When COVID hit New York City, jewelry designer Meta Hillman was forced to pivot. Little did she know it would be to hand-tufting pillows.
The crafty, DIY queen was born in Germany, raised in San Francisco, and attended college in New York City. It was during her last year at FIT that she launched her jewelry brand, Meta Bird, a fun and flirty line of rings, necklaces and earrings that featured everything from smiley faces to yin yangs. Symbols that would soon become the heart and soul of her brand.
She first launched Meta Bird in 2012. “I would get sales every once in a while, but not enough to sustain me,” Meta said of her start on Etsy and Instagram. Having worked retail throughout much of her high-school and college years, Meta went to work at Alphabets, a beloved storefront in the East Village, where she developed her love for retail.
Fast forward to 2020, and like many retail shops, Alphabets closed their doors for the final time. Now unemployed, Meta had a lot of time on her hands - but quickly realized it wouldn’t be spent making jewelry. “I wasn’t able to do metal casting because all of the castors had shut down, so I had to start mixing up what I was making,” she explained. “I had seen a friend of mine post about a tufted pillow she wanted that was too expensive, so I decided to try and make it for her myself." Meta bought herself a punch needle kit and quickly picked up the skill.
“I made a few designs and posted about them on my Instagram to see if my current customer base would be interested,” Meta said of her soft-launch that quickly transformed her brand. “The pillows blew up pretty quickly, and by the next Christmas I was so stressed I would cry every time my phone went caa-ching,” Meta said of the boom in her business, “I just remember tufting and crying, tufting and crying.”
But with the stress, came opportunity. She landed her first retail account, Lancealotti, neighbor to her old home base, Alphabets. It was this partnership that taught Meta the ins and outs of consignment, “They helped me with everything from testing out new designs, to coming up with my price point,” she explained, “they also helped me gain a lot of attention”. She remembers standing on line to pay for tufting equipment at a local Michaels, when she and another customer started making casual conversation, all to find out that the customer had bought her smiley pillow at Lancealotti.
From there, she continued to land more retail accounts, which allowed her to scale her business tremendously, so much so that she took on a manufacturer. “We all have such a bad perception of 'Made in China', but there are a ton of certifications and verifications that helped make me comfortable with the idea of overseas production,” Meta explained. After doing her research and finding a factory that ticked all of her boxes, she took the leap.
But because she still wanted all of her items to be handmade, she only has the tufted designs themselves produced - she then stuffs each pillow individually and sews them shut. Similarly, all of her new designs, custom designs, and small batch orders are still tufted by hand by her, often times with her adorable cat Jo on her lap.