When Wendy Tsao's son came home from kindergarten with a stick-man self-portrait, it sparked an idea that would become a global trend: she would make a soft toy based on his drawing.

"He recognised it right away and said, 'That's me, I made that.' That's when I decided to make toys based on children's drawings," she says.

Born in Montreal to Taiwanese immigrants, Tsao trained as an architect before relocating to Vancouver and becoming a landscape painter. That job, however, didn't fulfil her, she says, but collaborating with children to make soft toys hit the spot.

"I could use the right side of my brain and the left. It was, to me, practical and also artistic because I was interpreting what was in the drawing," she explains.

In 2007, Tsao opened Child's Own Studio in her Vancouver home. Charging C$49 per toy at first, she raised the price to C$249 (HK$1,475) as demand grew.

Some of Tsao's commissions have had touching stories: one man submitted a drawing his fiancée had made as a child, of a stuffed toy she had been upset to lose; the mother of a little girl who had died of cancer asked for one of her daughter's drawings to be realised as a soft toy.

"She wanted to have something she could hold and that's what a doll is - something to cuddle and give comfort. I never forget that one."

When she began, Tsao says, she had the market to herself. Toy companies weren't interested in personalised products, they wanted to make batches of at least 500 to 1,000 units.

But as demand grew - at her peak, Tsao was making 20 dolls a month; efforts to impose a cap of 100 orders per year failed - other artists emerged, who she would recommend to customers. The creations of Doodlie Softie, in Budapest, Hungary; My Own Cuddly, in the United States; and Cwtch Club, in Cardiff, Wales, to name a few, are showcased on Tsao's website, www.childsown. com. Recently, a Chinese manufacturer announced it would start making individual toys, at C$69 a pop.

A few months ago, having made 700 unique soft toys, from mermaids and monsters to cowgirls and kings, Tsao retired.

But she hasn't ruled out one day returning to the craze she started. "I tell people I'm taking a break," she says.