George Irwin, president of Irwin Toy, predicts that Little Souls will be ''the toy of the year," with $5 million in sales. Little Souls and Irwin also are negotiating a U.S. licensing deal.
Wilson's whimsical cloth dolls, dressed in a variety of pinafores, overalls, hats and children's shoes, retail for $100 to $275. More expensive versions, some costing thousands of dollars, are sold to collectors and folk- art museums.
In 1991, Wilson's company, Little Souls Inc., sold about 17,000 dolls, worth $1.4 million, in 900 U.S. and overseas outlets.
Wilson had almost no business experience when she and a partner, graphics designer Colleen Charleston, incorporated Little Souls Inc. in 1986. Mindful of their humble beginnings, they have worked to build a reputation as a socially responsible business, buying many materials for their dolls from underdeveloped nations.
For example, the company last year designed and began selling a Romanian Little Souls doll whose traditional clothing is handmade by residents of Ionesti, a tiny farming village in that country. The dolls are the first in a line of Little Souls "indigenous to countries where children are in crisis," according to the company. A percentage of the profits is earmarked for programs to assist Romanian orphans. The villagers of Ionesti have purchased a new tractor with their initial share of the proceeds.
Wilson also has gone to the African nation of Ghana, where she helped the women in the town of Kumasi start a Little Souls doll-making workshop.
The company has a doll shop called Gatherings in Center City's Liberty Place, where Irwin's version of Little Souls should have their first U.S. showing this summer, once the licensing agreement is completed.
Irwin unveiled the dolls at a festive June 15 annual meeting attended by hundreds of children - the firm's "junior shareholders" - and members of Toronto's baseball Blue Jays and hockey Maple Leafs. Officials said the dolls should be in stores across Canada by mid-July.
With licensing rights to other products such as Cabbage Patch Kids, the popular Sega video games and Oopsie Daisy dolls, Irwin is Canada's largest Canadian-owned toy company. It reported $105.9 million in sales for 1991, a 16 percent increase over the previous year.