Sunday, October 24, 2021


So this is the post about the Menagerie animal that didn't fit the mold.

I mean, it's a giraffe. 

You know, lanky. Slender. Long neck. Verrrrrry loooooong neck.

See where this is going? 

Let's just say that I was slightly dismayed when I found out that this was Emily's Secret Sister's favorite animal. While I like to think that it's possible to pull just about any animal out of the Menagerie template, there are notable exceptions. Snakes, for one; snakes would be hard. But snakes are also essentially just tubes, meaning that they could be made independently of Menagerie. Emily herself did, once upon a time.

And giraffes would've been another.

Although, given the title of this post, and the promise of numerous brag photos to follow, I say "would've" with a dash of irony.

Anyway, I thought it might be fun to document the process of stretching the boundaries of Menagerie, if you'll pardon the pun. You know, to see if instead of only being a base template, it could also be a teaching model for how to design a stuffed animal in general. Besides, if there's anything I love about sewing, it's imparting the fundamental principles underlying it, and pushing the limits while doing so. 

I've written in the past about my soft toy design process, and you can read some of it here and here if you're so inclined. In the light of those posts, today's material might read like old news, but let's start at the beginning anyway.

First, when I am conceptualizing a stuffed toy, I draw it. Sometimes I know right away how to make it - everything from the material to the sequence to the familiarity of the various body parts. Often, this happens because I've made something similar before, so that this new toy is simply a tweak on that earlier one. Other times, the way forward isn't clear, and I have to mull over it for a while before inspiration comes. In those cases, I often find myself sketching obsessively - on scraps of paper, backs of receipts, in the margins of sermon notes in church, etc. - while trawling the internet for photos of the real-life animal for reference.


Then I'll continue to draw the same thing over and over again, as if a part of me hopelessly believes that the repetition will somehow morph into something new which had previously been hidden from me. It could take hours, days, weeks - but I'm not anxious, or edgy. There's merely a kind of tension, like an idea playing hard-to-get as it dances on the borders of your mind. 

Sometimes, as I sketch, I'll experiment with new shapes, or focus on one part of the project that seems especially inaccessible.

When I'm ready to take this from paper to fabric, I'll start by making a muslin of that one part of the animal (never the whole thing) that seems to have particularly stymied me - in this case, it was the head. Actually, it's usually the head, now that I think of it. You can see in the single head sketch above that I'm playing around with the seams and the concept of a round nose.

This was the first head iteration. In spite of it being this animal's most distinguishing feature, the neck itself is not very giraffey in this first muslin. It will get worked on, but only later because this is how important the head is to get right first.

This design is a very common one, incidentally. Vast numbers of animals are made with this head design. It's literally a leaf-shaped gusset straddling the two side pieces to make them 3D rather than flat. I often start with this design because for something so simple, it often works, producing a spectacularly round head. The carrot-suit bunny has this head design, for instance (and yes, its head is indeed quite fetching and yes, I obsessively tweaked it early in the process). For a giraffe, however, this style was wrong in all sorts of ways - it made me think of snakes and the dubious photo of Nessie and that horrific chestbursting alien creature in the movies. 

Do you see the two faint blue lines I've drawn across the gusset piece? Those are important for situating the horns and nose later. Even though I tossed this head design, this muslin was useful for visualizing the proportions and positions of other head bits.

This next disturbing-looking weirdness was the second muslin. Look - there's a distinct muzzle/nose thingy now - the blue positioning lines from the first muslin enabled me to incorporate that here. This second design is quite different - the gusset is no longer a leaf-shaped top piece that tapers to a point at the nose. Instead, it retains a relatively consistent width as it wraps around the entire nose area and down past the chin, narrowing slightly into a neck before widening again into the chest and belly.

Here are the first and second muslins together. The second muslin is decidedly more giraffey, and I love that the nose is enormous. Animals with large noses are astoundingly cute. Like dogs photographed close up, their inquisitive black sniffers squished gigantically against the camera lens.

