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.

More standing plush dragons

Now that I have a breeding pair, getting the shop stocked with these should go much faster.

All the new colors of beanie dragons have been eating up my time, but hopefully I’ll get the conventional machine out this weekend. I’ll sew the larger version of these and see what needs tweaked in that pattern.

Scaling up dragons

When I first posted the test dragon to Mastodon, I got some requests for the pattern. Now that I have some minky fat quarters in the shop, I need an excuse for people to buy them and so I remembered the pattern requests. This sounds kinda mercenary, but now that I have gone over the numbers I have a clearer picture of where I need to focus on things.

The current plan is for the printable dragon pattern to be open source, and for the in-the-hoop files to be sold in the shop. So I haven’t completely sold out to The Man. At least, not until I find out how big (or perhaps how small) the market for in-the-hoop plushie designs is.

Little felt ferret, circa 2002

I got an email request to revive an old pattern, and by “old” I mean several generations back in the blog. Somewhere I have the text that goes with it, but I’m not sure where, so here are the pictures. And no, that link doesn’t work.

Aside: Hotmail is bad. I tried to answer the request by email, but in my experience Hotmail just silently discards mail from small operators like me. No spam folder for me, no rejection notice to you, it just accepts it and then doesn’t deliver it. Maybe the person got it and just didn’t have anything further to say, but I can’t tell.

It’s my take on the type of pattern in Sewing Tiny Toys by Carolyn Vosburg Hall (https://amzn.to/2YhtKuX 📦) so you’d need to buy or track down a copy of that for more detailed instructions. (It’s also a pretty great book worth owning.)

But to sum up: it’s made to be cut out of felt, sewn together on the cut edges with an overcast or blanket stitch (no seam allowance). The dotted lines are generally folds, except the curved one on the body is a center belly seam: make two underbody pieces, feet and all, sew them together and then to the outer body. The eyes and nose are seed beads (the nose is two pink beads sewn side-by-side).

I don’t remember the exact scale but if you print it at about 8″ long that will be about right.

I think people have sewn it larger, adding seam allowances (including between colors) and using faux fur, but it’s really not designed for that. The larger a stuffed animal is, the more it needs darts inside the legs to keep them from sprawling out to the sides. I would start with something like this:

You’d cut a single belly piece on the fold, then sew the legs on (the belly piece will only go halfway down the hind leg, and then the two hind legs will be sewn together after that point), and otherwise it would work like the felt version (don’t forget to add seam allowances all around). That’s completely untested though, so sew up a muslin before you commit to any expensive fabric.

If you sew one, especially the leg-dart version, send me pictures!

Pattern testers needed

It’s approaching the time I will need people who aren’t me to test my patterns. People who have different embroidery machines, different experience levels, different stabilizers, different threads… whatever variables might be introduced, I’d like to run into them up front. Here’s what I’m looking for.

  • someone who has never made a stuffed animal
  • someone who has
  • someone who has little to no conventional-sewing experience
  • someone who has little to no embroidery-machine experience
  • someone who has a lot of embroidery-machine experience
  • someone who has a machine that doesn’t use PES files

And here’s what I’m offering:

  • a free version of the pattern(s) you test (I mean, duh. But also you get the final version)
  • a free version of any one of the other patterns (and if you decide you don’t ever want to make another stupid plushie as long as you live, it can certainly be Queen of Unfinished Projects or a custom design or something)
  • never-ending fame and fortune (okay, just credit in the pattern)
  • preferential “hiring” if this works out and I get to actually pay real cash money to testers down the road 🤞

And here’s what you’ll need:

  • an embroidery machine with a 4×4 hoop that can read PEC, PES, EXP, DST, JEF, VP3, or U01 files (if you have the wherewithal to convert from one of these to your machine’s HUS or whatever, that’s fine)
  • assorted threads
  • some minky or fleece or reasonably stretchy fabric; each critter takes anywhere from three to a dozen 5×5″ squares
  • possibly some bits of other fabrics (the test dragon’s wing membranes are quilting cotton, for instance)
  • fiberfill
  • a needle for hand sewing
  • a way to take pictures to send me (nothing fancy and nobody but me need see them; they’re just for “is this right?” or “look at what went wrong” or “look how it came out” purposes)

And here’s what I need you to do:

  • not flake (I mean, I get that life happens, I just mean don’t take a free pattern and run)
  • tell me what your skill level is
  • tell me what machine(s) you tried it on, what thread brand, fabric brand, stabilizer brand, etc. you use (as much as you’re able)
  • tell me how many tries each piece took and what caused any failures
  • tell me anything else you want to tell me about the pattern (“I got frustrated and gave up” is valid!)

The first test will be the orca, which is a simple little three-square critter and a good intro to how the three-dimensional ITH plushies work. The only hand sewing is closing up the tiny little turning/stuffing opening. If you’re interested, drop me a line.

Prototyping in the hoop

Three pugs, a fox head, a frenchie head, and a piece of fabric with some embroidered spots.
The body parts are piling up around here

Using the embroidery machine to sew plushies has had an unexpected side effect. My pattern drafting has always tended to be very geometric and mathematical, but the ease with which I can go “eh, let’s see what happens” and float some squares of fabric in a hoop means I don’t spend as much time carefully plotting out how each piece is going to go and pre-planning each dimension of the thing.

A blank green not-a-raccoon head next to a more finished fox head.

Instead, I sorta freeform in it Inkscape. Result? Oh, I didn’t think about how long the schnoz was going to be on that raccoon. In fact, if I change the ears up, it’s more like a fox. I mean, some of it is because I’m making less realistic critters, which is also fairly new to me. Normally if I was drafting a raccoon pattern I would have reference pics of raccoons, raccoon skulls, and so forth, and I would already know just how long that schnoz was going to *need* to be.

A different angle on the fox head.

I’m not sure it’s a good thing or a bad thing. But it’s a different thing, for me.

Doing things you shouldn’t do on an embroidery machine

I’ve been doing those things again.

Not things that might break the machine (probably!) but rather, “things that might be easier to do on a conventional machine,” or “things the manufacturer really didn’t consider you doing and so the user interface kind of works against you.” Those kinds of things.

An eyeless plush seal with a too-long neck.

Okay, some of them are things that just shouldn’t have been done, period. That seal pattern… whoof. The first draft is rough.

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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!