BISON — From the outside, the farmstead on County Road 290 looks like any other. But just beyond the farmhouse is the busy center of an international manufacturer.
Tammy Carlson started Happy Hollow Designs in a bedroom of her family home 25 years ago. Named for the farm where her grandfather once raised short-horn show cattle, Carlson and just a few employees create, package and ship thousands of Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas themed quilting and craft kits to independent quilt shops around the world.
“We try not to look like anything from the road,” Carlson said in her upstairs office in the renovated machine shed.
Her computer station, where she designs all the company’s lines, is tucked into a corner. Two lavishly decorated skeletons, part of a Halloween display at a trade show, stand watch on either side of French doors to the fire escape overlooking typical farm outbuildings.
While locals know of the business, many don’t know the extent of what goes on inside, Carlson said.
“I think they think we sit here in house shoes, fuzzy slippers and house coats and sew all day,” she said.
Every few years the business will have an open house for the public, but it deals strictly to the craft trade.
Every once in a while, though, Happy Hollow customers find their way to the door.
“We have people who just drive up in the yard who put us in their GPS and they’re on vacation,” Carlson said.
“It’s a little weird some days. We’re all just working in our little beehive and then there’s a knock at the door,” she said.
That beehive is somewhat quiet now with the year’s design work going on, but in a few months the activity will pick up as those concepts become products shipped out the doors.
Carlson spends most of her days this time of year designing at the computer or a large table in a nearby room where she sketches out concepts on paper with fabric samples, buttons and other embellishments to help finalize the design.
It’s not just simply drawing whatever comes to mind, though.
“It's all conceptual to start with. You have nothing so you have to first come up with the concepts and see what can fully be developed, what works in a certain price point with embellishment. It becomes less and less about what you want to what you can actually market to the public,” she said.
“Once the designing is done, that's the least amount of work. It's a lot of work, but you still have all the photography, all the brochures, price sheets, all the packaging to do, all the color correction, all the digitizing for the actual store samples,” she added.
“I basically keep my head down January through May all the way to just get to market in May. Stores will book their Christmas in May, so we have to work about a year in advance.”
Shipping begins soon after, and there’s typically a break in summer. Starting in August, it’s a “dead run” on shipping until approximately the middle of November.
Brandon Michaud is general operations manager for Happy Hollow, overseeing the production and shipping of the kits. At the north end of the warehouse is a staging area for shipments going in and out. The adjacent shipping room contains dozens of numbered bins on shelves, each containing a different product packaged and ready to send.
In a small room off the shipping room, a laser engraver diligently cuts out shapes for wooden buttons designed by Carlson — Christmas bulbs, black cats, stars and more holiday decor.
The laser engraver and wood buttons were an addition just two years ago. Happy Hollow’s buttons used to be all earthenware hand-made by Carlson’s mother, Loreda Wagner.
“That takes it off of her because she was physically rolling stiff clay with big rolling pins and cutting them out one at a time and drilling every buttonhole,” Carlson said.
“The stores loved it. They were handmade and there's nothing like it on the market. They still ask us about our buttons. But that's just the way it had to be,” she said.
Wagner, now in her 70s, still helps out at the business daily, though.
In the production rooms on the first floor of the former machine shed, large printers create Carlson’s designs on paper and fabric up to 60 inches wide. Stacks of printed instructions sit on a counter, where they’ll be run through paper cutters and folders to be inserted in the kits.
A long-arm stitching machine can produce several of the same designs on a single piece of fabric.
“We can do it freehand or we can tell the computer to do the lines,” Michaud said. “Some of it, there’s no way to do (by computer) so I have to come in and do it freehand.”
Nearby, Kristin Pfannenstiel, customer experience director, sat at a sewing machine putting together a model for a stitch-by-number kit. Much like paint-by-number, the kits are good for beginning crafters, as they simply iron numbered fabric pieces to a quilt piece printed with the pattern, then stitch around the fabric for a quilted look.
Happy Hollow produces thousands of models and samples of its kits, often using local farm wives as contractors, for marketing and displays in its customer stores.
All of this year-round activity started from a way for Carlson to make a little extra money in college and her desire for quality.
She and her mother started sewing to sell products at weekend craft shows because it was something she could do while studying for a commercial art degree. Carlson said she was not impressed with the commercial art patterns that were available.
“What was out there on the market was just not professional at all and not complete. A consumer could not duplicate what they were selling,” she said.
“I thought, ‘I could do better than this,’ ” she said.
That thought stayed with her after she got a job as an art director and got married.
“It was just a gnawing at the back of your head,” she said.
After talking about it with her husband and her parents, she made a go of it. At first, she designed seasonal dimensional items, but cheap import goods were flooding the market.
“That took away the demand for making it yourself,” she said.
Rather than quit, however, she made a switch to quilting, a higher-dollar product with an older demographic. The business began to grow steadily. What started in one bedroom of the farmhouse soon expanded to two, then three, then took up the entire basement.
“Then we got a large corporate account that really blew us up and basically demanded a building,” she said.
With a lease on the machine shed expiring, Carlson hired a contractor to convert it for the company’s production facility.
“We had 90 days to finish this building. It was a deliver or cancel date,” she said.
“We finished a little bit early and got our order delivered and started there.”
Even in tough economic times, the business hasn’t seen dramatic swings up or down, she said. Sept. 11, 2001, was one instance.
“We had kind of a hiccup in the industry a few years ago. China glutted the cotton market and we saw about double, maybe a bit more, increase in fabric prices. And, you know what, people complained about it, but they never hesitated.
“Quilters, that’s the one thing about the category, they are very loyal,” she said.
Carlson said she expects nothing but growth through the next few years and already sees signs it’s happening with the passage of President Donald Trump’s tax plan.
“That’s really something where the rubber meets the road with households and gives them more disposable income, so I think this year we’re going to see good things,” she said.
“We’re hearing it from our store owners, a more positive attitude, investing more expansions,” she said.
“I see it in the next three years. We keep adding more lines and having success with that.”