Glenn Ann Bayne and her sister Laura Villevieille created the Paper Doll Blanket, a cozy item that customers can customize with different designs as well as hair, eye and skin tone options. 

Photo courtesy of Paper Doll Blanket.

Paper dolls and cozy quilts have been enthralling and comforting children for generations. So what could be better than putting the two together to create a cozy quilt with a paper doll-like appliqué and interchangeable outfits?

For sisters Glenn Ann Bayne and Laura Villevieille, creating Paper Doll Blanket was as natural as pairing peanut butter with jelly, lox with bagels, Laurel with Hardy – they just fit.

Starting with a gift

The idea started with Bayne, a designer, sewist, and avid quilter who has been giving handmade gifts for years and also selling belts, clothing, and accessories on Etsy. Custom made quilts were her go-to baby gifts, always designed with a specific child in mind.

When she made a quilt for her sister’s first child, she wanted a paper doll-like element – a doll that her niece could personalize with different clothes and accessories.

The quilt was a big hit and her sister immediately knew it was something special. She searched the internet for similar items, but found none at the time. And just like that, a business was born.

The Paper Doll Blanket can be customized with choices of fabric borders. Changing clothing and hair accessories is easy thanks to a hook-and-loop fabric.

Photo courtesy of Paper Doll Blanket.

The 35″ x 41″ blankets have a patterned border surrounding a plain, pre-quilted fabric. The flat paper doll, made with hook-and-loop fabric, is sewn to the center of the quilt. The hook-and-loop material is also used on parts of the clothing, making it easy to change outfits. Two pockets at the bottom hold extra clothing and accessories.

A viral video

The sisters, who live in Northern California, got busy. Villevieille, who has a master’s degree in business and works for Sailthru as an email deliverability expert, brought her technology and marketing knowledge. Bayne, the quilter, developed the pattern, sourced the material, and made 12 quilts with coordinating items, including skirts, pants, and hair accessories.

In November 2015, they listed the 12 quilts on Etsy. Bayne also made a video of her daughter playing with her quilt. “We put the video on Facebook and it went viral,” says Bayne, still a little awed at how the video took off. Within the span of about two weeks, there were more than 1 million views, she says. “We sold all 12 blankets.”

“That’s when I knew this could be a business,” says Villevieille. “We are not heavy social media users, so these (views) were just from people who shared one to another, not from sewing or quilting forums.”

Paper Doll Blankets are sewn at the Work Training Center in Chico, Calif., following the designs created by Bayne. Bayne closely supervises the process.

Photo courtesy of Paper Doll Blanket. 

In December, the sisters set up a website, paperdollblanket.com, inviting people to leave an email address if they were interested in a quilt. And they were: Villevieille captured some 10,000 email addresses.

“I knew I couldn’t sew fast enough myself to make more quilts, so we shut down the Etsy store” and regrouped, Bayne says.

Going into production

“We had to figure out how we were going to make the blankets, who would help sew them, where would we get the material, etc.,” says Villevieille. They didn’t even have a real pattern, just Bayne’s hand-drawn design that she used to make her own gift quilts.

“We wanted good quality fabric, which would cost several thousand dollars,” adds Bayne. “We hesitated. It was risky. Would people buy the blankets?”

They sourced material; opened up wholesale accounts with companies such as Checker, Riley Blake, and Robert Kaufman; built an e-commerce website with BigCommerce; and in January 2016 started taking pre-orders, offering design options with choices of blanket colors as well as hair, eye, and skin tone options. They contracted with the Work Training Center in Chico, California, to sew the blankets. At the end of March they started delivering pre-orders.

Having enough capital to purchase fabric, pay for sewing labor, and other expenses was “a major challenge,” says Bayne. “We had to have a lot of product on hand. Sewing labor is high, so margins were not as good as they could be.”

“It wasn’t easy,” agrees Villevieille, “and 2016 was a tough year. We had three peak periods when the video had viral bursts and we’d get a surge of orders. It was tough. We didn’t have a business plan and we had to figure out how to sustain this business. It was just the two of us, doing everything.”

The PD Babies line, a less expensive version of the Paper Doll Blanket, has the same paper doll-like properties of its big sister, but is not quilted and is not customizable. 

Photo courtesy of Paper Doll Blanket.

Bayne and Villevieille supervise sewing at the Work Training Center in Chico, Calif.

Photo courtesy of Paper Doll Blanket.

“There were times when I called Laura in tears,” Bayne recalls. “There were hardships, but we never gave up.”

About a year and half into the business, they hit another bump when Facebook changed its algorithms and the video stopped going viral, Villevieille says. “We started paying for ads on Facebook, which worked but cost a lot of money and we are just a tiny operation.”  

Creating a lower priced product

At $119, the personalized quilt was pricey for some customers. In 2018 the sisters received more than $16,000 in Kickstarter pledges to fund a new product – the PD Babies Blanket, a less expensive option at $55. The 33” x 39” PD Babies are not quilted or customized, but have the same paper doll properties and are flannel-backed.

The sisters also started selling patterns for the clothes but were reluctant to sell the quilt pattern itself, despite frequent requests. However, in April 2017 they were granted a design patent for the Paper Doll Blanket and at the end of June 2019 began offering the quilt pattern. Although too soon to determine if that is a good move, the sisters are optimistic.

Offering patterns

“We had lots of debates about who the customer is,” Bayne notes. “This product appeals strongly to quilters, who want to make it. Others love it but don’t want to make it. They are retail customers, they want to buy it. We had to figure out how to do this for both customers.”

Figuring out the business is a constant process.

“We’re figuring out what is our product, what is our market, and how do we get there,” says Villevieille. Copycats are a problem, but “I let go of being angry over copycats,” she says. “I don’t want to fight.”

The learning curve

They also “wasted a lot of money” hiring a photographer and a consultant to do social media for six months. “We hated a lot of the photos, hated the way they managed social media,” says Villevieille. They now do that themselves, although she admits that constantly looking for new images to post is challenging and time-consuming.

“When you’re starting, you feel like you’re failing all the time,” Bayne adds. “One minute you’re elated, the next minute, you’re ‘oh no!’ We realized we were spending money on things we didn’t need. We were learning. When you don’t know the direction, then you just have to try, and fail. It costs money to try and fail, but that’s how you figure it out.”

For instance, there was what they laughingly call The Felty Crisis of 2016. They can laugh about it now, but it wasn’t funny at the time. Bayne had ordered and paid for $1,500 worth of felt hair accessories from an Etsy seller. “These are very labor intensive, made on an embroidery machine and hand cut,” says Bayne. “We ordered these eight months in advance of Christmas and they never came.” She ordered another batch from another vendor to fill the holiday orders and finally received the original order a year later. Lesson learned: Bayne bought an embroidery machine and now makes most of the hair accessories (as well as the clothing).

“Everything you do wrong you learn from,” says Bayne. “The mistakes are all part of the learning.”

Roberta G. Wax

Roberta G. Wax

contributor

Roberta Wax is an award-winning journalist and imperfect crafter. A former news reporter, her freelance articles and projects have appeared in a variety of newspapers and magazines, from the Los Angeles Times and Emmy magazine to Cloth Paper Scissors, Somerset Studio, Craftideas, Belle Armoire, etc. She has also designed for craft companies. Although she has no art background she was a crafty Girl Scout leader.   www.creativeunblock.com

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