Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Evolution of a Stuffed Toy Part 2: Tweaking the Design

Welcome back to the stuffed toy design process! Read Part 1 here, in which we began with a conceptual picture in our head and introduced foundational shapes upon which to build a basic softie design. In Part 2 today we'll be fine-tuning that design to look increasingly like the original mental image we started with. There are so many angles from which to approach this, and very little linearity to the process, so forgive me if this post feels a little all-over-the-place, okay?  On that note, let's begin with something concrete:

1 Body Parts
(Sounds awful, I know.) 
Anyone who's designed a stuffed toy will tell you that some body parts are more challenging than others to "get right". For instance, arms - since they don't  generally vary greatly from toy to toy - are usually easy. Feet, not so much. And heads are - at least for me - arguably the hardest. 

See, the actual face aside, there's the head's shape. I like round heads, the rounder the better. It is in fact my personal belief that roundheaded toys are instantly superior to those with other-shaped noggins. Sadly, not all animals  in nature actually have spherical heads. And while we as designers and seamstresses have the artistic license to interpret animals as we wish in our projects, we want to preserve at least a modicum of realism, don't we? I know I do. Sometimes when I've made a stuffed toy, I have my kids tell me, without any hints or clues, what animal it is. If they can't, or if they think it's a cat when it's actually a pig, I feel like it's a flop, even if it's the cutest thing ever.

So: shape. Now, while there are typical 3D construction models for various body parts, there are really no shortcuts to drafting them to look the way you want, in the proportion you need them to be in relation to other body parts. When you design a stuffed animal, you're essentially committing to quite a few iterations of three-dimensional shapes, tweaking them in ways that are sometimes systematic and sometimes completely random.  As an example, I'm going to walk you through my thought process as I was creating the bunny of the Bunny & Carrot pattern.

The first body part I drafted was the head. 

These are the templates of the first draft of the bunny's head.

I can't believe I'm saying this, but I actually didn't want a spherical head for this bunny. Kate's original Bunny had a spherical head and she asked me to "please not make this new bunny look the same". So I turned to biology - when I was in high school, we dissected rabbits, and I still have vivid memories of the shape of the skull, which conveniently inspired this version. Whoda thought that stuff you learn in school sometimes is useful after all?

So Real Life Rabbit Head Shape it was, then. See that piece with the wavy sides? Those were seam contours to vary the widths at different points of what was essentially a head gusset to give not just the head its particular 3D shape, but its neck as well. 

Now, there is no way to tell how close the first templates are to the form or size you want just by drawing amazing-looking 2D shapes on paper. The first muslin is when the action really begins. Even if you suspect it's totally off, go ahead and still make that first muslin because right away, you'll be able to see, in full 3D glory, what works and what doesn't.

Unsurprisingly, this first muslin didn't work (and I didn't even save it for photos). It turned out too fussy to have shaped the head and neck with the same gusset piece. So out went that top-of-the-head template for a second draft, and that became the muslin in the picture below. I included ears purely for positioning purposes (i.e. too far back? too far forward? angled correctly?), but because the focus was on refining the head shape, I didn't bother with the precise size of the ears.



a bit more dog than rabbit, I felt, which a more defined neck might fix, so I drafted new templates for both the side and top of the head and this was the next muslin below. 

Notice that the ears are still short, but they're double-layered now, and look more like the actual ears might be. Often we can make several muslins just to fine-tune one aspect of a stuffed animal, which of course is horribly time-consuming. To increase the efficiency of process, I like to combine several features into a single muslin if possible. For instance, this muslin above does four things:
  1. models the newest head templates in their finished form (main reason)
  2. tests the insertion of two layers of fleece into a seam (ears - angle, lift, fabric bulk)
  3. tests the angle of the head in relation to the body (neck)
  4. tests the size of the head in relation to the body (proportion)

Next is a full shot of that same muslin. In addition to the head, there are also many other aspects of the body that can be assessed :
  • size and shape of torso
  • length and thickness of arms
  • shape of arms
  • angle of arms
  • length of legs
  • shape and size of foot

and so on.

Right away it's evident that the head is too small for this body, the muzzle needs to stick out farther, the neck is too big for the head, the torso is too long, as are the arms, which need to be inserted closer to the neck, etc. 

Not being critical just to be hard on myself, people; this is the process of refining a design: I have a particular image in my head of what I want this rabbit to look like, and here are all the ways in which it does not. More importantly, by studying this muslin, I can formulate a list of changes to the next draft so that it does look more like that picture in my head.

Back to the drawing board, then. 

Here is a later muslin - the head is now closer to what I want. The ears have gone back to being one-ply because I'm focusing on reshaping the head.