However, this nose is far too boxy. There are sharp edges to it that make it look angular and amateur in a world where noses are softly and beautifully round. 

The fix: contouring. 

I used some baseball curves on just the gusset piece. 

Muslin # 3: much better. Do you see how the sides of the nose are now no longer boxy and instead rounded? 

Here's another view.

Now that the nose is worked out, we can attend to the neck. Here's a throwback photo to the second, boxy-nosed muslin - do you see how the poor thing doesn't actually have a neck, so that the head looks simultaneously undefined and too long? This is because the gusset tapers to a point that's too far down the body.

In the third muslin, the gusset is much shorter, ending closer to the front of the head, which has the instant effect of distinguishing the head (bulgy) from the neck (not bulgy). At this point, we can start fine-tuning the position of the horns and ears,

as well as the eyes and nostrils,

Also the limbs. These arms and legs are pretty standard Menagerie ones - even the hooves which, if I remember right, are the Pig's. However, the arms are attached quite a bit lower than in the usual Menagerie animal, to accentuate the height of the animal's upper half and give the illusion of a longer neck than it actually has.

I made a fourth muslin after this, which I didn't bother to photograph. This fourth muslin featured a more elevated neck i.e. I didn't care for how droopily the heads had hung in the first three muslins. Not only was this contrary to the Menagerie principle of earnest, upturned faces, it also presented a challenge to the animal's ability to stay upright.

All the tweaks thus completed, I cut the pieces out of the real fabric and made the final (fifth) version. 

Behold the Menagerie giraffes:

I love them so much. They're Menagerie, yet beyond -

some parts are stout and compact; others slender and extended.

As always, I learn something new when doing animal research for a Menagerie creature: giraffes are not yolk yellow as I'd always imagined. Many of them aren't even yellow but ivory or white or sometimes a light tan. Hence this pale yellow fleece for my giraffes: while they aren't as striking as many other yellow-yellow giraffe softies, they're anatomically closer to nature, which I'm okay with.

Those round noses make me unspeakably happy,

and I'm doubly pleased that their faces are indeed upturned and earnest. Everyone who's seen them instinctively lowers their own noses to nuzzle them.

When I was conceptualizing this giraffe, I briefly entertained the idea of using a giraffe-print fabric to make the final outcome more obviously giraffey. When I went shopping, I promptly discovered two things: one, giraffe prints are hard to find in person, and not that much easier online. And two, the prints that I did find were of a much larger scale than would be suitable for a giraffe of this size; they were better matched to a 6' room model or a human-sized giraffe bodysuit. I decided then that the giraffe's spots should be interpretative rather than literal and appliqued randomly-placed trapezoidal brown patches on the otherwise solid yellow fabric. Personally, I think these are a lot cuter than an all-over print, and much easier for most people to replicate, besides. 

A couple more things to highlight: one, the mane.

Do real giraffes have variegated manes? No. But this was the yarn I had on hand, and I made a row of curly loops in a spectrum of brown and it all somehow worked.

Two, the horns and ears. This was really the only fiddly part of the construction, because all four had to be inserted in the seams of that small triangle at the pointy end of the head gusset - horns in the horizontal seam across the forehead; ears folded into the side seams along the head. It was a tight squeeze under the presser foot, and if you make this yourself someday, be patient here. And be prepared to stitch and restitch to catch all those ends in the seams.

Here's the final Giraffe alongside that first prototype - quite the evolution from its humble beginnings.

Four muslins to make this little guy.

Makes the two-hour fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants Dolphin-making process sound absolutely haphazard, doesn't it? 

Thursday, October 21, 2021


Okay, you know the Other Secret Sister Animal I was telling you about in the last post - the one which didn't fit the stereotypical chunky Menagerie shape? This isn't it. I've changed my mind - we'll get to meet that elusive critter in the next post. In today's, however, you get to see what I call a Last-Minute Menagerie Animal instead, which is what happens when I have a creature in my head that I can't shake off even after trying for weeks and eventually give in but I have only a couple of hours to design and sew it and common sense should tell me to let it go already but it doesn't and I can't and, well.

