Designer and sewing teacher Wendi Gratz has a new book out with Stash Books called Creature Camp: 18 Softies to Draw, Sew & Stuff. Wendi is known for her clear easy-to-follow sewing instruction. She creates videos and tutorials demonstrating sewing techniques especially designed for beginners. Wendi has also taught hundreds of kids to sew during sewing camps and after-school programs. She lives in the mountains of North Carolina with her husband and their daughter, Jo, who is a co-author of this book.
As I was reading Creature Camp I loved seeing evidence of Wendi's real-world experience working with kids. She's cognizant that kids always seem to ask, "What if…" and she's respectful of their desire for creative control. As you go through each pattern, building your skills at sewing curves and creating three-dimensional shapes, Wendi asks you to think what else you could do with what you've learned. Could you combine elements from prior patterns and make something new? What if you sewed this from fur instead of cotton, or added a pocket?
I grew up feeling like there was a right way and a wrong way to sew, and because I didn't have anyone to show me the right way, I couldn't sew. This book would have rocked my world.There are reassurances throughout, like this wonderful sidebar on what to do if your seams don't quite match up.
Softies are a great entry point to sewing. Even if you mess up, you can add some eyes and a mouth and still makes something pretty great.
As an adult and professional designer I found this book inspiring. Peabody the Penguin was particularly interesting to me. Wendi's description for this project is funny:
"Four equilateral triangles make a triangle-based pyramid. Add a couple of prairie points for feet, and you have a penguin. Squint. It really is a penguin. I thought you had an imagination!"
This project made me want to play with triangles and pyramids in my own design work.
Every single toy in this book was sewn by a child. There are no perfect, made-by-a-grownup-for-the-photo-shoot softies here. This lends the book a wonderful realism. The children's natural creativity comes though, too. At the end of each project you get to see variations the kids made. A bear gets long ears and becomes a bunny and a jester doll gets covered with gems to become a queen, for example.
My eldest daughter, Roxanne, is in 4th grade. She knows how to sew pretty well and she and her sister share a Janome Mini that lives in my studio, next to my machine. We had a few hours at home together last week and she chose to make Roland the Die from Creature Camp. She wasn't excited about sewing 21 buttons to make the cube into a die, though, so instead she chose six different floral fabrics. We decided that we could still use the cube as a die by predetermining what landing on each color would mean.
I helped with the cutting because cutting neatly makes her impatient. Roxanne did all the pinning and all the sewing herself.
As the cube started to come together, Roxanne was exclaiming in amazement. "I didn't know it would be like this. A real cube!" Creating a three-dimensional object out of fabric is always thrilling.
There was some stuffing action and then she whipstitched the opening closed.
And then we went outside to play.
So much fun. When I told Wendi how much we enjoyed this project she said, "That was one the editor gently questioned. 'Really? A cube? Are you sure?', but the idea came straight from a boy who took one of my classes one year. He walked in on the first day saying he wanted to make a cube. I showed him how and I think he made ten cubes during the week of the class – and other kids got in on the cube action too. Now I always bring that pattern when I teach and there's ALWAYS a kid who wants to make it."
Wendi knows what kids find amazing. That's what makes this book great.
Each project is illustrated with clear step-by-step photos and succinct text. The pattern templates are full size and immediately follow the instructions, which I think is smart for a kids book.
Wendi took all of the photos and while I think they're really effective within the patterns, I wish Stash had spent the extra money to hire an amazing photographer for the beauty shots. Imagine this book with photos by Sarah Hebenstreit of Modern Kids Co. These charming, kid-sewn toys beautifully photographed with the kids who made them would have truly done the work justice. The same goes for the book's design. Kid-focused design has come a long way. I wish the design here was less cartoony, more modern and sleek. Again I think the publisher could have sprung for something more custom. It feels a bit dated.
That being said, this book is still packed full of excellent, inspiring content. It's written so that kids can work through it entirely on their own. On the last page, Jo writes an "About the Author" about her mom, and Wendi writes one about Jo.
About her daughter Wendi writes, "Her favorite part of making softies is stuffing them. She says it's so satisfying to watch them get fat – it's like feeding them. I loved working on this book with her because Jo is my favorite (and only) daughter."
And about her mother Jo write, "Wendi Gratz has been teaching kids to sew for as long as I can remember. She sews all the time, even when she's not designing a pattern or writing a book. She's taught me and my friends to sew…She is fun and funny and a good teacher and designer. She is also my MOM!!!!!!"
If you've got a curious kid on your hands, Creature Camp is a great find. There's enough of freedom here to have fun, along with specific, helpful instruction that builds in skill level. I highly recommend it. The book retails for $22.95 and is 168 pages. Grab it on Amazon, then head over to Spoonflower and get a pack of fat quarters of all of the fabrics used in the book (Wendi custom designed them) and wrap it all together for a great holiday gift.
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book for review. The Amazon links are affiliate links.
Allison Dey Malacaria says
Well done Wendi! Thanks for the review, Abigail. The book looks beautiful. I love that kids have made the dolls.