Thursday, February 21, 2019

Cardboard Mailbox Pattern!

Today, I am excited to launch my first cardboard pattern!

CARDBOARD, people!
But also fabric!

Which is confusing, I know, so I'll first tell you the story behind it and then we'll talk about the pattern itself.

This cardboard mailbox was one of the first cardboard toys I made for my girls. This was back in 2008 - more than a decade ago - when Kate, my youngest, was only 3 months old. I find it amusing and somewhat poignant that it started out as a diaper box, the brand of which is eternally emblazoned on its inside surface, like an unintentional time capsule. Here's a picture of Emily (then 4) and Jenna (then a little under 2) playing mailpeople. They were so tiny, and next to them it was behemoth.

How they loved that mailbox. They colored all over it, of course, and used it for more than just mail. In the months and years that followed, it became a pretend library book drop, a "delivery" chute for groceries and whatever food-and-beverage establishment they were into at the time, a money depository, a hidey-hole for surprise gifts for each other (and us parents), and a prop for countless other pretend-play scenarios.

Then, a some months later, I made two more - one for the girls' preschool classroom and the other for a mom friend with two little boys, a baby girl on the way and serious cabin fever during one of the snowiest winters I could remember.

Fast forward more years: other cardboard toys followed, which the girls played with until they fell apart or were outgrown and had to be tossed into the recycling bin for want of space. This cardboard mailbox, though, was one of two cardboard toys we've saved (the other was the Faraway Tree). It's sitting in our attic now, a little worse for wear (and play), but still in perfect working order more than ten years later. Someday when the girls are grown and have kids of their own, they might unearth it and remember how it all began. Maybe it'll inspire them to carry on the tradition of building cardboard toys of their own.   

We loved that mailbox for so many reasons, but it has a special place in my cardboard-besotted heart over all the other pretend-play cardboard toys because it was the first. I didn't know it at the time - I mean, it was only ever just The Old Mailbox then - but I'd unwittingly opened a door to creative mania the sort of which I'd previously only ever enjoyed as a child myself. Suddenly, from that whit of a suggestion, it was possible to imagine that cardboard toys - handmade, custom-designed for the peculiar current interests of my kids - might be do-able, fun even. 

Certainly I'd made cardboard things before, but only as that odd child who'd preferred messing about with a roll of sticky tape to playing with dolls and blocks. But did I imagine other children might appreciate them also? Not until I'd actually watched my own offspring receive with surprised delight what was essentially a modified cardboard box and seen it elevate their pretend-play to a whole new level altogether. I will never forget that buoyant thrill - that the next few years could be filled with more of this - even while my everyminutes were anchored to a nursing infant, a diapered toddler, the countless other tugs in all their different domestic directions.

Those were full years, friends - zany and chaotic and exhilarating as a world with wee ones invariably is. But they were also one of the most creative phases of my life, ever. I rolled with it, forsook chores (and a tidy home) for it, and I've never looked back. 

Till now.

Of all the cardboard projects I've made and shared on this blog, that mailbox is the one for which I've received the most tutorial and instruction requests. I've always felt sad explaining to people that I don't typically write detailed cardboard tutorials (I prefer deconstructions). It's not just the matter of time - although there is that, too: cardboard projects are far more complex than fabric ones because they are three-dimensional and have to be constructed as three-dimensional (while even 3-D sewing projects, on the other hand, are largely still constructed in a flat 2-D plane under the presser foot). It's more the matter of nomenclature and format. For instance, what is our shared vocabulary that would enable me to direct you to turn a flat piece of cardboard (or a box) into a moving machine? Sewing patterns have been around for eons; there are technical terms, fancy symbols and diagrams that people are used to. The phrasing of sewing instructions is comfortingly familiar: "place the right sides of the fabric together, align all edges and sew through all layers using a 1/2" seam allowance." There are even standard sequences for making certain categories of projects (for example, one typically sews the shoulder seams before facing a neckline, or sews the side seams of a bag before attaching its base). 

Each cardboard project, however, is vastly different from another. Ask any child who has built a catapult, a ship, a dollhouse, or a diorama of their kitchen for a FACS project and they will tell you that there is no common starting point, no standard measurements to use, let alone a methodology. Add to that the complexity of moving parts and that simple box becomes a machine, a product of engineering and architecture in ways that a sewing project, no matter how twisty-turny and magically-morphing, never needs to be.

In other words, new frontiers to push!

Behold! Let us make this together:

Let me say from the outset that this Mailbox Pattern isn't a pattern in the traditional sense. By that, I mean that there aren't full-size templates you can print out, trace around onto flat sheets of cardboard to make a fixed-size mailbox. Your starting point is a cardboard box you've found in your house (or friendly neighborhood supermarket). Because its dimensions are unique, your finished mailbox may or may not be the same size as mine. 

