In a battery-powered digital world, can a crafty couple support their growing family with handmade toys? It seems they can; with faith, freedom and a whole heap of imagination. Ellie Gwilliam meets the Rolston family.
Windy tree-lined country roads often lead to some of the loveliest family homes, I find. Make it a lane with trees meeting overhead and my heart involuntarily starts singing. I’m biased, it’s true, having grown up in the middle of nowhere, but surely many agree there is something idyllic and innocent about a rural childhood. Regardless, the little lane that leads to the Rolston family home epitomised my theory.
Dee and Jeremy Rolston first met as teenagers at youth group. While good friends, Jeremy was originally “like a big brother" to Dee, but she soon realised this guy was a keeper. Both grew up in rural New Zealand, and both are one of four siblings. They married in 1999 and spent time travelling and teaching English in Korea before settling in Hamilton and starting their family.
Now they are eight. Their eldest is daughter Jada (11), then there is Ty (9), Monte (7), Danny (5), Sawyer (3), and baby Willa (9 weeks old). The first two children were born in Hamilton, before the family moved to the countryside where the other four children were born in the front room. “Home birth just happened”, Dee calmly reflects.
Spending a sunny spring day with this family – at their 2.5 acre property with a rambling two-storey farm house, an even more rambling orchard, an expansive front lawn fringed with just the right amount of wilderness and a creek for the boundary – it seems like everything has fallen pretty neatly into place. Throw in some chickens, a vegie patch and a couple of beehives and it would appear the Rolstons have harnessed the good life.
Jeremy is a carpenter by trade, a top-of-the-class cabinetmaker to be precise. As a builder, he left the house before his kids were awake and came home with only half an hour of their day to spare. While a back injury put his career (and income) in jeopardy, Jeremy and Dee used the opportunity afforded them by an ACC-funded recovery time to seriously consider the dream of working from home.
If it all seems a bit idyllic, the practicalities of making this lifestyle work attest to the boldness and faith of a hard-working tenacious couple. “It was scary leaving a wage, especially with six kids (five at the time), but the timing seemed right to just have a go”, remembers Dee. "We couldn’t start the business without stock though, and we wouldn’t make any money until we had enough stock.” The ACC income solved this logistical problem perfectly and, while Jeremy’s back recovered, his workshop slowly filled with wonderful wooden toys ready and waiting for online shoppers. In May last year, the virtual doors opened on Needle and Nail; "a creative collaboration between a wood-crafting husband and his doll-making wife. It is a family, a lifestyle and a business all in one".
The launch was aided by the Facebook presence and client-base Dee had already accrued with her Tiny Eyes doll making. While landfills worldwide are saturated with broken plastic toys (and let's not even talk about the leaching batteries), Needle and Nail clearly nailed a niche market for quality handmade toys. The first of Jeremy’s 20 wooden rifles sold out overnight. Last Christmas they were busier than Santa’s elves and this year is looking set to be the same.
Taking a leap of faith seems to come naturally to this couple. What they also clearly have is imagination in spades. Their business plan is simply to "inspire a childhood full of imagination and play”. “Children’s imaginations have shrivelled up. Some kids would pick up one of our wooden chainsaws and say ‘it doesn’t work’, just because it doesn’t make any noise and you don’t need to turn it on. But it’s kids' imaginations that are needed to make it work”, says Dee.
Working at home means more time together as a family. The kids join Dad in the workshop whenever they feel like it, and he joins them in the garden for an over of cricket when he needs a break from the tools. “The kids were playing in the fort the other day, and Jeremy would sneak up on them every half hour”, Dee recalls.
And it’s not just Jeremy and Dee who work from home. When their eldest, Jada, approached age five, the couple felt she just seemed too young to leave them for the day. Asked the inevitable “What influenced your decision to home school?”, Dee replies that they never planned to do it, “It has been organic – it just happened”.
And, as seems this family's motto, Dee has taken homeschooling quite naturally in her stride with her typically relaxed approach. “Our goal is to teach our kids how to learn, not what to learn. We follow their interest.” Which seems to be working. Jada is especially interested in writing and at age nine she flew with Dee to Australia as a finalist in an Australasian young writers’ competition. She flew home a winner. Impressive stuff, especially when I noticed that the young writers she competed against were up to the age of 21!
