In retrospect, Brenda Landwehr realizes that if she really wanted to concentrate on the Shockers’ Missouri Valley Conference Tournament games last weekend in St. Louis, she should have left We Wu at home.
Every few minutes, she said, someone new would approach her at the games admiring her new WuShock hand puppet. They wanted to have a closer look. They wanted to tousle its floppy yarn hair. They wanted to know where Landwehr got We Wu, and they wanted to know right now.
“I was stopped so many times,” said Landwehr, a Shocker fan and a former state representative. “People would ask to take pictures with it. They’d say, ‘Can we hold it? Can we look at it? Where do we get one?’”
But Landwehr understood. Before the tournament, she said, she was one of those people desperately trying to figure out how to get her hands on, er, in a We Wu puppet, one of the hottest Shocker fan accessories populating jubilant crowds this season.
The answer comes from a fabric-filled basement in Schulte, an unincorporated town just outside Wichita along K-42.
Patricia Becker is in that basement right now, feverishly hand-sewing the finishing touches on dozens of WuShock-shaped hand puppets, which she and her sisters designed, created, licensed, named We Wu and began selling in earnest late late year. To date, the sisters have sold about 150 of the puppets, made of fleece and felt and floppy yellow yarn. At the moment, they have another 35 customers waiting for We Wu delivery.
They charge $30 a puppet, a bargain considering that each one takes about eight hours to complete. Friends and relatives have urged them to charge more.
As the Shockers’ notoriety and popularity has grown this season, so has We Wu’s, and the number of puppets populating the stands at games multiplies by the week. We Wus were everywhere at the MVC tournament in St. Louis, and the new orders coming in every day indicate that they’ll be filling the stands at the Shocker’s NCAA tournament stops as well.
“We didn’t expect it to be as frenetic as it is,” said Becker, who said she is as bewildered as she is delighted at the demand for the puppets. “These are adults. They’re like kids opening Christmas presents. They’re so excited to have these, and they’re running around showing everybody.”
The first We Wu appeared two years ago.
Becker is the eldest of seven sisters who grew up in Wichita, learning how to sew from their mother and through their involvement in 4-H. As adults, they became quilters and opened a business they all contribute to called Seven and a Half Sisters Quilting. (A sister-in-law makes up the half.)
The sewing sisters dabbled in other projects, too, including hand puppets in shapes of dogs and cats and bunnies that they’d sell at craft shows.
At Christmas in 2011, Becker’s younger sister, Mary Brewster, wanted a WuShock puppet for her Shocker-crazy future son-in-law, local radio personality Brett Harris. Brewster and another sister, Kathy Cunning, who lives in Texas, collaborated on the design, basing Wu on a Frankenstein puppet pattern they’d used before.
“It was fantastic,” Harris said. “When they handed it to me, I not only said, ‘I love it,’ but I said, ‘Please mass produce these now. Do something. You need to make 150 of these.’”
Becker made one of the puppets for her nephew last year, and he took it along to the second round of the NCAA tournament in Los Angeles. When the Shockers advanced to the Final Four in Atlanta, the nephew loaned the puppet to a friend who was going.
That’s when the calls started coming. Everyone who saw the We Wu wanted their own, Becker said.
“It was kind of phenomenal,” she said. “Everyone was excited about it. Everyone wanted to know where to get one.”
The sisters decided they should start a little We Wu side business, but they wanted to do it right. Becker began to research how to get the puppet officially licensed and reached out to Jason Malay, WSU’s assistant director of marketing and game operations. He was already familiar with the puppets, having seen them during his 2013 tournament travel, and he encouraged Becker to go for it. He helped her find the right paperwork to apply for a “crafter’s license,” designed for people who want to sell hand-crafted items just to the local market.
To get the license, Becker said, she had to develop a business plan, make a prototype, register her business and get liability insurance. It took her about six months to complete the process, and she got approval two months later.
And the calls kept coming.
The sisters have settled on a production process that works for them. Cunning hand-cuts and sews the black fleece bodies and gold fleece heads. She inserts the ping-pong ball eyes, then she ships them to Wichita to Becker.
All of Becker’s free time is spent finishing the puppets. She attaches the floppy yarn hair, cuts out and affixes the WSU logos to the puppets, and deals with all the orders and deliveries. Brewster and local sister Eileen Ball help wherever they’re needed and can be counted on to make the white carrying bags for the puppets, each one screen-printed with a logo: “Proudly handcrafted in Kansas.”
Becker hasn’t been to a WSU game this season, she said, but she watches them all on television. She’s interested to see how the team is doing, she said, but she’s also trying to spot We Wus in the crowd.
“It’s exciting to see them,” she said. “I watch every game and look for them.”
She also watches Facebook, where We Wu has his own page. Becker encourages people to post pictures on the page of their We Wus in Shocker action, and many do.
The business is going crazy, but Becker said that it’s feasible she and her sisters could fulfill more We Wu orders for people heading to watch the Shockers in the NCAA tournament.
Landwehr, whose We Wu made it onto the score board at St. Louis last weekend, said she loves her We Wu so much, she bought two extra to give as gifts. A baseball fan, she plans to take hers to baseball games this spring, too.
“You can have it singing along with the band, and they’ve got yarn on the top of their head, so you’ve got that kind of flopping around,” she said. “It’s just fun. It’s different. And everyone recognizes WuShock.”