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Making Dala - A Journey
Submitted by Pam on Wed, 07/27/2011 - 00:16
Making Dala has been a journey - a journey filled with learning new skills, wrong turns, flashes of insight, mistakes and successes.
Dala was a challenge and it is the overcoming of that challenge and what I learned along the way that I am sharing here. It is a long post. It really is. In fact - you might consider it a free e-book! But hopefully, anyone wanting to make stuffed toys be they Dala's or frogs, will find it and the resources within useful.
This is NOT a tutorial because, I simply do not feel that I know enough about the art of making stuffed toys to consider myself a teacher. But I am sharing links to teachers who guided me along the path and who are responsible for the Dala you see before you!
And it is my hope that in sharing my journey, anyone, whether or not they have ever tried their hand at making a stuffed toy, will feel encouraged to make one of their very own.
My journey started here - with the Pink Pony I promised to make for Sophia last Christmas.
All I had going for me was a little girl's request, a yard of lovely pink fabrics, pink fake fur, pink yarn, and my willingness to try flying by the seat of my pants!
I didn't have a pattern - I drew an outline that resembled a horse. And I created a gusset following a little tutorial I found on line.
Actually, the pony turned out fairly well - certainly Sophia is happy. But there are things I don't like and one of the most important is that the legs are very wobbly - spaying out so that the belly nearly touches the floor if they aren't carefully placed in a standing position.
Real Dala's are made of wood! They stand straight and tall - ridged! So one of my primary concerns in making Dala was to avoid wobbly legs!
After much research on the web, careful thought and some flashes of inspiration, I believe I reached my goal to create Dala with a nice wood-like rigidity.
Key elements to that end include: a good quality, firm, non-stretchy wool fabric; seam stitching that allows adding stuffing until nothing more can be crammed in; gusset and leg dart technique learned from a master stuffed toy artist; and stuffing from the top of the back instead of from the belly.
MAKING AND TESTING PATTERNS
I started with the pattern made for the pink pony. Since it stood over 16" tall, it was the perfect size. All I needed to do really is redraw the outline to more closely resemble a Dala horse.
The two major pieces of the patterns are the horse's body and the all important leg gusset which is responsible for giving the horse that 3-D quality and allows it to stand.
In my research, I met the most generous and skilled master stuffed toy maker, Abigail Patner Glassenberg, who shares a whole series of tutorials for making stuffed toys (Elements of Soft Toy Design) on her blog "While She Naps".
And even more exciting - Abigail is writing a book because she discovered there is so little information available on the subject. I guarantee you I will be one of the first people to purchase her book and I will be reviewing it here - an unsolicited review by an enthusiastic and grateful student.
Abigail shares tutorials that cover most aspects of soft toy making including pattern design, gussets, stuffing, turning, simple jointed toys and baseball heads to name a few. You will find the whole series under the soft toy category on her side bar. I will share links to those that apply specifically to my Dala journey. I would suggest you read them all.
The wool I purchased for my Dala was expensive. No way was I cutting into it without first making certain the pattern would yield a respectable Dala! I cut a test from old pillow cases I had been using as rags.
Good thing too because the gusset shape and size was all wrong to create a ridged Dala with a narrow space between it's legs.
So, I redrew the gusset. Notice that the differences in the first and second gussets. I got rid of the curve and shortened the distance between the top of the gusset and the belly leaving just enough room for the leg darts.
I was pretty sure that the narrower gusset along with the leg darts (you can see them faintly drawn where the top of the leg joins the body) would give me the Dala I was after. Abigail's tutorial is the only place I found reference to leg darts and they are all important.
If you don't read any other link I give you in this post, be sure to read Abigail's tutorial for leg gussets and darts. It is invaluable for making a successful stuffed toy - one that can stand up on it's own four feet that is!.
The test on the left, which was my first test pattern, would have produced a much "chestier" horse with widely spaced legs and a rather generous behind - not what I wanted. The narrow gusset on the right draws the legs in and minimizes the chest and behind. More like what I had in mind.
You can see why it is so important to take the time and effort to make test samples. Even an inch can make a huge difference.
And here it is -stuffed Test Dala!
Before moving on, I am going to share a couple invaluable tools you should acquire if you are serious about making stuffed toys. I learned about both of them from my friend Joanie (NiniMakes). I first used them in making Joanie's Gracie Doll which is featured in her first Stitch Village e-book. Now, I could not manage without them as they make all the difference in the world.
This is my giant 13" locking clamp! ( I have a couple smaller sizes for working on tiny projects.) Joanie and Abigail refer to them as hemostats. They are a necessary tool used during surgical procedures. And the doll making industry knows all about just how useful they are!
And my sweetie discovered a great place to find them for a very reasonable price! Harbor Freight! If you are not already acquainted with Harbor Freight, I suggest you make it a point to get acquainted! "Hemostats" (or Locking Clamps) are an invaluable tool for holding onto small things. You will find them at Harbor Freight but be sure to ask for Locking Clamps.
Ah! The Stuffing Fork! How did I ever survive with out one?
Gracie has very long legs and arms and without this tool, - well I don't even want to think. My trusty old sharp pointed scissors technique used from childhood, would have NEVER worked for stuffing those long slender legs!
Here is the on-line source Joanie provided but I have seen Stuffing Forks in almost every craft and fabric shop.
