Pre-Halloween is the best time for novelty fabric remnants

It’s hard to tell from the picture, but the purple is a dancewear related to the blue-and-green that I use for beanie dragon eyes. It’ll make fun shiny purple beanie dragons, probably fleece-interlined as I talked about last week. The other one is a black velvet with purple sparkles which, you will note, has already accumulated cat hair. Le sigh.

Never visit a fabric store without hitting the remnant bin.

Sewing plushies with cosplay, costume, and special occasion fabrics

I am a sucker for novelty fabrics, so right now – coming up on Halloween in a year that’s seen fabric stores (well, JoAnn anyway) lean hard into the cosplay trend – is catnip for me. I was just picking up some thread when a check of the remnant secion turned up some of the green holo scale fabric.

I already have this fabric in black, white, and purple, which might surprise people because you’re right, you haven’t seen a dragon made from it here yet. I started one of the standing plushie dragons, and got as far as sewing and stuffing its body before setting it aside because the thin dancewear-type fabric just showed lumps and wrinkles way too much.

I happened to pick up a chunk of clearance fleece at the same time, thinking I might make some beanie dragons out of it. It happened to match the mint-y teal-y color, so I thought maybe this time I could compromise and use the scale fabric as an accent and let the fleece carry the structure and, well, of COURSE.

I’ve solved the lumpiness problem in costuming before, when I had the perfect fabric for a dinosaur tail in quilting cotton. I interlined that tail in half-inch foam, so fleece was just scaling down the idea.

“Interlining” is just a matter of cutting a piece of lining fabric the same shape as your main fabric piece, and sewing it as one. Sometimes you baste the two together in the seam allowance, but since I was running this on the embroidery machine I was dealing with rectangles and not pre-shaped pieces.

Now, not all fancy fabrics work to make plushies, even with interlining. They’re not made with the expectation they’ll be sewn into tiny pieces that will rub past each other while simultaneously being stretched into sharp curves and so on. A lot of foiled fabrics will rub the shiny right off doing this. Both the scale and dot fabrics here have gaps, and they’re a rubbery material, so there was less cracking and splitting than usual. The price to pay was that they’re a little grippy, and that tail was only barely possible to turn. Test your fabric before you commit to it: stretch it, rub it against itself, see if you can damage it. (If you’re doing this on the bolt in the store, please confine yourself to the selvedge!)

Others are woven fabrics, which definitely change the dynamics of sewing plushies. Monday’s post was all about dragons I made with quilting cotton but there are three factors at play there. One, the patterns are made to be flat-sewn (matching two same-shape pieces together, no fitting curves). Two, in all cases the woven fabric is on only one side, leaving the minky on the other side to make up for the lack of stretch. And three, they’re all very small pieces, so there isn’t a lot of wrinkling and easing to happen. For a larger plushie, you’ll have to add more darts and easing to use a fabric without stretch.

Even some knits lack sufficient return – if you poke it with a turning tool, sometimes you’re left with a bloop that doesn’t flatten out. Interlining will shield it from that somewhat, but be careful about your turning tools.

Dancewear/swimwear fabric tends to be tougher than costume/special occasion fabrics. For fray-prone wovens, you’ll definitely need to leave a generous seam allowance to keep from blowing out toes and noses and whatnot. Again, a tough interlining will help take the strain off the outer fabric, but a stretchy interlining will help less with a woven outer fabric so think about using a muslin interlining for a woven fabric. You can even interline your interlining if you need the loft of the fleece but the stabilization of a woven interlining.

The interlining was key, though. The beanies have, well, beans (tiny plastic pellets), and with a thin dancewear fabric alone that belly would have been a weird pocked landscape.

A non-interlined plushie made with dancewear fabric has to be stuffed to within an inch of its life, bloating it and, in the case of foiled fabrics, distorting or tearing the surface decoration. Otherwise it’s prone to developing lumps and pleats and bloops and tucks that would be hidden by a pile fabric but which are right out there for everyone to see on a sleek foiled swimsuit fabric.

Interlining does add bulk to the seams, though. Trim the seam allowances, especially on flat things like the wings. If I did it again I’d have used something lighter, probably a flannel, in the wings. They’re flat even after turning so a woven interlining would be fine, and it really only needed the reinforcement on the upper side for the satin-stitch applique.

And ohhh, that applique… Dancewears are soft and stretchy and grippy and they love to grab onto the flat part of scissors and raise up a little wrinkle that will get snipped without you even feeling it. Sharp scissors can easily slice into it, and even applique scissors don’t entirely fix it. I like the effect on the dragon wings, but be warned: any time you need to cut away something from the surface of a fabric like this it adds a lot of labor and time and possibility for screw-ups.

Long story short, you can get some really neat results with specialty fabric, but be prepared to coddle it a little… or a lot.