Embarrassing, yes, this lack of self-control. But as long as we're being transparent, let's just hear the whole sordid tale, shall we? 

Remember the quokka? In her Secret Sister Get To Know Me form, Jenna's friend actually named two favorite animals: the quokka and the dolphin. When I first saw her response in the form, I wanted to make the dolphin. Two reasons: one, the dolphin was shark-esque and I'd made a shark before. A dolphin felt like a simple tweak on that design. And two, what in tarnation even was a quokka?

But since this was not my gift, I let Jenna weigh in. She picked quokka (of course she would - the thing is cuter than a zillion baby kittens, even I could admit that).

So quokka it was. And I sewed it. End of story.

Except I still wanted to make the dolphin.

"It's not about you, O foolish woman with hopeless tunnel vision," I said. "Let it go."
And it worked for a while, this brilliant self-counsel.

Until it didn't, because the more I tried to convince myself that the world didn't need a Menagerie dolphin, the more I became obsessed with making one. 

Finally, on the day the girls were supposed to present their gifts to their Secret Sisters, I caved. It'd been a long fight and I knew from past experience with obsessions (cardboard, nutella, ikat, round things, etc.) that I was going to lose anyway. Still, I had just about two hours to do it - surely that was deterrent enough? Might my common sense put up one last defence and somehow emerge victorious? 

Apparently not. 

Because - I'm somewhat ashamed to say - I made the dolphin.

Let it be said here that this is not how I typically make a Menagerie animal. On the occasions when I'm not mentally unsound, I take my time to visualize the various appendages and carefully measure and consider proportions and ratios and do muslins and all those other delayed-gratification things that responsible Soft Toy Makers include in their Formal Design Process. So that by the time a Menagerie animal is photographed for the blog, it's usually gone through a couple of iterations at least, to iron out any weird bulgy or otherwise comically misshapen bits. 

This one I made by the seat of my pants, as it were. Literally eyeballed lengths and widths - the fluke, the dorsal fin, the pectoral fins, 

even the snout. Which really should have been skinnier, but whatever.

I did, however, slow down long enough to think about that smile. Because, if you remember, I failed spectacularly with the quokka's. And while I might be able to get away with an unsmiling marsupial that's relatively unheard of in this part of the world, everyone knows what a dolphin is, and everyone who's ever seen a dolphin will tell you that there is no such thing as a grim-looking one.

So, this mouth seam - it's wavy. It curves one way in one section and the other way in the next, and the curve in the grey piece of fabric is matched to the opposite-direction curve in the corresponding location in the white. It isn't hard to sew, but one has to be intentional about those curves, clipping seam allowances and easing them together so they line up without stretching themselves straight and taut. That smile is the one thing about this dolphin that made me feel like I was being purposeful in a process that seemed to otherwise border on cavalier. 

If this were a normal design experience, this dolphin would be a prototype and I'd look at it and make notes on what I'd do differently in Version 2.0. Like taper the back end much more toward the tail/fluke so it isn't nearly as chunky as the head. And streamline the snout, as mentioned. Plus maybe experiment a little with the arch of the belly. But because my dolphin-making obsession has abruptly and miraculously evaporated, this is likely also my final version. It's funny how obsessions are that way.

And yes, Jenna did give this to her friend along with the quokka! 

Tuesday, October 19, 2021


Happy October, everyone!

I was very excited to read what everyone guessed might be the identity of this creature - thank you for giving it a shot! It is indeed a quokka, a marsupial native to Australia. Although the real animal is quite a bit less hairy and very much more smiley. I can, however, absolutely see how people might have thought it was a rodent! I also had to google "nutria" when some of you suggested it, as I'd never heard of that, either, and yes, it bears an uncanny resemblance to that animal, too. I love learning about new animals!

