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? 


  1. Your giraffes are beautiful & they made me smile too. One of the photos (maybe one of the prototypes) made me think this shape would also work for a dinosaur, if you ever get that request.

  2. I love it! So cute and very giraffe-y even with the big squishy body and short legs. The nose is perfect.

  3. I love your posts! Always so interesting to read.

  4. I hope you are going to sell the giraffe pattern. It is so cute 😍

  5. Adorable, simply adorable!
    Thank you for sharing your process from idea to the final project.

  6. So adorable! I really enjoyed seeing more of the creative design process in this post, too.

  7. omg - i love all the parts of it and would nuzzle its nose immediately!


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