Figuring out a 5×12″ hoop

One of the first things I bought for my machine was a set of four Embroidex hoops 📦. The Brother PE-800 comes with a single 5×7 hoop, which is enough to get by, but 4×4 uses up less stabilizer and, it later turned out, having a second 5×7 was useful for mass-producing. If you’re gonna do a design with forty-leven color changes, might as well sew at least two.

The other two hoops are a tiny one for pocket designs, and a 5×12″ monster with three attachment points. When I made the solid-color crowntail dragon, I sewed its wing piece in two hoopings because alignment (other than front-to-back) wasn’t that critical. But it would be really nice, with the extremely festive pre-printed ones, if I could carefully align it once, nail it down, and stitch it out. It was time to figure out that 12″ hoop.

If you look closely at that picture, you can see a bunch of white thread. That was a bunch of trial patterns wherein I confirmed that the attachment points are 6cm apart. Very good: the next step was to break my design up into two pieces that each fit in a 5×7″ stitching area, and move one 12cm onto the other (to the left, in the case of that wing).

The attachment points are in the bottom of the picture above, and the little arrows show where the two designs meet. The lower one, which ends up on the left when the thing is in the machine, was a perfect match. The upper two overlapped by an extra stitch. The larger hoop can distort more easily, so that may be what’s happening here. If it’s consistent, I may be able to find a rotation that corrects for it.

So, you may wonder, how does one take an existing pattern and split it up? Welllllll… I’m told commercial software can do it, but I don’t know which one or how. With Ink/Stitch, it’s a manual process, but it works on imported designs as well as native ones. Import the file if you’re not using your own SVG, find a natural break point, break the node and the path. Rinse and repeat for each run of thread until you have a piece that fits in your 5×7 hoop. Then take the rest of it and move it 12cm down or sideways (depending on the orientation of your design). Done!

Okay, not always that simple. If your color changes overlap, you might need to interleave the two designs, and switch mounting points to do all of one color, then all of the next. Not fun. Putting each run of each color on a different layer may help with organizing them, although you’ll have to remember to insert a stop (or a mock color change) between the two halves of the color so you have time to shift the hoop.

It’s going to take some more experimentation to figure out the most efficient way to do this, so stay tuned.

An improvement to the notebook covers

One of the most annoying parts of making the mini composition book covers is getting the pockets to stay on the underside of the hoop. The edges like to hang up on the embroidery arm, the “grippier” vinyls like to dig in their heels and let the hoop go on without them, etc. I’ve come up with a solution that also saves on vinyl and bulk.

Rather than adding the pocket, I have started cutting two slots in the backing vinyl itself. Once the notebook is inserted, the raw embroidery back is hidden; if you don’t like it being visible through the slots, you can add an inner lining. A piece of decorative paper cut to fit just inside the topstitching line, or even another piece of stabilizer, will work.

I cut the slots before the topstitching, though if you’re brave and careful you could probably do it afterward. The slots need to be about 3″ apart, and about 4 3/8″ long (adjust it if you’re using a different notebook insert). I mark the four points and then use a small leather punch to cut circular holes, which I then carefully connect with a rotary cutter. Usually I finish the connection with scissors, because I don’t want to cut past the holes — part of the point of them is to stop the slots from tearing further at the ends.

When it’s time for the final topstitching, I make sure everything is squared up and temporarily put a bit of tape across the middle of each slot to keep it all flat during sewing. It sews much more smoothly, and I like the feel of the notebook covers better.

I’ve acquired quite a few more fun designs. These haven’t had the corners rounded yet. I’ll do that when my new corner chomper 📦 arrives. I’ve been trimming them by hand, but I’m hoping this will do a neater job.

Important tools: the hemostat

I decided to spent the afternoon cleaning the workroom because my hemostat got buried on the work table and I couldn’t stuff the horse test without it.

(I should probably put an Amazon referral link or something here, but just do a web search, you can find them all over including at the same places that sell doll- and bear- and plushie-making supplies.)

The smaller hemostat is one that a friend gave us years and years ago. He was a nurse, and showed up at one of our game nights with a whole handful of them, that his hospital was just going to dispose of. The sterile packaging had been damaged, and it apparently wasn’t practical to put them in an autoclave or whatever. Eh, they might be handy, we all said, and took one.

It’s turned out to be one of my most useful tools for turning and stuffing small plushie and bear parts. Many people use smooth needle-nosed pliers to turn parts. The hemostat works the same way but will latch so you can let go of it to adjust other parts of the fabric before going back to pulling it through. It’s also more consistently narrow and is less likely to pinch other parts of the fabric into its hinge.

They’re great for stuffing, too. Traditional bears, for instance, are stuffed as close to rock-solid as you can get (related: at least 30% of our bear-making guild had wrist surgery, or was told to give up bear-making if they wanted to keep the use of their hands, etc.) Some people use a tool that is a modified screwdriver, with a notch in it to grip the stuffing to get it where you want it. I pinch a bit of fiberfill in the hemostat instead, and can put it exactly where I want it. The rounded nose means I can slide it along the fabric around the outside of the rest of the stuffing to hit a spot that was missing just a little extra fill.

