epa-efeXonacatlan, Mexico

This small city in central Mexico is a hive of activity ahead of Valentine's Day, the time of the year when dozens of local companies manufacture stuffed animals at an accelerating rate and get their largest sales numbers for the year.

Most of the 46,400 inhabitants of Xonacatlan, located about 65 km (40 mi.) from Mexico City, have some sort of job related to creating the cuddly dolls for which their town is known throughout the Aztec nation.

Unicorns, owls, panda bears, Mario Bros. video game characters, frogs and the iconic Mickey and Minnie Mouse are just some of the figures they assemble in Graciela Juarez's factory, El Universo del Peluche (Stuffed Animal Universe).

"St. Valentine's is the season I like the most, I can let my creativity and my imagination soar, I can make new things with a little something different," she said.

The floor and machines of this factory are primarily covered with huge gray or tan stuffed bears holding red hearts with embroidered statements of love in their arms.

But there are also white unicorns with multicolored horns and blue plush figures representing the koala-like alien from Disney, Stitch.

"The classic (stuffed animals) this holiday are bears with hearts, but this year unicorns, unicorn pigs and Stitch have also been big sellers," Juarez said.

In the run-up to Valentine's Day, all the stuffed toy factories in Xonacatlan work at maximum capacity with workers making a special effort to turn out the huge number of products needed to meet demand, but even so "sometimes the production doesn't meet" the number of orders, Juarez said.

Although the factory and the three retail stores that Stuffed Animal Universe has stay open all year, demand increases significantly on Children's Day (April 30), Mother's Day (May 10) and, of course, Christmas.

The company handles the entire process.

First, the team led by Juarez works on designing the toys, then the molds and patterns are built and finally the materials are bought.

Once the material is selected, it is cut and then put together by the seamstresses, who take between six and 30 hours - or more - to turn out one of their creations.

"It's fun to work on stuffed animals because it's like putting together a puzzle piece by piece," said Veronica Garcia, one of the factory's seamstresses.

After the seamstresses assemble the doll, then they fill in the interior with plush to shape the figure and finally they move on to the external decoration and detailing process.

Last but not least, each stuffed animal goes through quality control procedures to detect any mistakes or flaws, and then the toy is brushed and shipped to retail stores for sale.

Juarez has been growing her business for 21 years, and currently it employs about 50 workers, most of them seamstresses who work from home.

"We lend them the machine and we take the work to them because they are looking after their family and working at the same time, they are people who have been in the company for some time and this guarantees that they will do a good job," Juarez said.

After so many years of dedication to her stuffed animal business, Juarez hopes that her children will continue the legacy of her work and improve the quality of the product even more.

"One works with that aim. I hope they keep perfecting this because we started in a rudimentary way and now we've got a lot of machinery to make the process more efficient. I hope they can continue the business and improve it," she said.

By Ines Amarelo.