But let me first tell you a little of the backstory to this quokka-making venture. My two older girls are in their high school's swim and dive team (one swims, the other dives) and at the start of every season, the team captains organize a Secret Sister game to facilitate team bonding, sort of like a Secret Santa thing that continues through the entire season. Each girl is assigned a benefactor and beneficiary and at each home meet, they give gifts to their beneficiary and receive small gifts from their benefactor, all without divulging anyone's identity. To help the girls buy meaningful gifts, everyone fills out Get To Know Me forms at the start of the game, providing info like favorite color, animal, candy, snack, allergies, and so on. At the last home meet of the season, the girls splurge on a larger gift and everyone reveals their identitties. Emily participated in this in her first year in the team, and I made her beneficiary a deer and fawn Menagerie pair, her then-Secret Sister's favorite animal. 

This year, we pored over the Get To Know Me forms and behold - Jenna's Secret Sister's favorite animal was a quokka. I'd never heard of it (and I certainly couldn't pronounce it). But boy, was it a cutie - when we'd googled and found photos of it, we fell in love with it immediately. And Menagerie-potential-wise, it was the perfect shape: stout, compact, smallish head, overall fattish and cuddly. 

However, there weren't many distinguishing features: a quokka is furry (but its fur s a generic brownish-grey), it has a large black nose (but so do koalas, wombats and dogs), and an-almost-furless tail (but so do a zillion other animals). How, then, might I make something identifiable which was simultaneously beaverish, teddybearish, rodentish, and with a certain capybara-ishness thrown in?

Fortunately, what did set it apart from the other animals in the above imposter list was that it was a hopping marsupial with powerful hind legs and a pouch for young. And there was the fur, of course - unlike most of the Menagerie critters I've made, this one couldn't be rendered in bald fleece; its furiness was part of the deal. So I dug into my faux fur stash, and, having never met a quokka in person myself, picked the fabric that was closest to the "greyish-brown" in the internet descriptions.

So: Quokka. Let's deconstruct.

Its design is a little different than the typical Menagerie animal in that the leg is integrated into the body piece, so there isn't a seam where the leg might normally be attached to the main chunk of the body.

The leg ends in a funny little four-toed foot. The arms, incidentally, end in little black fingers, but these are hidden deep in the fur, unfortunately.

The tail is "largely hairless", according to one internet article, which made me think of rat tails, which seemed a bit stark for an otherwise overfurry animal. So I used another faux fur fabric with very flat-lying fibers - the tail looks hairless, but actually has a pretty decent pile. And for those of you who guessed that this might have been a mole, this tail fabric is exactly what I'd use if I ever made one!

Finally, the face. Here is where I fell quite short, sadly. 

The real life quokka's face is smiley and just plain adorable. However, much of that was lost in this thick fur. No smile, for one, short of stitching one on in neon pink chunky yarn, I mean.

Also, one of its eyes was especially deep-set so I had to trim the fur around it just so it would be visible.

And in case you were wondering, I didn't make the pouch - or the joey. It was challenging enough to work with the thick fur for an animal this size - the smaller joey pieces would make me lose my mind, I think.

Otherwise, I think it turned out the way I imagined it in my head, plus so many of you guys were able to tell what it was, which was hugely encouraging. So I'm going to let go of the bits which were disappointing.

(By the way, Jenna said it looked like a teddy bear. I know what she'd meant: there was definitely something ewok-y about its face. And ewoks are cute. I'll take it.)

I only hope her Secret Sister recognizes it for what it is!

Next up is the animal I made for Emily's Secret Sister. It's hilarious, because it totally doesn't fit the Menagerie stereotype, but we somehow made it work!

Monday, October 18, 2021

Name The Critter

Hello, all!

So, last week I made this creature.  

Before I was asked to make this (it's a gift for the friend of one of my kids), I had never heard of it. And when I'd finished it, I wondered if the recipient would even be able to identify it. So thought I'd ask you guys if you could tell what it was. Anyone want to take a shot? I'll reveal the answer before the end of the week.