And that was needed with the tiny horse, whose legs have a lot of little nooks and crannies, and which relies on careful stuffing to stand properly.

Admittedly, once I got back to stuffing it this evening, it didn’t seem really worth all the work… poor goofy little critter. Such is the nature of first drafts, though.

Non-lumpy plushie tails

I’m gonna let you in on a little trade secret. Fiberfill is bad for plushie tails. Both Mew and the black panther have long skinny tails (though I managed to photograph the panther WITHOUT ITS TAIL IN VIEW). If I stuffed that kind of tail with fiberfill, it would be a lumpy string-of-beads sort of tail.

That’s not the secret.

The secret is to use a product made for the purpose: filler cord. This comes in all sizes, in cotton or polyester, and is made for inserting in piping. I’m not really sure why there’s a large enough demand for 1″-and-larger piping that every fabric store seems to carry the cording, but I’m not going to complain.

Piping cord comes in all sizes, from much smaller than the kind I used in the panther (1/4″, I think) all the way up to larger than the kind it’s holding (1″) which I’ve used for cosplay tails and will use for the larger-than-life Mew. But if you can’t find the size you need, an alternative is thin quilt batting. Cut it to length and roll it up (or roll it around too-thin piping cord) until you get to the size you need.

Depending on how “grabby” the inside of your fabric is and how long the piece you’re stuffing is, you might need to sew a casing for the piping out of satin(y) lining fabric to help slide it in. That’s what I’ve done for the Mew tail, in the foreground there. It doesn’t need to be turned; the whole thing will slide right inside the actual faux-fur tail.

Mew’s tail is going to be about the right size for a cosplay belt-hanger tail and I’m a little sad I didn’t have enough fabric to make a second.

You may also notice that it looks like there are shoelace aglets on the ends of the piping cord – that’s plain ol’ cellophane tape. Wrap a piece around the cord where you’re going to cut it, then cut right through the middle of it. Don’t take the tape off until you’re ready to use the cording, or the end will shred. If I’m not enclosing the cording in satin, I will wrap the end in thread to keep it from shredding during final insertion.

Piping cord can, with a lot of (ab)use, bunch up some — it’s just loose cotton batting, after all. But it’s far, far better than fiberfill. Go forth, and make non-lumpy plushies!

Embroidering cards

My mother-in-law embroiders on paper to make greeting cards. She often gets asked if it’s done with a machine but no: she punches a needle through a pattern into a card, then hand-sews through it. Most of the patterns are string-art style, some involve beading, things like that.

But she does have an embroidery machine, so of course I had to wonder if the pattern-punching part could be automated. The answer so far is “maybe.”

I hit up Needle N Thread because I knew Mary had a link to some free card embroidery patterns, and from there picked a basic free pattern from Stitching Cards. It came in PDF so I just opened it in Inkscape, put the pattern page on a locked layer, and created a path letting the cursor snap to each dot in the path. Then I taped a random piece of scrapbooking cardstock onto some stabilizer, took the thread out of the machine, and let it run.

It was not perfect: it paused every dozen stitches or so because it noticed the thread was missing (BEEPBEEP) so I had to push OK (BEEP) and then the start button (BEEP). It also leaves a rather tall “wall” around the holes because it punches through so fast, but that also might be my paper choice.

Lastly, even though I told Inkstitch it was a manual path (so each node on the path was a stitch) it still helpfully provided the little anchoring stitches at the start and end of the path, so you can see some extraneous holes at the beginning and end of the top left leaf there. That’s fixable, though – either via a checkbox in Inkstitch I need to find, or a manual edit of the generated stitch pattern.

Many of the patterns she gets are just scans of hand-drawn dots, so not all her patterns would be as easy to convert as this one. It’s also probably not worth the work for patterns she only does once. But let’s face it: 80% of what I do with the machine is just to see if I can.

Uploading embroidery files over wifi with a Raspberry Pi

A Raspberry Pi Zero attached to a computerized embroidery machine.

Transferring embroidery files to the Brother requires writing them to a USB stick, carrying it over to the embroidery machine, and plugging it in. Doesn’t seem hard, right? Except there’s an annoying bug in my Linux desktop that means ejecting the USB drive sometimes disables the entire USB port. A normal person would just use the command line, but no, I have to make things complicated.

A Raspberry Pi Zero is a single-board computer. Add a case, a microSD card (its “hard drive”), and a USB cable or connector and it’s around $20-30. It has a mode called Mass Storage Gadget in which it pretends to be a USB stick to anything plugged into its USB port. It also has onboard wifi, meaning I can log into it from my desktop machine. Put those two together, and I can just transfer files to my embroidery machine via wifi.

Right now it’s still super-nerdy (it involves a lot of command-line, uh, commands) but when I put together a drag-and-drop interface for it I’ll post the how-to and a downloadable image.