Since 1936, the Toymakers of the University Women's Club have met regularly for one simple purpose: to bring comfort to those in need.
Creativity and conversation are integral to every work session of the University Women’s Club Toymakers. (Photo by Jo McCulty)
By Lynne M. Bonenberger
Snip, stitch, stuff — and talk, talk, talk.
The Toymakers have the routine down by now. After all, they’ve been gathering to sew stuffed dolls and animals for nearly eight decades. The output of this group of women may be second only to that of a certain North Pole crew, and their hearts are just as big.
Since 1936, the Toymakers have met regularly for one simple purpose: to bring comfort to those in need.
“When a little child is sick or hurting, a handmade toy is just the ticket,” said Sharyn Talbert, first vice president for programs for Ohio State’s University Women’s Club. The 25 members of the Toymakers make up a dedicated special-interest group within the club.
The hundreds of toys the women sew each year are donated to local hospitals and service organizations. Those now on the list include the Dahlberg-Gibson Learning Center, where preschoolers get special attention in education and social skills, and the St. Vincent Family Center for children with mental or emotional disorders. The Wexner Medical Center at Ohio State and CHOICES for Victims of Domestic Violence are among other groups that have been on the receiving end.
Adults at the Columbus Alzheimer Care Center also benefit. Meg Goodwillie, the center’s director of activities, said animal-shaped toys are especially popular with the residents.
“They smile and get excited when we give them to them,” she said. “Some of them give them names. They’re something that they can hold and love and feel comforted by.”
Bonnie Stevens helps a bunny express himself. (Photo by Jo McCulty)
Each stuffed toy — whether kitten, snowman, dachshund or unidentifiable but huggable creature — begins as a pattern and a length of soft cotton or fleece. Scissors get a workout at a party each June. There, the women cut out all the shapes for the coming year’s projects. They do most of the preliminary sewing at home, then get together at Grandview Heights Public Library once a month, fall through spring, to pull things together.
Chatting at one recent meeting, Bonnie Stevens, a 26-year member, said it takes several hours to make one toy, from choosing the fabric and pattern to cutting, sewing, stuffing and adding final touches.
“Does that include unpicking our mistakes and sewing them again?” asked Sheila Smith, who joined the group five years ago.
Gentle teasing and topics ranging from recipes to surgeries to “Seinfeld” peppered the conversation as the women — 13 of them at this particular session — pulled their chairs up to long tables crowded with supplies: thread, pincushions, ribbon and trim, stacks of felt and a rainbow of Sharpies for drawing faces, Stevens’ specialty. “I think I’m going to give him a bright pink nose,” she said to herself, contemplating a pink and white bunny on which she had already sketched whiskers, teeth and expressive eyes.
(One advantage of meeting at the library: “If we need inspiration for an animal face, we just go over to the children’s section,” Stevens said.)
There’s room at the table for everyone who’d like to help, members are quick to point out. Can’t sew a stitch? No problem. You can be a stuffer, using the flat end of a big wooden knitting needle to cram polyester fluff into arms and legs. Or you could crochet the tiny scarves and vests that dress up some of the toys, or use glue to attach fabric eyes and noses and big happy hearts. There are no buttons to pull off or metal parts, which means the toys can be taken into medical scanners — a benefit for youngsters whose time in an MRI might seem a bit less scary in the company of a bright blue teddy bear.
Elizabeth Shaudys makes a point during a recent meeting (Photo by Jo McCulty)
Elizabeth Shaudys probably has seen more clowns and kangaroos pass through the hands of the Toymakers than anyone else. Shaudys, a recent chair of the group as well as a past president of the University Women’s Club, joined in 1955. Not the least of her contributions is her willingness to store the 50-pound bags of stuffing in her garage and haul one to each session at the library.
The University Women’s Club was founded in 1895 by Flavia Canfield, an artist, writer, suffragist and wife of Ohio State’s fourth president, James Hulme Canfield. Mirroring other women’s organizations of the time, the club encouraged friendship as well as cultural and intellectual development. In addition to toymaking, which is one of the longest-running activities, today’s 300-plus members can join like-minded peers to explore cinema, gardening, even genealogy.
And while membership used to be open only to wives of faculty members, an affiliation with Ohio State is no longer required. Sheila Smith, for one, is retired from Riverside Methodist Hospital in Columbus and learned about the club through friends. “I immediately latched on to the Toymakers,” she said in an accent reflecting her Welsh background. “That’s right up my alley, because my mum used to make toys, and it’s for children, to bring them comfort.”
In the beginning, the women also created wooden toys. According to a 1939 article in the Columbus Citizen: “Every Toymaker’s grocer and druggist puts away empty cheese boxes, wood scraps and cigar cartons” to be transformed into wagons, dollhouses, jigsaw puzzles and the like.
Old photos in the group’s scrapbooks show scenes almost identical to those of today. Only the faces and the fashions have changed.
At the business portion of the recent meeting, after a break for snacks and homemade potato soup, a thank-you letter from Rebecca Love of the Franklin County Board of Developmental Disabilities made the rounds. Love’s words summed up the Toymakers’ work especially well:
“Your contributions have reached the hearts of hundreds of infants and toddlers in our centers,” she wrote. “I am most moved by the care and time dedicated to each of the soft dolls. The children hug them, kiss them and show tenderness that mirrors the hands that make them.”
Learn more: Go.osu.edu/womensclub