Editor's Note: This series of posts became a book!
Stuffed Animals: From Concept to Construction was published by Lark Crafts in 2013.
One of the fussiest parts of the softie making process, and the part that can lead to the most frustration, is turning the sewn pieces right side out. This is especially true when the pieces are very tiny, like little limbs and bird's beaks.
There have been countless times over the years that I've carefully cut and sewn a tiny little arm or tail, being extra sure to do everything right, only to end up throwing it away because I was not able to successfully turn it right side out. I might have been able to turn it halfway, only to have it get stuck or have my turning tool tear a hole in it. Urgh…
Today, let's focus on decreasing this frustration. Here are some techniques for successfully turning softies, and tiny softie parts, right side out.
Successful turning actually begins with one of the very first design choices you make – your choice of fabric. If you choose a fabric that is thick but without stretch, such as a heavy corduroy, and you use it for a pattern that includes small parts that must be turned, you are bound to have trouble. For a project like this, choose a lighter weight fabric.
But keep in mind that although lighter weight fabrics are better for turning small parts, not all light-weight fabrics are suitable. Because softies are stuffed, the fabric and the seams are stressed in ways that they may not be in other sewing projects. Some fabrics are too thin and will tear easily when stressed. Some are woven too loosely and will fray at the seams.
My personal favorite fabrics for soft toy making are high-quality quilting cottons, such as Kona cotton, and wool felt, but many fabrics are suitable including faux fur and fleece. If you're not sure about a fabric, test it out by sewing up a little oval, turning it and stuffing it and see how it holds up.
Once you've chosen an appropriate fabric, remember to set your machine to a very short stitch length. If you'd like more information about stitch length, I discuss it more fully in this post. Even if you are using suitable fabic, if your stitch length is too long there is a good chance you will poke a hole in a seam during turning or burst a seam while stuffing.
Okay, so you have a softie sewn up in the appropriate fabric and with a short stitch length. The next step for successful turning is trimming the seam allowance. If your seam allowance is larger than 1/8", trim it down to reduce the bulk. And be sure to clip the curves and reinforce any weak seams (we will go over both of these topics in detail in future posts).
It is time now to turn the piece right side out. Having the right tool for the job really counts! There are many tools people use for turning inlcuding include knitting needles, chopsticks, long-handled tweezers, and the eraser end of pencils. Although I've used all of these at some point, the absolute best, most effective tool for this job by far is a hemostat.
Also known as surgical forceps, hemostats are a scissor-like tool with dull blades and blunt ends that can clamp closed. They come in various lengths and some are curved or ridged. My favorite pair are medium in length, curved and ridged (the one on top), but I also use a long, straight ridged pair (at the bottom).
Why is this tool so useful? Think of hemostats like an extension of your thumb and forefinger, only longer and thinner. They can reach into tiny extremities and once inside, they can open, grasp the fabric and clamp closed.
Then you can pull the fabric inward, thereby turning even tiniest part right side out.
Where can you get hemostats? At the hospital! Hemostats come in suture kits and are often never used and are discarded. I was sent my first pair by a blog reader whose husband is an eye surgeon. Since then a friend of mine who is a physician has sent me several more pairs. So if you know a doctor, ask him or her to save you a pair. But if you don't, you can buy hemostats on doll and teddy bear making supply websites.
Okay, here I go. I've got my hemostats and I am going to turn this bunny right side out. The bunny's body is sewn from wool felt using a stitch length of "2" on my machine. I have trimmed the seam allowance to 1/8" and clipped the curves.
I reach my hemostats in through the opening and pull the extremities into the body cavity first. I will begin with the smallest parts – the arms.
Pulling the extremities into the body first is crucial. Do not save this step until the end. Do it first!
And finally, pull in the head.
Once all the extremities are pulled inward, begin by pulling the largest one out through the opening. In this case, the largest extremity is the head, with ears attached.
If you tug too hard with the hemostats there is a good chance you will tear a hole in the fabric, so be gentle and go slowly. Once the head is out a little bit, I put my hemostats down and used my fingers to pull it out all the way.
Now I have a hollow body. I like to use the larger, more blunt pair of hemostats to gently push out all the parts. Because you have pre-turned the extremities, though, this is not a difficult job.
***P.S. The pattern for this bunny will appear in the March issue of the new CraftSanity magazine, just in time for springtime sewing. I hope you'll check it out!***
Hemostats are also really useful for stuffing, but we will go in depth into stuffing techniques in a different post. I also have a good technique for turning very long, thin body parts, such as long limbs and tails, that I promise to share in a later post, too.
Okay, what can we add here? Do you have any good tips for turning? Maybe you use a great tool or a different method? Or you have a burning question about this topic? Please add your input in the comments so that we can learn from you! Thanks, everyone.
deborah k. says
I need to get a pair of hemostats stat! great post love the series
OOoh, great idea! I always use my fingers or maybe a regular pair of scissors, but this is far superior.
Kitty Vane says
Hemostats are wonderful things! I also swear by the chopstick, and my little bodkin.
I’ve found that the size of the turning hole matters as well. If you’re trying to pull a big piece right side out through a small hole, all you’ll get is frustration and an un-turnable soft toy. I like to leave as big a hole for turning as possible, even if it means more hand sewing it shut. I’d rather do that than taking the risk of ruining the whole piece by trying to force it through a too small a hole.
I like using a thick straw and a narrow chopstick to turn narrow parts. You put the straw inside the shape before turning. That stiffens the shape while you press the point of the chopstick into the opening end of the straw, and ease the fabric tube inside out.
This whole throwing away useful tools thing, if it’s not already being done it soundslike the craft community and the medical community need to get together on this one. Good opportunity to make crafters happy and do something environmentaly friendly at the same time.