Actual shape aside, there is also the issue of proportion. The head in the full-body muslin above was too small for the torso. So I enlarged the head by 10%, 15%, 20%, testing each new size with the same torso until I found a proportion I liked. Each head enlargement required scaling down its neck so that it still matched the same torso's upper opening. Here is a much later muslin of the new head-torso ratio - you can see how the neck is proportionally much smaller than the head. There are also no ears - not only was I satisfied with the ear shape at this point, the focus of this particular muslin was simply on the neck alignment between head and torso.

Let's skip over the numerous iterations that followed, in which I further tweaked the shapes of both the head and torso ad nauseam. Here are two photos showing that early muslin and the final Bunny. So many changes!

Final head

2  Grain and Stretch
The fabric plays a huge part in the final shape of the stuffed animal. Some fabric, like quilting cotton, canvas and vinyl, have no stretch and when used in stuffed animals, produce angular shapes and pronounced seams. I usually avoid such fabrics, but when I do work with them, I will draft more contoured seams and include darts to create softer and rounder final shapes.
in quilting cotton

Some fabrics have stretch in them, like fleece and knits. This stretch naturally produces rounder shapes with softer seams. I will almost always choose these fabrics when making stuffed animals - not only are they forgiving, but children love animals made with them because they are soft and cuddly.
in plush knit
L: in faux fur                                  R: in plush knit


Stretch can make the fabric behave inconsistently - it might stretch too much in one direction and not enough in another, and change the final shape of a head or a leg in ways you don't care for. Therefore, when you're drafting templates, grain alignment is also a Big Deal. Here are two photos of the same leg - the left was laid out with the greatest stretch in the vertical direction (i.e. parallel to the leg) and the right was laid out with the greatest stretch in the horizontal direction (i.e. parallel to the sole).

When drafting, therefore, we need to consider this stretch direction: in which orientation should the templates be laid out - along the grain, perpendicular to the grain or along the bias? And once we've decided on the direction, will the inherent stretch of the fabric produce a final shape that's different than what we want? If so, we will need to compensate for that by narrowing a template where the fabric will make that shape bulge, and so on.

3  Templates
All my working templates have no seam allowance. This makes it easy to trace around them to create duplicates and (where needed) in multiple sizes on which to introduce the modifications needed for each subsequent version. My working templates are also often on random paper lying around the house - magazine pages, scratch paper, advertisement flyers, etc  - whatever's handy and robust enough to stand up under scribbling, folding, multiple pin holes, taping, re-taping and anything else that falls under the category of "manipulation". 

At some point, they'll have been fine-tuned enough to trace or plot onto printer paper with seam allowances in preparation for publication. They'll still be a few iterations shy of Final, but any modifications from this stage on are minor and motivated by preference rather than function or fit. Tracing them on printer paper has an important advantage: I can scan them and print out as many copies as I need to tweak into new versions; I no longer have to manually trace them out. However, it takes time to plot and annotate templates for printing, which is why I do this only for the final stages of the draft, when I expect only minimal amendments.

Here is a shot of two sets of templates for the Carrot pattern - on the left is a version of my working templates without SA, and on the right is the first pattern-ready version with SA and annotations. 

Often, to save time, I won't create a full set of templates for each version; sometimes I've only changed the ears, or the leg, but not the torso or tail or head and it makes little sense to redraw those as well. With all the different iterations, it can be hard to keep track of which particular templates I've tweaked and which I've left as is because they were already perfect. To organize my sets of templates, I write numbers on them. All first-version templates are labeled "1". All templates I use in the second version, whether or not I've made any changes, are labeled "2", and so on. So whenever I need the most recent set of templates, I look for the pieces with the biggest number on them. 

Here's an example:

There are two belly templates in the photo above. The one on the left was used in versions 1 and 2 and then I made a change and it was no longer usable from then on. The belly template on its right is the most current version "3". The same foot template was used in versions 2 and 3. The ear template needed no change and could then be used through all three versions. If I wanted to make a sample Bunny with the most current templates (version 3), I'd pick the ones that have the largest number 3 i.e. the three templates on the right. Of these three, only one (the belly) is a truly "new" template - the other two are old(er)-version templates but still work in the newest version. 

This numbering system also helps me keep track of the changes even while preferring the latest version. There are times when I've reverted to an earlier version of a template because it actually worked better than a later one that had gone through too many changes to be relevant. I was glad to have saved them!

4 Faces

I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that the face of a stuffed animal is its entire personality. I've had the experience of standing in a store with a kid trying to pick a stuffed animal, and we'd be sifting through 1 million $12.95 pink rabbits to find "the one with the best face". In all other respects, those 1 million rabbits were identical - identical fur, identical color, identical shape, identical everything - except for their faces. I concluded that because faces give stuffed animals their souls, they are therefore also a Big Deal.

What is a good face then?

There are rules of thumb, of course. Like eye spacing and eye size, or face-to-head size ratio. Symmetry generally produces beautiful faces (although this may or may not translate to actual cuteness). Space small eyes wide apart to achieve an innocent look. Happy mouths naturally endear stuffed animals to most children. Sad mouths produce forlorn expressions but this may not necessarily be a bad thing because if done right, The Forlorn Expression is a far more powerful evoker of nurturing feelings in children - and adults - than a bland happy face. Kate's original Bunny does not have a happy face - instead, she has the kind of face that, depending on her posture, can be anything from forlorn to sassy to plaintive to fake-innocent. 

