COLUMBIA — Columbia artist Ashley McCally said her home is turning into a zoo.
"This is Josie, as you can see, she's been well-loved," she said as she set a homemade plush whale on the table at Uprise Bakery on Sunday.
"And this is Winston," she added, pointing to a plaid hippo, stitched together from a repurposed men's wool suit, "he's the newest one."
Using recycled fabric and handwritten sewing patterns, McCally makes each of her animals unique. They're products of her growing business, Lily & Gus, which was selected last week as a finalist for Martha Stewart's American Made Awards.
"The toys are named based on the materials I use and the personality the animal has," she said. "So some custom styles have custom names."
More than 2,000 businesses entered the competition, and McCally is one of 100 finalists chosen by the editors of Martha Stewart Living magazine. She is the only finalist from Missouri.
Visitors to marthastewart.com can vote each day on their favorite businesses. The business with the most votes by Sept. 24 will receive a $10,000 cash prize and a spread in the magazine.
McCally said she prides herself on creating lasting products of great sentimental value to her customers. In addition to plush toys, she also makes burp cloths and hand-dyed shirts. Her custom stuffed animal orders are particularly personal because clients can request animals made with their own recycled fabrics, such as maternity jeans or baby blankets. Right now she is working on stuffed animals for parents who use wraps to carry their babies.
"They use these beautiful woven fabrics to carry their babies, and when they're done, they're usually very attached to the fabric," she said. "These two moms have sent me bits of their wraps that I’m going to make into seahorses, so their kids can have a piece of that forever."
She began making stuffed animals in October during a slow day at home. McCally decided to sew a stuffed whale for her 15-month-old daughter, Lily. Soon, friends and family were requesting their own products and she decided to open a store on Etsy, an online marketplace for buying and selling handmade items. As the store grew, she decided to sell from her own website and is now looking into offering her products in shops in downtown Columbia.
One such shop, Little Owl Boutique, has been using social media to encourage people to vote for Lily & Gus in the contest.
"We would love someone local to win it and be recognized nationally," store owner Natalie Bell said. "We’re really wanting to support her and get her well known. Not just in Columbia, but everywhere."
McCally heard of the Martha Stewart contest through The Artistan Group. Out of the 100 finalists for the American Made Awards, seven belong to the group, and its founder, Valerie Guerrero, said members have been a great help to one another.
"They have each other's back, they're constantly promoting each other and helping each other," she said. "The camaraderie and the support is very, very rewarding."
Win or lose, McCally said her main goal is to make the best product she can.
"For me, it’s all about the families that are going to end up loving the items that I make," she said. "It's about preserving families’ memories in a way that the kid can love for a long time."
Supporters of McCally can vote once a day at americanmade.marthastewart.com until the contest closes on Sept. 24. American Made Awards will announce the winners of the contest on Oct. 6.
Supervising editor is Zach Murdock.