One of things I like best about sewing dolls and stuffed animals is that it gives you permission to jump into sewing without knowing the rules. The language of sewing is intimidating for a lot of people. Not sure
what a dart is? Can’t sew a zipper yet? Don’t really get grain? That’s totally okay when it comes to making a soft toy! If you can operate a sewing machine at the very basic level you can sew a softie right away.
Softie-making is humble. Draw a shape, sew around it, turn it right side out, and you’ve got a toy. And because it’s a toy, and not something you are going to wear or put on your bed or couch, it’s okay if it’s
wonky. Wonkiness is charming in a toy. It doesn’t need to drape or be totally symmetrical to be loved by a child.
Not sure how to shop for fabric? Don’t have money to spend on lots of yardage? That’s okay! You can make a great doll with just a 1/4 yard of fabric, some scraps and a bit of stuffing.
Softie sewing has a low barrier to entry and for that reason making a doll or toy is a common first machine-sewn project. You might move on to sewing a dress for your daughter, or curtains for your kitchen, but starting with a softie can help you get comfortable with your sewing machine. In just a
few hours you’ve made something real, something wonderful that will make you smile.
And if you love sewing softies you can keep going, of course, as many people do. Let’s take a look at Etsy right now. Put “plushie” in the search bar and more than 15,000 items come up. Look through the listings
and you’ll see zombies, fan art, furry creatures, sweet teddies, and so much more. There’s a huge range. Clearly an enormous number of people are interested in sewing dolls and toys, enough so to start small businesses based on their interest.
And yet I think it’s safe to say that soft toy making is not a major force in the mainstream sewing industry. Even though doll and toy-making has an ancient history and clearly remains a thriving hobby and the
basis of many small creative businesses today, if you look at the modern sewing scene more broadly softies are on the very edge of mainstream.
The real money in the sewing world is in garment sewing, which includes accessories like purses and bags. It’s in quilting. It’s in home décor. Why is this? These sectors appeal to a wide audience of people, mostly
women in middle-age, who have disposable income and spend it on their hobbies. This audience spends money on the yards of fabric it takes to make these projects and on the patterns and classes to learn to do them better. These are the customers quilt shops love.
Here is where the many wonderful aspects of softie making can actually be seen deficits. Softies are small projects that don’t require much yardage. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to make a fleece kitty. And softies can be dismissed as easy beginner projects, not requiring the serious skills needed to sew a blouse or a quilt.
This is not to say that there are no hobbyists spending money on doll and softie making. The Doll and Teddy Bear Convention took place in Philadelphia a month ago and people lined up and paid admission
to interact with 125 expert doll and teddy bear artists, and there are similar conventions all year long. The National Institute of American Doll Artists conference and doll making school will be in Orlando on August 14. Art doll makers will gather to learn from one another and show their best work. But these are two highly specialized forms of softie making that have built large and loyal followings of people willing to travel and pay for access to the best instructors and materials (mohair for artist teddy bears runs about $40 for a quarter yard). This is softie making as a fine art.
But regular sewists are not artists. They’re hobbyists. They sew for fun. They sew because something handmade is nicer than something store bought. And a handmade fleece kitty belongs in that category.
I’d like to make the case that softies should be seen as a legitimate part of the sewing industry.
Those of us who make stuffed animals do spend money on materials. We buy plush fabrics and faux fur. We buy safety eyes and doll joints. We buy a lot of stuffing. And we want to make wonderful, new things that are on trend and fresh. Sewing a softie well does take skill and customers are buying patterns
and books to learn to do it better. Softie makers will pay for in-person and online instruction from the best teachers. Those middle-aged women with disposable income have grandchildren on the way. They
will sew softies.
In order for this to happen, those of us who design plush need to see ourselves as legitimate designers. We need to stand up and take part in the design world and make our presence known. We belong at Quilt Market. We should be teaching softie-making at the sewing conferences.
Although making a simple stuffed animal is a great first project, creating a well-designed pattern for a stuffed animal or doll is not easy or obvious. It takes just as much skill as designing a quilt or a handbag.
We are not second fiddle. We bring in new sewists, introducing them to how much fun sewing can be and we help people make cherished family heirlooms. Soft toy making is indeed a thriving sector of the sewing industry. We belong here and we can pull our own weight.