Michelle Lyon was scouring eBay for vintage buttons when she noticed someone selling pieces of chenille, the tufted cotton used to make bedspreads and rugs in the mid-1900s.
“I remembered how my grandmother had those bedspreads, and I would rub my hands along them. I just love the texture,” said Lyon, who recently moved to Durham from Raleigh. “Then I got the pieces and had to figure out what to do with them.”
At the time, in 2006, Lyon owned Knockabout, a gift shop in Raleigh’s City Market that specialized in local art and crafts. She was an accomplished hand crafter and sewer, and figured she’d make something to sell in the store.
“Plain pillows or a quilt seemed boring, so I decided I’d make animals. I think I thought of that because my grandmother used to make dolls. I drew out a basic dog, cat, pig and a rabbit. I cut them out, stuffed them and decided to hand-stitch their eyes and their features with wool felt.”
With that, “Peculiar Pets” were born, and since then it’s been a wild ride for Lyon and her quirky, saucer-eyed menagerie, which has expanded to include a dozen more animal shapes, as well as “Fancy Pets,” adorned with bling; and the more adult-themed “Problem Pets,” who might be puffing on a cloth cigarette or packing a felt weapon.
Knockabout customers immediately snapped up the critters, with people responding to the pet pillows for different reasons.
“I primarily sell them for babies and children. If you give one to a little kid, they just immediately rub that bumpy texture,” she said. “Teenagers like them because they’re kind of wacky, and older people love them because the chenille reminds them of their past.”
Fueled by local interest, Lyon decided to try wholesale sales.
She was accepted by the Mooresville-based virtual showroom wholesalecrafts.com and found herself fielding orders by the dozen.
“I was amazed at the response, but after working in the restaurant business, one thing I’m good at is production,” said Lyon, a former pastry chef and bakery owner. “Being on that site was a game changer.”
Peculiar Pets captured the attention of a gift sales representative and a distributor, leading to sales in more than 100 stores nationwide and at the online retailer Uncommon Goods.
“At one point, I was making 50 to 75 pets a week, working all day until 11 at night,” she recalled.
Finally her body revolted.
“I started to wear out my hand,” said Lyon, 48. “It hurt all the time. I couldn’t hold things, and had to get deep tissue massage. It was scary.”
Around the same time, late 2010, chenille supplies dwindled.
“I was still buying most of it on eBay, finding damaged bedspreads for about $10. Then the prices really started to go up, to like $40 a blanket because they were getting harder and harder to come by. So I decided to dial it back and just keep my stores to North Carolina. It also gives me time to do some other things.”
Her other projects include 3-foot dolls made of wool blankets and suitable-for-framing cartoon-like vignettes covering topics as diverse as cellphone use and animal behavior. Last year, Lyon did a humorous series based on her relationship with her mother.
“They said things like, ‘Did you even try today?’ and ‘Is that what you’re wearing?’ ” she said. “My mom still says these things.”
Sarah Powers, executive director of the Visual Art Exchange in Raleigh, champions Lyon, whose work she’s followed from the beginning.
“It’s been really fun watching her go from an idea to a pretty big operation,” Powers said. “Michelle has a wonderful sense of humor and a really cool way of looking at the world, and her art is a way for her to get that energy out there.”
Lyon is happy balancing her art and her part-time job as gallery manager at The Mahler Fine Art Gallery in Raleigh.
“I like where I am. I’m still making the pets, and I have enough outlets to keep me busy.”
Asked if she had learned any lessons from seeing her business boom and then scaling it back, she answered with a laugh, “Not really. I already knew that I’m not good at keeping things corralled. It’s flattering that people want to buy what you’re making, and you don’t want to say no, but at some point you have to.”
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