Stuffing is a really important step in softie making. When it is done well, the finished toy is firm and smooth and completely filled out, from its tiniest extremity to its widest part. When it is done poorly, the finished toy is lumpy in some parts and deflated in others and it may not stand properly. It is easy to ruin a beautifully design soft toy with a poor stuffing job.
To me the most important thing to remember about stuffing a softie is that it is a slow process. It can take as long, or longer, to stuff properly than it can to cut and sew the body together. If you get swept away in the excitement of seeing the finished product you run the risk of messing it up entirely. My best advice is, if at all possible, cut and sew in one work session and turn and stuff in another.
As far as I can tell the two most popular stuffing options are polyester fiberfil and wool. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages and it might be a good idea to have both on hand if you make softies fairly often.
Polyester fiberfill is readily available at fabric and craft shops. It is not too expensive (roughly $4-$5 per pound) and it is machine washable. When I make toys for babies and children I go with the polyester.
Within the category of polyester fiberfil there are two subcategories. Have you ever noticed that some fiberfill is "squishy" and slick while others are "crunchy"? Yep! That's why all those bags of polyfill at the fabric store have little finger-sized holes poked through them. Us discerning shoppers are trying to determine if they are squishy or crunchy. I like the crunchy kind better because I like to stuff my toys super firmly (more on that later). Others prefer the soft, malleable nature of the squishy kind. Experiment and see what works best for you.
Wool stuffing is not readily available at fabric and craft stores as far as I can tell. I buy wool stuffing from West Earl Woolen Mill in Pennsylvania. They do not have a website, but you can call them 717-859-2241. When you call tell them you'd like to buy wool stuffing for making dolls. They will know what you are talking about. Their wool runs $1-$2 more per pound than fiberfill. I prefer wool for many reason: I love the feel of a natural material warming in my hands, I love the smell, I like how it packs firmly and I think wool has a certain cache over polyester and therefore is nicer to use in something one-of-a-kind that is made by hand.
When I have selected my stuffing material and am ready to begin, I pull off a small piece of stuffing with the end of my hemostats and push it up into the farthest extremity of the sewn form. If it is a very tiny area, I use the smaller pair of hemostats and a very tiny bit of stuffing. I continue to push small pieces of stuffing into the extremities until they are all full.
I recently purchased a stuffing fork at the recommendation of one of the readers of this series. It is a rod with two small tines on the end. By swirling the tines around a small piece of stuffing in the palm of your hand, you can create a stuffing Q-tip.
Insert this Q-tip into the tiniest areas, like a bird's beaks, hold it there and then pull the tool away. I really like this tool. It costs about $13, but maybe there is a way to fashion something similar yourself.
By starting with the extremities, like legs, arms, and muzzles, you can be sure they are firmly stuffed and don't end up empty or hollow. If you skip them, it is hard to fill them in later.
I like my toys stuffed extremely firmly. When I am finished stuffing a toy, the body is almost rock hard. For this reason I choose to sew soft toys from fabrics that don't stretch. I like to sew with wool felt, linen and cotton fabrics that I can stuff very firmly. This is especially important when I'm making an animal that needs to be able to stand on its own, or that has a wire armature. The stuffing will inevitably shift and condense over time so I really pack it in there to make those legs stiff or hold that wire in place.
If you sew a softie from fleece, felted sweaters or other knit fabrics, there will be stretch in the final piece. Although you can still stuff firmly, you may not be able to make it rock hard because the fabric will stretch and the toy will just get larger the more you stuff it.
As you stuff, pause and roll the toy around a bit in your hands, shaping and smoothing it to avoid lumps or hollow areas. Stuff the body cavity and be sure to add enough stuffing near the opening to prevent sagging in that area once it is sewn shut.
What else can we add? Do you have some tips and tricks that work for you when it comes to stuffing a softie? A different stuffing material and a source where we can get it? Another tool that works great for you? Please add your two cents in the comments. Thanks, as always!