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In Studio With Tanna Hill of Hill Critters

I’m excited to announce the return of the In Studio feature, where Prairie Style File takes you inside the work spaces of area artists, crafters and creators.

Today we’re in studio with Tanna Hill, the wry and talented mind behind Hill Critters.

Photo by Tanna Hill

Tanna, tell the Prairie Style File readers a little about what you do and how you got started.

I make mildly ugly, yet cute felt stuffed “Critters” as I call them — a random assortment of plush dolls that range from birds, to fawns, to squirrels, etc. I started making them in the summer of 2011 after getting my first sewing machine for Mother’s Day.

What prompted you to start creating?

I had no experience whatsoever. I am a tattoo artist to pay the bills and a painter at heart. I mostly started making them for friends because they were all having babies and I hate giving store bought gifts. So I thought what would be better for a bunch of one-year-olds than a painstakingly handmade ugly critter with choking hazard embellishments?!

They actually went over so well people kept telling me I needed to start selling them and for once I went completely against my grain and did.

Photo by Tanna Hill

What materials do you use?

The main bodies are made out of felt and fabrics and then they are all embellished with buttons, ribbon, and random knickknacks.

What is your creative process like? How do you get your ideas?

Usually they just pop in my head at random. I read a lot of books –Fairy Tales are my obsession and I always end up back at them. When I’m feeling uncreative you can usually find me laying on my studio floor staring up at all my stuff till something sparks.

My Critters were simple though; I just started making all these patterns for different animals I thought would be fun to make. I spend more time deciding on what fabric colors and patterns to put with what thread and which buttons than anything else.

I sit on my floor and literally just throw different materials together until they go together just the way I want and then I move onto the next one.

Photo by Tanna Hill

What is your work space like?

Absolute chaos. I’m a very nostalgic person and tend to hoard knickknacks and trinkets that I love, so my clutter and I have been banished to my tiny studio. I keep everything out where I can see it, in glass jars, pinned on the walls, stacked on my book shelf. It’s my favorite room in the whole house and if I didn’t have a family I’d probably almost never leave it.

How do you sell your products?

I sell most of my stuff at Unglued so I don’t really get to interact with (customers) much. At the Unglued Craft Fest though, it does seem like each customer has that one Critter that calls out to them, because even if they don’t purchase one right then and there, you can always tell the ones who will end up coming back for “their” Critter.

Specific animals sell much more than others. Owls and Fawns sell much more than the kitties and chickens. (At) Christmas time all I sold was bats. That was weird.

Editor’s note — you can also order your Critters on The Hill Critters’ Etsy shop — just click here.

How is selling at a craft fest different for you?

It’s very one-on-one and in your face. I’m very much a hermit and avoid talking to strangers as much as possible. I despise talking on the phone even.

At a craft fest you are forced to interact with everyone who wanders by and after you’ve sold your first few items and have talked with the people who genuinely like your work, it becomes much more lighthearted and fun.

Photo by Tanna Hill

What do customers tell you that they love about your creations?

They love how cute and unique they are! My mom always laughs because she remembers these sort of stuffed dolls being big in the 70’s but then she always tells me I do put my own twist on them and they are well made and that is why people respond to them.

So we know your mom’s take on your success. Why do you think that customers respond to your Critters the way that they do?

They almost have to. How else does one respond to a tiny woodland creature made out of mismatched fabrics and lopsided buttons for eyes? You can’t say its beautiful or “Oh, I could totally use one of those!” They serve no purpose, they just hang out.

Some of the older ladies aren’t very impressed. I had a couple of women hold up a bunny and squint at it asking, “What is it? A glorified pin cushion??”

I said absolutely, that would probably be the most vigorous job it could have. They scoffed and wandered away.

Why do you think there’s been a renewed interest in handmade and locally made items?

People love handmade and people love local. If someone who could possibly live in your neighborhood can make something neat and sell it, that shows there is still hope against the big corporations and the commercial garbage constantly being thrown in our faces.

I think it makes people realize that we are all ordinary people, just like they are. If I can be out there selling things I make while sitting in the second story of my house with my girl playing at my feet, why shouldn’t they do the same?

Everyone has something to offer whether they know it or not.

Hill Critters

How have you seen the industry change since you started?

I can’t really answer that question because I have only been a part of it for little over a year. What I do notice is the support in the community for it. I don’t know if it has always been like this, but the people are awesome.

A lot of us crafters wouldn’t be out of our studios still if it weren’t for the community pouring their hearts out to us. It’s awesome.

What goals do you have for your business?

I don’t really. It is more of a fun side project for me where I get to make things for fun and then make a little extra money that I can put away each year for vacation. It actually has gotten much bigger than I ever intended. I think my regular job is getting a little worried.

Photo by Tanna Hill

What do you wish your customers knew about your business or your creative process?

That the process is LONG. I always feel guilty about what I have to charge for my Critters (I’m the same with my paintings) but I spend a lot of time on each one making sure all the details are just right.

I’m getting faster but each Critter still takes me an average of two to three hours from start to finish, depending on the Critter. The only time I have to actually do them is very late at night after I’m done with work and my family have all gone to bed. Some days I’m exhausted and hate it, but that comes with all creative processes.

What advice would you give someone that’s considering setting up a similar business?

I would say just give it a shot. You can’t lose if you go into it with the mind set that this is for fun. Make it a business that isn’t business — it’s just you making some money by being your creative self. You won’t miss a single post when you subscribe to Prairie Style File. Just look for the “Follow Prairie Style File” sign-up on the right side of the page. Or follow my adventures across the Midwest, the prairie provinces of Canada and around the world on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Tag your pics and travel tips #PrairiePeople and #PrairiePlaces on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. You could inspire an upcoming post on Prairie Style File. Prairie Style File is curated by Alicia Underlee Nelson. All rights reserved.

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