The Art of Chickening: Whimsical Designs, Serious Craftsmanship

At the City Girl Farm, Sally Jane Linville and her team of artisans handcraft natural materials into bespoke chicken footstools
BY Many Ngom TIMEJanuary 21, 2022 PRINT

According to Sally Jane Linville, the egg came first.

Well, at least it does at The City Girl Farm studio in Kansas City, Missouri, where Linville has perfected what she calls “the art of chickening.” Just peeking through the window, you’ll receive a warm and whimsical welcome from a flock of beautiful, larger-than-life chicken sculptures. Meticulously designed and handcrafted from wood, bronze, and wool, these sculptures are, in fact, luxury footstools.

How did this luxury hen house come to be?

The citygirl farm
Sally Jane Linville. (Courtesy of The City Girl Farm)

The Farmer’s Daughter

Linville comes from a family of farmers. Growing up in central Kansas, she enjoyed life like any kid on a farm. Little did she know that these early experiences would later be at the heart of her artistic creations.

After graduating, she didn’t know what she wanted to do for a living, but her faith pushed her to self-reflect.

Little Susie
A chicken footstool adds a touch of barnyard charm to any space. (Courtesy of The City Girl Farm)

“Part of my faith is asking the question: ‘What do I have to bring to the world?’” Linville said. “I believe in God, and I love considering how we are all uniquely made, wondering what I am bringing to this world. In recognizing the uniqueness of my life, I’m humbled by the smallness of my existence. But at the same time, I’m open to the power and influence it can bring.”

Form and function: Each chicken is meant to be used as a playful alternative to an ottoman. (Courtesy of The City Girl Farm)

After exploring “a little of everything for a few years,” her self-reflection brought her to the Interior Architecture and Product Design program at Kansas State University. There, her instructor encouraged her to follow her curiosity in exploring the different aspects of furniture design. While studying abroad in Italy for a semester, she realized the importance of forming connections between people and the natural beauty of this world. When she returned to the Midwest, she hatched a playful idea.

Inspired by the sheep ottomans created by the French artist and sculptor François-Xavier Lalanne, Linville drew up the designs for her first chicken footstools for a school assignment. Guided by a question from her professor—“What is the essence of a chicken?”—she spent the semester building her birds, component by meticulous component, combining different crafts to capture their personalities. For the body, she used woodturning, a technique that she already knew and loved. For the feet, beak, and feathers, she had to learn new skills in bronze casting and fiber work.

The best part of the job? Seeing how these feathered creations spread joy. (Courtesy of The City Girl Farm)

In December 2009, her first two chickens—Henny and Penny—were finally born. People were charmed by the chickens and approached Linville with requests for more. Seeing the positive response, Linville saw the opportunity for a business, and it naturally grew from there.

The Makings of a Chicken

Today, Linville’s studio makes custom chicken footstools to order in two sizes: 12-inch-tall, 12-pound Chicken Littles and 17-inch-tall, 25-pound Big Chickens. They follow the same process that was used to make Henny and Penny.

Of course, it starts with an egg. At the core of each chicken is a wooden, egg-shaped body, formed from a log spinning on a lathe. The feet and beak are cast in bronze at a foundry in Lawrence, Kansas, using the same clay molds Linville sculpted for her first chickens.

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Each chicken begins with a wooden egg-shaped body, crafted on a spinning lathe. (Courtesy of The City Girl Farm)

Linville’s father, with his farmer’s expertise, then assembles the wooden bodies and bronze feet and beaks into sturdy, standing chickens. A spring connects the beak to the body, allowing the head to mimic a pecking motion.

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Linville’s father assembles the chicken’s wooden body and bronze feet and beak. (Courtesy of The City Girl Farm)

“At this stage, they’re pretty funny,” Linville said. “We call them naked chickens because they’re standing, but without their clothes on.”

An artisan upholsters each naked chicken with burlap foam and muslin fabric by hand to ensure that they’ll keep their shape for years to come. Finally, the chickens are transported to Linville’s studio for the final step in their ultimate transformation: dressing them with feathers. This is where the fun begins.

These “naked chickens,” as Linville calls them, are ready to be upholstered and dressed by hand. (Courtesy of The City Girl Farm)

Dressing Up

In Linville’s opinion, this is also the most challenging part of the process.

“All of the feathers are made by hand, pinned by hand, and stitched by hand, which is to say that each chicken is completely hand-built and unique in its structure,” she said. “We can’t make two alike even if somebody was hoping that we could.”

For Henny and Penny, Linville learned how to craft feathers from wool from her mother.

“My mom is an interior designer and worked with fibers, so her creative process did influence me,” she said.

Artisans hand-spin and hand-felt merino wool from sheep farmers around the country. (Courtesy of The City Girl Farm)

Now, the process involves her mother and a team of more than 30 artisans—“chickeners,” as Linville calls them—who work both from home and at the studio on a contract basis.

Using merino wool sourced from farmers located around the country, the chickeners use traditional fiber art techniques to hand-spin, dye, felt, and knit a variety of feathers, which they then compose and finally hand-stitch onto the chickens. Depending on the customer’s requests, each chicken may be dressed in one type of feather or a combination. Some chickens may sport more intricate embroidery and patterns, giving them their colorful and unique personalities.

The knit and felted feathers are pinned and stitched onto the chicken by hand. (Courtesy of The City Girl Farm)

“We have a range of natural chickens to some crazy, colorful ones, and it’s so fun to see how the chickens reflect the personality of their collectors,” Linville said.

She noted that the chickens also reflect the diverse team of artisans behind them. As they bring “​​their unique creativity and unique life experiences” to their work, “these traits get expressed in the chickens in a way that I would have never imagined.”

“These artisans are so gifted, and I get excited to be here for them and encourage them to come out to create,” Linville said.

Each chicken is finished with a signature red comb. (Courtesy of The City Girl Farm)

Craftsmanship Worth Waiting For

Linville is passionate about telling stories of craftsmanship and artistry from her studio, and she hopes that more people will come to understand and value the time, effort, and love that goes into such uniquely made, handcrafted products. Even for herself, it’s been an enlightening journey.

“I’ve found that there are strong connections made every step of the way: the connections with the artisans, bringing out their creativity to the fullest; with the sheep from the farms where we take their wool to transform it into yarn; and then with the collectors who share their incredible stories,” she said. “The art of ‘chickening’ brings people together. All these connections are a manifestation of my faith in God.”

City Girl Farm
Depending on the customer’s requests, the final chicken may be more natural-looking, or crazy and colorful. (Courtesy of The City Girl Farm)

When buyers place orders with Linville’s team, they don’t expect to receive their footstools the next day—after all, a piece of luxury made to order and by hand needs care and thought. The studio takes only two or three custom orders per month. Linville initially worried that the long wait time would turn clients away, but she was pleasantly surprised to find that her customers have been happy to wait.

“I’ve found that they are understanding and honor our craftsmanship and give us the time and space we need,” she said.

That makes the final moment when the completed chicken is “adopted” all the more special. The chickens “spread joy,” according to Linville.

“And they bring me joy as well,” she said. “They’re something that the collectors can cherish with their loved ones for generations to come, I hope.”

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