Learning is everywhere. I was quite curious as to how you tackle the supermarket with six children. “There is so much to learn at the supermarket – sizes, value, nutrition, as well as self-control and being aware of other people. I don’t mind going, and since Jeremy is at home now, I can always leave a few kids behind.”
the daily grind
A typical day starts with breakfast in bed for Dee, and a really big coffee. Nice work, go to the head of the class again, Jeremy! Then it is chores, before school for the children, and out to the workshop for Jeremy at around 9am. Without the endless distractions and instructions typical of a class of around 25 kids, schoolwork for the Rolston children can be done with by lunchtime. “And then they play outside”, states Dee.
Outdoor play featured predominantly in both Dee and Jeremy’s childhoods. Dee remembers “We had no television growing up, we used to pretend we were pygmies in the bush! We were really imaginative. And we really want our kids to have that same imagination. It’s developed through playing games and role-play."
Meanwhile, Jeremy has been tinkering with toys in the workshop all day, with intermittent play-breaks with the kids to recharge the proverbial batteries and his own imagination. During the Christmas rush, which was already in full swing by October, he could be in the workshop until midnight to ensure Needle and Nail meets demand but the long hours don’t phase him. He says “I could never go to a factory and work those hours, I’d hate it, but it’s different at home”.
“We just want them to turn out well. So many sons is quite a responsibility, to be honest. People often comment on the challenges of having so many boys, there’s a bit of ‘oh no, smelly boys’. But I don’t think it was an accident that we have four – I feel we have a responsibility to raise good solid men for New Zealand. There are so many absent fathers in our country. Hopefully we can produce four great men to send out. They have a great role model in their amazing Dad”, says Dee.
But it sure was nice to get a sister for Jada! And the other inevitable question was answered with: "No, we never planned to have a big family. We thought maybe three” says Dee, who has clearly doubled her money there. Conveniently, for this cricket-mad bunch, they have plenty of players to make the most of their massive front lawn – the 'RCG', as it is affectionately known.
Parents of six kids must have some tips for the rest of us. Humbly, Dee replies “No, I feel the older I get, the less I know”. There are some observable keys, however, to creating this relaxed family atmosphere and calm and peaceful vibe. “We’re really flexible. We start the day’s work at 10am if we’ve had a late night, and we can take a day off for a magazine crew!", Dee asserts, adding "I’m getting better at being less idealistic”. Surely such a unit must have some high-level organisation at play though. “I’m not necessarily organised, we have just found our rhythm, and the kids thrive on that”, Dee maintains.
Dee really notices if one of the kids is away for the night at a sleepover. “I have to feed the chickens myself!” Yes, there is a job roster and all the kids contribute. Well, not Willa. Not yet. They make their own beds, fold washing, feed pets, fill and empty the dishwasher, even bake cookies for the week.
Interestingly, Dee says the kids are easier now there are more of them. Three preschoolers were a lot more demanding than six children aged three months to 11 years. “They have us around all the time so I don’t feel I have to be as intentional about engaging with them, especially now they are older. Being home all the time is a luxury that other families don’t have though so they need to be more intentional perhaps. Living in the moment is important to us, but being ‘aware’ all the time seems exhausting. I say 'out you go to play' a lot. And then I get some space” says Dee. But it is fleeting, let's be honest – “If I’m not feeding Willa, I’m feeding the older ones. I’m feeding someone all the time. But it will ease up”.
Dee has recently returned to her sewing machine after some 'maternity leave'. “Very slowly, and on my terms, but I am feeling inspired to get into it again. It was so lovely having a break from sewing though” says Dee. And typical of e-commerce, there is always lots of administration to attend to and emails to be answered, usually in the evenings. So days and nights are full, but it appears this family has got their work/life balance inspiringly well sorted. “What is happening in their lives right now will be their memories of childhood. We are making memories” says Dee.
When it’s time for Sam, our photographer, and me to get on the road back to the big city, we’re already both planning property searches on TradeMe for lifestyle blocks. And as if to add further endorsement to the ideal, Jeremy explains, “We have too much honey, do you want to take some honey home?” Yes, yes we do. Please and thank you. So we depart with a litre bucket each of honey, plus Sam has some Needle and Nail arrows to add to her son’s quiver. And we have happy and full hearts, because this family has reminded us how good the good life is. And you don’t need the latest of this and the newest of that. Money helps with the practicalities of life, but nothing makes us richer than time with our loved ones. And nothing makes life fun like a little bit of imagination.
PHOTOGRAPHY: Sam Mothersole, sammothersole.co.nz