Sparky was a little white fox terrier that Juliet Johnston as a kid loved to dress in gangster hoodies, tuxedoes and cowboy suits she had handsewn and rhinestoned herself.
Juliet, 22, persisted with her gift for anthropomorphic costumery and close to three years ago began a supremely unusual livelihood infusing animal characters with broad splashes of humanity, manufacturing what are known as fursuits. The home-schooled entrepreneur, who was born in California and speaks with an American accent, founded a costume manufacturing business called Sparky Can Do! and is known online as Sparky, of course.
An industrial sewing machine dominates a converted bedroom in the Masterton home she shares with husband Bryce. It is there among the debris of carved foam and faux fur offcuts that griffins, anime otters or tigers are born and where rams, wolves, dinosaurs and bunnies first walk upright into the world.
She officially describes herself as a seamstress who creates specialised costumes, including the fursuits that are a physical expression of "fursonas" that self-titled furries manifest when populating their online and real-time world known as the furry fandom.
Some furries wear their suits to conventions, charity and role-playing events and some turn their sub-cultural penchant into passion, using the suits for sexual gratification, Juliet said.
According to Wikipedia, the term "yiff" most commonly refers to sexual activity or sexual material within the fandom, which is comprised mostly of males. The sexualisation of furry characters had polarised the sub-culture and while some were sexually motivated, the majority "took a negative stance" towards the fetishist few.
"Tread lightly. It's called the furry community and there's a dark side and a normal side, just like any community. It's like the pervert side of the internet, you know, it's a fetish for some people."
A partial costume comprising a wolf head and claws was her first attempt at a fursuit, she said, when she and a friend started dabbling, at the age of about 16, with the specialised art form. The fursuits she offers today have a starting price of $2000 each and her onesies, which are far simpler but just as brightly-hued one-piece costumes, start at $500 apiece.
The suits are crafted from foam padding, polyfilla and faux fur and vinyl and while partial fursuits feature only feet, claws and a head, the complete fursuits incorporate a head with articulated jaw, body, hands, feet and occasionally a tail.
They usually take a fortnight of up to 10-hour working days to complete although more padding and consequently more time is demanded when clients want specialised appendages or drop crotch designs.
Juliet has manufactured up to 70 fursuits and onesies and sells almost exclusively to clients in North America, Switzerland, Japan and Australia.
Anthrocon, held in Pittsburgh, is one of the largest annual furry conventions in the world, attracting up to 4000 furries every year. Juliet would happily rub shaggy shoulders with her clientele at the event, she said, and plans to make a trip to the annual bash within the next two years.
Juliet was working at The Escarpment vineyard in Martinborough when she collided online with the furry subculture, and her unique skill base and creative temperament came out to play.
"I found my niche market when I was introduced to the furry community. I already liked making costumes as a kid, you know, I'd make really weird costumes when I was 12 for Halloween or to go to Armageddon. Then I fell in with the furries and they had fursuits.
"I thought, hey, I can make these. I was working all year round at the vineyard but there's three months where you have no work and I thought I'd try making costumes. I made three fursuits in a couple of months and tried them online and they actually sold really well. I made a dog and a cat and a rabbit. People seemed to like my style, so I took on a few commissions and really, the work started from there. Right now I'm working on two suits and I have 15 commissions lined up and ready to go.
"I make fursuits but I also make other sorts of costume as well, like mascots and onesies. Whatever people want and wherever they are."
She had manufactured a Penguin mascot suit for the Junior Neighbourhood Support group in Wairarapa, which was spookily dubbed Sparky in an inter-school naming rights contest, and this year also completed her second World of Wearable Arts costume - a dinosaur/dragon named AWOL - after first stalking the WOW catwalk in 2011 with a creature called Toxic Plush.
Juliet's future in costumery is widening, she said, and includes the possibility of a switch to more realism in the costumes she creates, digital art, or costume manufacturing for stage or film.
Her clearest and dearest ambition is to construct a latex raptor suit with a view to moving into manufacturing more realistic dinosaur costumes. The raptor suit she has already envisaged would demand the wearer to be on stilts, she said.
"I've had a look at WETA (Studios in Wellington). It was great - looks like a lot of fun. But I've just started getting into resins and casting and being able to make my own moulds, so I'm happy where I am for now," she said.
"At the moment it's just sort of easier to make costumes which are just sewing and foam. I do make my own clothes too when I get the time, and I'd love to get more into drawing and painting and art. I'm getting into digital drawing as well.
"That was where I first started I guess, drawing with a pencil.
"Because you pretty much need that talent, you need to be able to draw and understand how things work that way before you can start making three dimensional costumes. It makes it so much easier to picture what you want in your head before you carve it out of foam.
"I have been thinking I might want to get out of the furry side some time and get into making latex dinosaurs instead, that actually look like dinosaurs. I'd love to get into that.
"I'll make myself one first and see how hard it is and how it goes. If people like it, that could be a go. But I can see them taking 10 weeks not two to make and they would cost quite a bit more.
"Maybe movie industry quality stuff even, so yeah, I'll have to see where that takes me."
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