About two and half years ago, I stumbled across these beautifully hand-crafted wooden animals in a gift shop. These little wooden animals, called polepoles, were expertly carved from light-weight wood, smooth as any wood could be, and with hand-painted details giving each animal its own character. There were Safari Animals, South American Animals, Woodland Animals, Rainforest Animals, Oceanic Animals and my favorites: Dinosaurs! These adorable toy figures were painted in a monochromatic black and white, but there was a warmth to them that made you pick them up and just hold them. In fact, I thought they were pretty enough to set out on a shelf, yet the perfect size for my grandchildren’s small hands during play. A toy that could masquerade as décor. Perfect.
After talking to the shop owner, I discovered they were made by a Japanese company called T-Lab from a sustainably grown Indonesian wood called Albizia falcataria. This light-weight, low density wood is from a fast growing tropical and sub-tropical tree related to trees you may know as Mimosa trees or Silk trees. These nitrogen producing trees replenish the soil and provide shade for other tree species, as well, and so if harvested in a sustainable fashion, provide more good than just beautiful toys.
But speaking of toys...this light-weight wood lends itself to carving and sanding, yielding a buttery-smooth wood. You can't help but touch these polepoles because they feel unbelievably soft for a wooden toy. They are so pretty that I had trouble buying just a couple because I wanted them all!
Upon returning home, I called the company and was over the moon when I found out they would soon be offered for sale in the United States. And being the inquisitive soul I am, I found out more interesting information about these little gems while I had the company representative on the phone.
Polepole (pronounced ‘poh-leh poh-leh’) is a Swahili word that references the slow, careful, hand-crafted process T-Lab artisans use to create each perfect little animal. “How are they made slowly,” I asked. “What’s the process?” I found out artisans cut a “rough form row” of animals from one long, solid piece of wood that has been cut into a thick, long board. Each board makes many of these adorable animals. Once carved into this board, the craftspeople separate the rough forms and dry them in ovens for an extended amount of time. Once removed, they are detailed by hand-carving and sanding until they reach that silky smooth texture. Afterwards, they are off to another artisan to hand-paint each and every polepole individually. This is why T-Lab has this adorable quote on their website that says, “Please enjoy our heart-warming animals, after all, the one that you hold in your hand is the only one in the world quite like it.” I completely agree T-Lab. Thank you for these super sweet, open-ended play toys.
Where can you get your own polepole animals? Check them out at Alder & Alouette.
In the meantime, enjoy this cute, short video clip of polepole animals from youtube.
Written by Laura Lowe
Laura is a professional educator with degrees in Environmental Science, as well as Education, with decades of experience working with children and the environment. She’s also an avid crafter, traveler, book lover, novice hobby farmer, mom to three daughters and six grandchildren under the age of seven.
More about Laura and Alder and Alouette, here.