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.
Photo by Trillium Design on Flickr.
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.
Well said!! I’ve always felt that toymakers in general were never considered as “important” as other types of crafters, when it takes every bit as much skill to design a pattern for a good toy as it does a lovely dress.
The problem with quilt market is that it is called “quilt market”. There are so many wonderful and fun thing to sew why met we be set apart from one another? Why can’t I be a garment sewer, a bag maker, a quilt maker, AND a softie maker?
Youre exactly right, Cynthia. Toymakers are real designers and we need to take our place out in front!
Seanna Lea says
I certainly think that sewing a toy is as valuable a skill as sewing a skirt, and with an A-line, elastic waistband skirt, I think the toy is often the harder item to make.
So true!! There ought to be some worldwide movement to promote us softies makers!
Your work is amazing!!! I’m in awe of softie toy makers. There is so much design, construction, math and architecture involved in creating your softies. I don’t sew really much, I’m a beginner, and I enjoy following your blog and how passionate you are about your specialty.
You are so right, it is not easy!! So many prototypes, 3D is tricky. I can design a quilt on the computer, make changes to size, colour etc with a click of a button and this is not possible with soft toys. I just assumed there would be as much interest in toys as there is in bags, surely you need more toys than bags? Maybe we need to re- think marketing a bit, I know people have made my elephants as pin cushions. Mmm think I might need to go and make one for myself.
Caroline B says
Totally agree! After having to design a soft toy recently for the first time, I couldn’t have done it without the tips I have learnt from you. 3D is very tricky indeed as it means venturing into the unknown, whereas a garment or quilt pretty much follow tried and tested methods. No less skill involved in whatever you choose to make, whether it be a tiny toy or a dress.
And all of this is exactly why sewing softies appeals so much 🙂
I’m one of those people who can’t sew a straight dart, hasn’t learnt to set a zip and feels intimidated by the language of quilting. With a few little scraps I can make something small, wonky and much loved by my children, but people like you have shown what an exquisite art form it can be, and given us wonky stitchers something to aim for. Softies rock!
Even people who dont sew would still look at a well designed softie and smile spontaneously!Now thats priceless…the smiles a really cute softie can generate.
Oh, that’s funny. I always assumed it was just the other way round – that softie making requires more skills than sewing bags, pillow cases or infinity scarves. Okay, sewing clothes might not be easy for beginners either, but I’d say that’s just a different “genre” (for lack of a better word). When I made my first plush animals, that felt pretty challenging. Of course I could have started out with a simple outline toy – just as one might venture into garment making with a simple A-line skirt.
I think one of the reasons plush toy making is not as prominent as other “genres” is that it’s a much smaller niche. You can make clothes for everyone from infants to adults, the same goes for bags and home decor. But plush toys are mostly for kids. And a large portion of those people who would make toys for kids – young parents – don’t usually have much time (speaking as a mom of twin toddlers here).
As for the fabric buying, plush toys might not require much yardage of individual fabrics, but more often than not you’ll need several different fabrics, so these projects are great stash builders, to put it positively.
And finally, I find the design of plush animals much more awe-inspiring than the design of clothes. With clothes, at least you can start out from a given shape, the body. Drape your fabric around, use some of the established techniques, and you’re done. But creating a three-dimensional, life-like animal from scratch – wow! I mean, you certainly wouldn’t take a tape measure to the zoo to get accurate measurements for designing a perfect, to-scale kangaroo…
To cut a long story short (sorry, a much too long story), I just wanted to let you know that your work is awesome and a great source of inspiration for me 🙂
I agree with you that things intended for kids tend to get pushed to side and deemed as unsophisticated, although there’s a huge market for sewing patterns for little girls dresses and I don’t thing the same things happens with those. I truly see it as my mission to stand up and say, “This is important and deserves to be taken seriously!” I’m happy to be in that role 🙂
I own and love both your books and have been thoroughly enjoying your blog and newsletters! As soon as I complete a few current projects I’ll be collecting your ebooks as well. This post is old now, but very inspiring for me. I’m curious to know if you still feel this is applicable now? I love the idea of offering patterns, kits and courses to help support my family and passion for creating OOAK textile artwork, toys and dolls! Thanks for everything you offer, it’s been a great resource as a new SAHM building a framework for a small handmade business 🙂
Thank you so much, Kaci. Yes, I do still feel it’s relevant. We have a ways to go, but I think the more that softie designers participate in the mainstream sewing world (sewing samples for quilt market, writing books, teaching online, etc.) the more seriously we’ll be taken. Keep at it!
Your comment is atleast 18 months old now and I’m interested to find out if you fulfilled your desire to start a business in the ‘soft toy’ niche ? Personally I feel that catering to this niche addresses a gap in the market because there is definitely a large enough interest in the soft toy/doll making/plushie niche to be able to develop a viable and profitable business. There are of course a lot of variables that come into play which ultimately determine the success/failure of a such a business. I have always felt there are many more opportunities available apart from the standard ‘Etsy’ type ventures and therefore I sincerely hope that you ‘took the leap’ and started your small business venture !!
Hi everyone, I know this thread is quite old now however I feel the same issues still remain. I have an etsy shop called KOSOCreations and have been sewing up other people’s patterns into pure wool felt dressed and accessorised critters and dolls. I desperately want to learn how to create my own patterns for dolls and critters (soft toy animals) but am getting stuck at the outset as there is no really specific teaching here in Australia to become a toy designer. I love Abby’s book but feel I want to help take this movement further, does anyone have any suggestions?!Thanks so much!
There’s very little teaching anywhere on this topic. When you say you’re getting stuck at the outset, what do you mean exactly? I think this is an subject matter that most people learn through trial and error.