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How I Started Designing Kawaii Art Toys

Maria Filipe Castro explains her process for needle felting miniature ice creams, glasses of milk, and other playful snacks.

Selling her art toys under the moniker Droolwool, Maria Filipe Castro is a Portuguese artist serving up some seriously cute creations. The toys are made from densely packed Merino wool using a technique called needle felting, which turns wool into 3D objects. Castro, who originally went to school to study sculpture, found a unique way to turn her designs into a business. We called her up to find out more about Droolwool and how she started designing art toys.

“The only danger is when you stab yourself.”

I went to college without knowing what I wanted to do. I knew I didn’t really like to paint or to do graphic design, so I chose sculpture. All the techniques I learned at college were techniques that I really didn’t like at all—too messy, and dangerous machines to work with. I was not very pleased with that experience, so I decided to use fabric. My mother is a seamstress, and she has lots of fabrics—I grabbed some stuff and started making some pillow things, some objects.

When I discovered needle felting, it was many years after I finished college and I was unemployed at the time. I decided to take a course in a school dedicated to fashion. They had a course with many different textile techniques, and I thought it was a very good idea to try to experiment—because at the time I had been many, many years without doing any artistic work, just regular jobs. I found it was the perfect moment for me to restart.

One day I had this class of needle felting—they just taught the basics. The rest of my knowledge was built by searching and following along with YouTube. That’s where I learned everything. Also I experimented and failed a lot. I discovered a technique that was a Eureka moment. Like, ‘Wow. This is awesome.’ I used many colors and smooth material. It’s not that expensive either. I was able to start doing three-dimensional things, and my sculptures came to life. The only danger is when you stab yourself.

My technique of needle felting uses wool felt—a really, really thin raw fiber made from sheep’s wool. All my pieces are really hard, so it’s hard to destroy them even if they are made from a textile material. I work with a needle, very pointy and sharp and that hurts a lot when you get stabbed. The cuts in the fabric slowly binds all the fibers together. A small piece, about 10cm, can take 30 or 40 hours to make. I don’t do eight hours of felting because that would be impossible for my hands and for my brain, because it’s quite repetitive. You just stab, stab, stab, stab, stab.

My first projects were making jewelry, not art toys. Weird jewelry, like banana bracelets. I did a bracelet with a round countryside road. I was still exploring the fine art version of fabric, because I always liked to make something more cartoonish than contemporary art. Then one day I decided to do a toy.

“It was really refreshing to create a character and invent a background story for that character.”

I always loved toys. My boyfriend and I used to spend hours at toy stores, and we used to buy a lot of toys, like regular Barbies and Spidermans and those kind of things. It was more him that had a passion for art toys. One day he just said, “Why don’t you try and make one?” It was so fun just to create a character like that. I thought, “This is what I should be doing.”

The first character was an orange, a little orange boy with his brother who was another tiny orange in his lap. It was really refreshing to create a character and invent a background story for that character. Because I’m a food addict—I love food, I’m obsessed with food in all shapes, real food, plastic food, illustrations of food, photography of food—the first toys I made were about milk, that was my first idea before the juices. The juices were just me trying to use other colors.

I’m still learning how to sell these art toys. It seems like the main thing is to have good photographs of the designs. That helps a lot for anyone selling online. Then I try to be easy to find, to try and be everywhere on different platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and have a store. It’s only recently that I’m being found, it took a long time. You just have to post your work and have faith that you’ll be found if your work is interesting.

More textile art:
5 Textile Artists That Make Weaving Cool Again
Intricate Embroidered Photos of Anonymous People
Ellie Hoskins’s Body Horror and Half-Remembered Nightmares

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