Melissa Bracken Crafting Happy Groundhog
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The Happy Groundhog Studio, Cincinnati

Melissa Bracken’s grandmother inspired her to launch her line of adorable and extremely huggable handcrafted stuffed animals.

The third floor of Melissa Bracken’s Cincinnati home is painted a soft, cheery yellow. Hampers filled with thrift-store sweaters in a rainbow of shades are arranged neatly, waiting for the artist to transform them into a menagerie of plush animals ranging from reindeer and raccoons to penguins and whales.

Bracken, who launched The Happy Groundhog Studio in 2012, takes a seat at a long table piled high with stacks of material and gets to work. A pale green cashmere stack will become elephants, and a nubby gray one will replicate the look of Fiona the hippo, the Cincinnati Zoo’s most famous resident. And, yes, Bracken makes groundhogs as well. In fact, the animal has been a meaningful one to her ever since she saw one while driving to the hospital for a family emergency.

“There was a groundhog on the side of the road, just sitting there,” the artist recalls. “Something about it being there hit me — it was the light and the groundhog — and it was like, ‘Everything’s going to be OK.’ ”
      The Happy Groundhog Studio Elephant

Melissa Bracken has been making her eco-friendly and adorable handcrafted stuffed animals since 2012. (photo by Matthew Allen)

A formally trained sculptor, Bracken’s foray into handcrafted stuffed animals was inspired by her grandmother, who crafted her a beloved sock puppet and taught her to sew. After leaving a retail-merchandising job, Bracken launched The Happy Groundhog Studio as a way to combine her love of sculpture with a feasible business model.

Her creative process is a streamlined one. She consults her sketchbook full of critters and gets out the appropriate template. Today, she’s working on sloths. They’re sleepy and sweet looking — perfect for a stuffed best friend. Bracken lays out a brown ribbed sweater and expertly removes the sleeves. She’s eco-conscious, too, repurposing scraps to use for pint-sized versions of her animals or detailing. (The felt she uses for the signature tiny red heart stitched onto every animal is made from recycled water bottles.)
      The Happy Groundhog Studio Stuffed Animal

Bracken’s grandmother inspired her to launch her line of adorable and extremely huggable handcrafted stuffed animals. (photo by Matthew Allen)

Bracken traces the sloth’s round body in black marker on the sweater, and uses a Fiskars rotary cutter to shape it, striving to keep the colors she uses realistic and the animals she creates whimsical and welcoming. Bracken loves what she does and how it makes her customers feel. Many have become regulars, purchasing her items to keep as family heirlooms.

“It’s eco-friendly, huggable art,” she says. “A lot of kids don’t ever see anything handmade. I meet a lot of kids now, and it inspires them to go home and make stuff.