’s universal to people.”

Moralities aside, there is a clear business aspect to Raggedy Ann’s existence as well. It is rumored that Gruelle created her as a tribute to his daughter, Marcella, who died at age 13. However, Gruelle biographer Patricia Hall notes that he took meticulous pains to patent the doll’s design and apply for a trademark before Marcella became ill.

Gould agrees: “I think there were definitely commercial intentions from the start. He didn’t invent this marketing tie-in between toys and books. It had been done before, but he certainly had a commercial eye for the whole thing. He was very businesslike.”

Regardless of her origins, Raggedy Ann embodies both the joy and the business of toymaking, and there’s no denying her lasting appeal. “She’s an interesting Hoosier, that’s for sure,” Gould says.
“She’s a cute little rag doll. What’s not to like?”

Gould notes that Raggedy Ann is not currently being sold at the museum’s gift shop, but a quick scan of its website reveals that the character still makes appearances at several museum events, such as Celebration Crossing and Tea with Raggedy Ann.