In the pile of old sweaters and fabric, a particular pattern caught Melissa Bracken’s eye. It looked suspiciously like … those mittens. You know the mittens—the ones that covered the chilly hands of Sen. Bernie Sanders during President Joe Biden’s inauguration and helped inspire the viral meme. “I happened to have this sweater here and thought, Oh, my gosh. It looks like Bernie’s gloves,” says Bracken, the owner and creator behind The Happy Groundhog Studio stuffed animals.
She made a stuffed Bernie for her husband and started placing the animal (human?) around the house, à la the meme, and she wondered if anyone else would want one. They did.
The Happy Groundhog Studio is an online store specializing in cute, whimsical critters. You can find a cheerful stuffed yeti with an underbite, a penguin who seems quite pleased with himself for catching a mint green tie-dyed fish, and a happy narwhal boasting a little red heart tattoo on her hip.
Bracken’s background is in sculpting. She’s a graduate of the Art Academy of Cincinnati who uses her sculpture training to construct her animals. It’s not how most people sew, she says, but it works for her.
She first started making stuffed animals as gifts for nieces and nephews in 2012. When her sisters’ friends saw the animals, they’d want one, too. A year later, Bracken opened her Etsy shop and began to set up at craft shows. By 2018, with the help of her husband, the Happy Groundhog Studio became a full-time gig out of Bracken’s upstairs home studio in Madisonville.
When The Happy Groundhog calls itself “eco-friendly,” it’s referring to how much Bracken uses recycled materials, down to the thread. “I really wanted something I could make from things around me without having to buy a bunch of stuff,” she says. “My mom had a bag of sweaters she was getting rid of, and I found my first sweaters to turn into stuffed animals.”
She accepts fabric donations, and, when she has to purchase fabric, she chooses recycled fabric; for example, all her felt is made from recycled plastic bottles. “Not only do I like that it’s eco-friendly and it’s good for the earth, I also like that challenge of having to figure out what to do with it,” she says.
Using existing material means custom orders can carry extra meaning. Customers will have Bracken turn, for example, the sweater of a grandparent or loved one who has passed away into a stuffed animal, ornament, or pillow. She loves the stories she hears of items that incorporate a name or sweater being used for a nursery.
Previously, Bracken’s items were sold in a brick-and-mortar shop, but she found she was unable to keep up with orders, since The Happy Groundhog Studio is a one-woman shop. Bracken maps out all her designs and sews each creation by hand, which is how she’d like to keep it. “It’s the making that I love so much,” she says. “A little, huggable art. Each one’s completely unique.”