I begin creating a stuffed animal's face early in the design process. As soon as I have a semi-functioning head shape, I add the face. Often it's just the eyes and nose. I use marker dots, then black ball-headed pins and felt circles in different sizes that match the safety eyes I will eventually install. 

Here's a lineup of some of the bunny samples. See if you can spot the earlier ones -they're the ones with experimental eye sizes and quite disparate expressions. As I fine-tuned the facial feature layout, the faces - while still unique - became more consistent.

Refining the Face
Left: early sample; Right: final sample

5 Turning a design into a tutorial or pattern 
If you're creating a stuffed animal for the sheer pleasure of designing and making, this is pretty much the end of the journey. You will now have a 3D stuffed animal that looks as close as possible to a mental image that was your inspiration - hurrah!

If, however, you also want to share the instructional process, a methodical documentation of the stages of construction and adjustment might be helpful.

Here is the very rough sequence I use when creating samples for a tutorial or pattern. 

Round 1: 
I make templates and just sew. I make samples, tweak the templates and make more samples. I try different fabrics, different grain orientations, different construction sequences. At this stage, my templates have no SA to facilitate changes to shape and size. I don't record any instructions or sequences. I don't take photos. My focus is on making the best version of the stuffed toy.

Round 2: 
Once I have a satisfactory Final Version of The Stuffed Toy, I begin to record my construction method. I did this previously in list-form on paper, but I found it too static, particularly when I needed to add a diagram or details after the fact, or change the sequence. 

Here's what I now use - post-it notes.

Each post-it note = one distinct step. 

Because I'm accustomed to writing tutorials and patterns, I often see construction sequences from that angle. In this instance: 

each post-it-note = one distinct step = one instructional photo in a tutorial/pattern.

Working on one sample from start to finish, I document each step, adding diagrams, details, measurements and tips, in point form rather than prose. I stick the post-it notes on my table/ my notebook in the sequence in which I fill them, which may or may not be the final sequence in the tutorial/pattern. When the sample is completed, I will have a series of post-it notes containing instructions to make it. 

Round 3: 
I photodocument the process. I'll have cut out another sample - this is the one who will star in my tutorial, so the fabrics have high contrast, the pieces have clean edges, etc. I sew this sample, taking photos at every step, using the post-it sequence as a guide. This is the most time-consuming part of the documentation - it often takes three to four times as long to make this sample than you guys will while following my (eventual) tutorial/pattern.

Round 4:
I sit at my computer and write the instructions. I don't worry about whether two edges are 1/4" off, or if the dimensions are correct or if the sequence is perfect. The point of this round is to write so that at the end of it, l'll have a draft to edit. Then I set it aside.

Round 5: I sew more samples, enough so I become aware of a preferred sequence. This sequence may not be the same as the one in Rounds 1 and 2 because now I am sewing for the purpose of feeling natural, and not for birthing a provisional method.

Round 6: Now I read my draft from Round 4. I rearrange the sequence if necessary and check measurements and templates to ensure that edges align and match. I trace out final templates with SA, scan them into a document and print them out as if I were an actual pattern user. I use them to make more samples, and to verify yardage. I edit and re-edit subsequent versions of the draft to reflect all the changes in this round.

Round 7: I make a final sample based on my own instructions from start to finish. This is when I often realize I need more photos, or that some photos in the draft were annotated wrongly or could've been more clearly explained. It's also when I finalize all the measurements and inadvertently discover that leg doesn't quite fit the foot as I'd thought, and I need to re-test and re-draw certain templates. 

And here we wrap up! I hope this has been an interesting look at what goes on behind the scenes when I'm designing a stuffed toy. Looking forward, I am excited to share the next couple of posts with you because they are tutorials for accessories for the Bunny!  See you back here soon!


  1. Wow, what a huge amout of work goes into your patterns, I am in awe. It also explains why some of the toys I made from older 'make your own stuffed animals' type books are not actually very attractive when finished as they are a book of prototypes which have not been fine tuned to this level.

  2. These have been some of my favorite blog posts ever. It is so interesting to see the process step by step and all of your hard work.

  3. It is so interesting to read that. Following your pattern, it's evident that a lot of work went into making it, but still, I did not fully realized how much. That is amazing. Thank you for sharing !

  4. Oh my goodness. I had no idea creating a pattern for a soft toy was so complex. It's no wonder you end up with such beautiful patterns. Personally I'm amazed you ever get a pattern ready for sale!

  5. All of the details in this process are exactly the reason I love your patterns so much. I think it is actually rare to see so much thought and work go into pattern design, particular toy pattern design. It's inspiring.


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