But that's the beauty of the cardboard process: an enormous diaper box becomes a mailbox for a classroom; a small box of pantry staples becomes a desktop mailbox for post-it notes; in-between-sized Amazon shipping crates become mailboxes for a family of three or a playgroup of ten.

And I will teach you to make it with your box: the chute,

which swings out to receive stuff, 

the access door,

 and mail slot.

Let's talk nuts and bolts now. 

You will need a cardboard box (obviously), some additional scrap cardboard (for which you can cut up additional boxes, particularly for the larger add-on pieces), and craft tools you probably already have at home - scissors, a box cutter, masking tape and a hot glue gun (note: do not freak out over that yellow tube of UHU glue - I always keep some craft glue on hand for surface embellishing but you don't actually need it to make the mailbox).

You'll be making some custom-sized templates to help you cut out pieces that fit your particular box. Don't worry - I'll guide you through the process step by step. Accompanying the text instructions are over 100 photos -most of them annotated - spread over 30 pages. Here are a couple of sample pages. 

What about the fabric part of the pattern I hinted at earlier?

This mailbox is one part of a bigger pretend-play postal mail scenario involving letters and postcards and sending and receiving and delivering. Here's where the fabric comes in: the second project in the pattern is a Mailbag. It's a super simple sewing project that even beginner seamstresses can tackle. The ones in the pictures were sized for a 3-5-year old, but I've included dimensions in the pattern to size it down for younger/smaller kids and up for older/bigger kids. 

You can personalize it for the child in your life, like I did with this one (it's a gift for a little friend who just welcomed a baby sister into his world!).

It's fully lined, so there are no exposed seam allowances on the inside. This means you don't need a serger, just a regular sewing machine. It also means you don't need interfacing - the double layers provide adequate structure by themselves. At its simplest, it's a properly-finished double-layered bag whose inside is just as neat as the outside. Which also means that it's reversible, so you can use it inside out as a regular bag or embellish the second side for a totally different pretend-play scenario. Think messenger bag for a newspaper route, utility worker's carryall, student's satchel, doctor's kit, train or bus conductor's ticket purse, a laptop bag for an IT tech. Tuck the flap inside the opening and it becomes a hobo bag, a book tote, a multi-purpose shoulder purse.

Or personalize one side for Kid 1 and the other for Kid 2 (or not!).  Lots of possibilities!

Here are some info pages:

But let's not stop there. After all, this is Mailworld. When my kids played it all those years ago, they turned the entire house into a neighborhood of mail drops and correspondence networks. Maybe your kids want to do the same.

So I have two new tutorials for you coming up. One is to make these pretty (and very easy) solo-mailboxes to hang on bedroom door knobs,

The other is for this Mail kit

which, in addition to the Mailbag,

contains other mail supplies like stationery, printable (and color-able) postcards

 and stamps.

I gave these to my little friend Sam this week. 

I can't wait to hear all about the letters and cards he'll write and send to people he loves. 

If you'd like to bring Mailworld to your kids (and grandkids, nieces, nephews, godchildren, students and other wee ones in your lives), build a Mailbox, sew a Mailbag and send some love!

Buy the Outgoing Mail 2-in-1 instant-download pdf pattern here.

If you'd like a Mailbag but aren't inclined to go the DIY route, I've put a Mailbag in the old Etsy store for you to buy. It's the sample from the Outgoing Mail pattern and as my kids are well past the age (and size) to use it, I thought I'd make it available for someone else to enjoy. 

And check back here soon for the upcoming tutorials.
Happy making!


  1. How cool is that! Too bad I don’t have any littles around anymore. I do get a good supply of Chewy boxes, though. 😉

    1. GG: Me, too. Chewy boxes are Very Good Cardboard - strong yet easy to cut. Two thumbs up!

  2. This is really a great project. I know you will receive a lot of interested makers. Working with cardboard as a young mom, I also made some amazing stuff, and I still have cardboard.
    I used to have a kitty blog, and made an amazing kitty office for my two kitties. They still play in it
    I also made school furniture for the dolls, and a doll house. I have a few of those items still in the basement. OH! and a "grandfather clock" about 1/2 scale

    1. Rosemary, thank you for telling me about your blog! I am excited to check it out and read about your kitties and their cardboard adventures. I am new to the game, and not as chill as I should be as a new cat parent. I think I do too much, and respond to my kittens as if they were children on an accelerated growth spurt. Too much sentiment and not enough laidbackness. I have much to learn!

  3. I love the full circle of your first cardboard creation becoming your first cardboard pattern.

    What does FACS stand for?

    1. MaryAnne: Family and Consumer Science aka Homec!

  4. I am SO. EXCITED. about this pattern. I craft a lot with my kids with cardboard (the scale and complexity have definitely gone up over the years, largely inspired by your crafting!) but I have yet to make a really successful mailbox, so I'm really looking forward to trying it out. And the mailbags are the perfect extension, especially for my kids who are at a prime age for deep imaginative play. THANK YOU!


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