Anyone know if something like this is already happening?
Amanda Elizabeth says
this is seriously awesome! Thanks so much for this suggestion!
Vicki K says
These are wonderful pointers! You said you like using wool felt – do you meed 100% wool? Do you have a good source? The larger stores seem to have only acrylic or blends>
Your work looks so precise and beautiful.
Alison Berry says
This is very helpful. I think turning is my favorite part of the plush making process. I like to refer it as “birthing.” It kills me though when I forget to clip my curves and then have to re-turn everything.
I’ve always used a bodkin or my fingers. I’ll have to get myself a pair of hemostats, especially since they’re so inexpensive!
Claire - Matching Pegs says
I use a trick like Virga’s – but I use the empty barrel of a ‘twistable’ crayon as my “straw” and the handle of a fine paintbrush as my “chopstick”. It works especially well for tiny limbs or ears.
You can see photos of this technique here…
hemostats! brilliant! I have some little tiny sewing tool that does basically the same thing but it’s so short it is really useless for anything larger than a couple of inches.
Thank you for doing this series–I am so excited about the possibilities. 😀
I love this series! You’re doing a great job! I’ve always used tweezers, but a hemostat is a much better idea! Keep up the good work!
I use the turning tubes you can get over on the dollnet site. Sometimes I see them with the notions at fabric stores, too.
Hemostats are really nice, too, and one you have a pair you’ll wonder how you lived without. Very good for piking stray threads when you tangle the bobbin on the machine.
Oh hello there my friend! We were bound to meet here too, right? *hugs*
It’s probably the most stupidest method but I’ve been using needle and thread to turn the tiny pieces, getting a few stitches in a loop and carefully pulling them in.
Must get my hands on hemostats.
(those at the link are all sold out, btw).
Thanks again for the useful tips.
great post. good idea about the hemostats.
I currently use wooden sculpture tools. They come in a varity of shapes and are better then a pencil/chopstick.
I can see how the hemostat is great though as it can acutally grasp. Must try and purloin a pair 🙂
thanks for the tute…
I’ve made a few things like this. Some turn out okay, others not. Best wishes. Linda
V. – I think using a needle and thread to turn can be okay, especially for tiny parts. You do run the risk of pulling too hard and tearing the fabric, though. But in a pinch, it would work!
I have seen those turning tubes in doll books. They are like little copper pipes, right? I haven’t tried them. I like Virga’s (see above) idea of using a straw. I’m going to give it a try.
I don’t use 100% wool felt because it is prohibitively expensive. You can purchase wool blend felt that high a high wool to acrylic ratio at http://www.woolfeltcentral.com. They get their wool from National Nonwovens. You can actually buy felt from National Nonwovens wholesale, but I haven’t done that yet.
Thank you for linking to your turning tutorial. It looks like it really works well. I’m going to give this technique a try, but maybe with a drinking straw.
I don’t know, but it certainly makes sense. We could rescue their unused tools.
How are you finding time to do all this day after day! :*) Am glad you are. I have already hinted to family surgeon about hemostats. I have one somewhere.
You can buy haemostats from medical supply stores as a civilian. Also ask your local GP if they can get you some if you are struggling.
In Adelaide, South Australia you can get them from McNeills at Magill.
My mom has hemostats in all of her pencil holders because they’re so handy. I wonder if she uses them for turning? I can’t wait to ask her! I love your blog and I love birds, so I can’t wait to check out your book!
mimi k says
Ebay is a place to buy hemostats very inexpensively. I found a list that was for 3 different sizes for $4.99. It is fun to have an assortment of sizes for different jobs.
Oh I know, that’s why I said it was probably the stupidest method. But you make do with what you have, right? 😀
(and I’m usually extremely careful)
great post!!! I want to make toys all day now 🙂
that bunny is just gorgeous!
I have just found your blog and will read this series as I have plans to make some new stuffies and all the help I can get will be much appreciated! Thank you.
I got my hemostats when my son went to the hospital for stitches…the doc was going to throw them away! But I recommend a less stressful way to get some. 😉
Lyn S says
..I want that rabbit!!! too gorgeous!! Will the pattern ever be available anywhere else???
Right now it will just be in CraftSanity Magazine, issue 2, which comes out in March. The magazine is pretty cool, though, and not too expensive. Maybe you can get yourself a copy? I really enjoyed the first issue.
Lyn S says
..thanks so much for replying, I will definitely check it out.
Jillly Lovett says
I have just found your blog through mimikirchner and love it! You can get hermostat type tools from fishing shops too. For taking hooks out I guess….
Liz Hogg says
American Science and Surplus sells hemostats. The are in the tool section. Also anyone who is in the Twin Cities metro Ax-Man Surplus always has a wide variety to choose from. I suspect surplus stores in general are a good place to look for them.
laura lee says
My sister loves her hemostats. Whenever I try to borrow them, however, she is always already using them. Guess I’ll have to get some of my own. Hmmmmmm….Let’s see. What to do?…. Oh, yeah, she’s going in for surgery on the 31st and her surgeon is nice. Under contro. LOL
I was just about to post science and surplus here too! I don’t know what I would do without that store, but good thing they have a website if I ever move out of the Midwest.
The Sewphist says
I’m late to the tip party here, but I find that some pairs of shears are perfect for turning out bigger corners perfectly. My Mundial ones are perfect for it, and so live on the ironing station, whereas my other (non-branded) pair tend to poke holes in the fabric – and therefore live on the cutting table.
Lorrie J Baudouin says
Thank you; I’ll be stopping by the drugstore today for a pair. Do you have any tips for even smaller parts … like the ultra thin doll arms and legs?