Sewing Sustainable Toys

Hi Sewcialists! Back when I used to blog and sew for myself regularly, my “thing” was using sheets and curtains that I thrifted for yardage. I figured this was both cheaper and better for the environment than purchasing new fabric. I patted myself on the back for being so green and sustainable.

However… I was also an unnecessarily fast sewer. Because I was childless and just learning to sew, and this was the heyday of Sew Weekly, I used to churn out garments very quickly: one or two a week, for about three years! This had its good and bad points. Good: because I was immersing myself into sewing and practicing constantly, I was able to rack up hundreds, if not thousands of hours of practice, and since I didn’t have children to eat into my mental bandwidth, I was able to tackle challenging projects (a historical pirate coat! meticulous stripe and pattern matching! working with expensive beaded fabrics!) that stretched my patterning and sewing skills.

Unfortunately, my unfocused prolific output also produced a lot of duds that didn’t get worn much, whether due to fabric-pattern mismatch (it turns out that, surprise surprise, sheets don’t work for every type of garment!), garments that didn’t work for my body shape or lifestyle or existing wardrobe, or just plain poor fit. I ended up donating a lot of garments or passing them on to friends if I felt they were decent enough, and some I chopped up for muslins or kid clothes, but I still had a lot of pieces left over. My thrifty immigrant family background meant that I couldn’t bring myself to throw away scraps, though, so I hauled bags of scraps and remnants around through three moves, always thinking that I’d find a use for them in the elusive “someday.”

Fast-forward to last year, when my then three-year-old suddenly went through a unicorn phase. And then a dinosaur phase. And then an African animal phase. And then a marine animal phase. Basically he’s just a budding zoologist, and because he’s definitely my child, he’s also a collector at heart. This meant that he wanted ALL THE TOYS to go with all his interests. There’s no way I could afford to (and even if I could, I wouldn’t want to) buy all the animal figurines he wanted, and my brain felt like it was stagnating from all the mindless mom-activities, so I figured I would give myself the mental exercise of figuring out how to sew all the creatures he was interested in. And since plushies are small, I was finally able to use up a lot of the scraps I’ve been saving! Larger pieces worked for the actual pattern pieces, and the tinier scraps worked for stuffing once I cut them up a bit.

Here’s a look at a selection of his entire menagerie, representing fifteen months of requests and several phases of obsessions:

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Dinosaurs: Triceratops, Parasaurolophus, Stegosaurus, Liopleurodon, Diplodocus, Tyrannosaurs, Dimetrodon, Plesiosaurus, Ankylosaurus, Pterosaurs, Brachiosaurus

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African animals: hippos, rhinos, Cape buffalo, elephant, lions

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All the unicorns, with a couple bonus dragons and a pegasus

And now, for a picture of all the stuffed toys I’ve made:

I’m not sure what the moral of this story is: save all your scraps because you might use them five years later? Have demanding children so that you’re forced to unselfishly sew for them, thereby using up hoarded scraps? At any rate, in case you’re interested in sewing some stuffed toys for the kids in your life (or yourself, if you’re a kid at heart!), here are some tips:

  • For sewing the main body pieces, look for sturdy fabrics that don’t pill. Denim, coatings, twills, ponte, and fleece can all be great choices. The majority of mine are made of anti-pill fleece since that’s what I had on hand. Quilting cottons make for very washable, colorful creatures but depending on what you stuff them with, they may show more lumps. I would stay away from rayons and thin knits for the outer body and instead cut them into smaller pieces for stuffing. Thinner fabrics can also be used for smaller, non-stuffed body parts, such as tails and ears.
  • When using fabrics with stretch, like fleece, it’s important to pay attention to the grain so that your animals don’t turn out absurdly long or fat, depending on what look you’re going for. I generally try to make mine with the stretch going across the long skinny parts, i.e. legs and necks, to make for easier stuffing.
  • Because plushies tend to be smaller, sewing curved seams on such tiny pieces can get a little hairy. Don’t be afraid to draw in the stitching line, go slowly so that you can be accurate, and use smaller seam allowances or clip well so that your plushie doesn’t develop odd lumps in strange places. When things get really fiddly, I tend to switch to hand-sewing so that I have more control.
  • The final look of the plushie depends a lot on 1) its face, and 2) how well-stuffed it is. I like to stuff mine very firmly, so that all the curves are totally filled out, but if you want a floppier, squishier friend, you’ll want to make sure your filling is cut finely and then don’t fill it as much. Fabric scrap filling can result in a denser, lumpier plushie, so another greener option is to cannibalize old stuffed animals for their stuffing! Somebody gifted my son one of those huge teddy bears a couple years ago, and I’ve been slowly using up its innards for stuffing my own plushies.
  • If you’re new to plushie-making, you might find it helpful to make some from patterns before designing your own. I made several from free patterns I found online in order to familiarize myself with the types of shapes that would result from different kinds of pattern pieces. After making an assortment of animals and analyzing how they and their pattern pieces related, I had a much better idea of how to design my own animals to get the look I wanted.

Useful links for plushie-making and designing:

  • Free patterns:
    • Sew Desu Ne? has excellent, well-illustrated instructions to go with her free patterns for geeky plushies at a variety of difficulty levels. If you’ve never sewn plushies before, this is a great place to get started.
    • Nuno Runo has free patterns for many different animals, and is actually where I got the pattern for the stegosaurus. I used that pattern as my starting point for modifications for many other dinosaurs. Her zebra pattern was my starting point for my unicorns. Her patterns don’t all come with instructions, but once you get the hang of the general order of operations for plushie-sewing, I like them for their variety.
    • I also have simple patterns for some of the plushies I’ve made, such as (in order of least to most tricky): a basic customizable plushie that can be used to make a variety of animals, depending on the ear, limb, and tail pieces, a stylized stingray, a manatee, and a hammerhead shark.
  • Guidelines for plushie design that I found helpful:
    • LiEr of IkatBag is my mom-who-sews crush. She is an accomplished plushie designer and has a shop of downloadable patterns, but she also explains her design process here and here.
    • For the more mathematically minded of you (because there does seem to be a fair number of sewists in STEM careers!), this article explains how to use geometry to design plushies. Personally, my approach is a combination of these two.

I hope this inspires you to give plushie sewing a try! It’s fun to do something a little different as a palate cleanser in between garment sewing, and you can always donate your finished plushies to charities like The People’s Sewing Army!

I’m Cindy of Cation Designs (although my blog is now gathering dust; I’m much more active on IG these days), a mom of two (okay how weird is that to say), a science teacher, and an aspiring costumer/cosplayer.


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