The final test Dala was everything I thought she should be except that her head and neck seems too narrow. Both needed to be enlarged.
Pattern is getting to be a mess, isn't it!
THE FABRIC AND CUTTING OUT DALA
Finally! I wondered it I would ever get here! Very exciting! Very scary (remember - expensive, heavy wool fabric!)
The fabric is 100% wool. It is very thick. In thickness and weave it resembles a felted wool sweater actually - except it is stiffer. It has NO stretch but like most wool a lovely "give" - which means it can be moulded.
I chose this fabric because I felt it would be the best choice for making a ridged, standing straight and tall Dala.
A few very important tips for cutting:
1. Use very sharp scissors so that you get a nice clean cut.
2. Take your time. Cut carefully so that your cut edges are straight and smooth and are cut exactly to the shape of the pattern. This is especially important around curves.
I learned the hard way on the pink pony so trust me! Those edges become your stitching guide and if they are uneven, your stitching will be uneven and it will definitely show once your toy is stuffed.
3. Pinning your pattern in place securely will be a huge help. Don't skimp on pins. Use as many as you need to keep the pattern completely flat against the fabric along the edges - especially the curved edges.
Embroidery on the body is simpler if it is completed before stitching and stuffing.
To create the embroidery pattern on the legs, I adapted this beautiful embroidery pattern (Pink Snowflake) available in the Polka and Bloom shop. For some reason, I associate hearts with Scandinavian arts and crafts and felt this adorable pattern would be a great basis for most of the designs on the Dala.
When I began considering embellishment options for Dala, it just seemed logical to turn to Carina at Carina's Craftblog.
In fact, it was while writing her a note requesting her thoughts about which embroidery designs in her shop she thought could be best adapted to Dala that I thought of the "Dala Project" . With Carina's guidance, the "project became a "Craftalong"!
In her e-book "Small Stitches", Carina describes several methods for pattern transfer. Can you believe this - I have never transfered a pattern in my life before this!
Planning to use Pink Snowflake as the basis for the saddle embroidery, I tried to create a reflection of the pattern on the legs, inserting a detail from Carina's August Blooms pattern in the center.
Non-wax transfer paper worked great - that is until I began handling the fabric during embroidery. As careful as I was in handling the fabric, the tracing dust kept disappearing and the pattern I was trying to follow became fainter and fainter.
In desperation, I turned to my pastel pencils - they had worked well for drawing on fabric before. And they did again! But - the felty surface just didn't have the ability to hold the pencil dust for long either!
So, since I had to resort to "eyeballing" for most of the details, I decided that it would be in my best interests to simplify the design and to abandon perfection as a goal and replace it with "mostly similar".
Actually, on the completed horse, the imperfections are barely noticeable.
After making Gracie and Pink Pony, I was already aware of the importance of using a very small stitch length for the seams. Abigail is very clear about the importance in this tutorial as well. Read it! Her pictures showing good stitching and bad stitching are worth a thousand words!
Pin carefully, and take your time stitching - especially around curves. A crooked seam will show when the creature is stuffed. Stitching around curves should be as smooth and even as possible.
I suggest you follow her instructions. I did and her method works perfectly! Pinning and stitching first one underbody to a side body, then the other side body/underbody, and finally stitching the upper bodies together worked so, much better than trying to do it all at once as I did when I made the pink pony. It can be done - but believe me - better Abigail's way! Waaaaay better!
The picture above shows my progress about half way through the process. I arranged the front leg so you could see the gusset seams and the leg darts.
Once Dala was stitched together, I stitched all the seams a second time for strength and to ensure that there would be no weak spots where seams were clipped. The second stitching is placed right next to the first on the edge side of the seam.
Joanie really stressed this step in her instructions for making Gracie and I suggest strongly that you heed her advice. It can save headaches later.
TURNING DALA INSIDE OUT ABD STUFFING!
Clip all curves and points using the sharpest scissors and using only the points when cutting. Do not clip through either row of stitching. This is advice I am sharing so you won't have to learn through trial and error like I did.
Clipping from the edge of the fabric right up to but not through the double stitched seam is very important in ensuring that your curved seams are smooth and pucker free. Most of you already know this, but it doesn't hurt to repeat.
Now, take a few moments to read Abigail's excellent tutorial about turning. I followed her advice - every word of it.
And her advice to take your time when stuffing is absolutely spot on! Her tutorial on stuffing is full of great advice. I know - because I didn't have it available when I stuffed pink pony. Huge difference a few great tips can make!
Abigail says that stuffing should take as long as it did to cut and stitch. I spent 2 hours and 45 minutes stuffing Dala.
Because I wanted that ridged wooden feel and look, I stuffed and stuffed and stuffed, - working with ONLY little chunks of stuffing material at a time and packing the stuffing material in as tightly as I possibly could. The stuffing fork was extremely helpful in compressing the stuffing in the the legs and nose.
Another thing that was very helpful in achieving the leg and body firmness I wanted was making the decision to leave an opening for stuffing at the back seam (between the neck and the behind) rather than at the belly as is traditional. One of my brilliant insights! After all the saddle would cover the seam!
And it was much, much easier to pack that stuffing into those legs straight down from the back of Dala than to try to work around corners when stuffing from the belly.
In case you are interested, the stuffing I used - Sew Perfect *Fairchild 100% Polyester Fiber purchased at Handcock's Fabrics. I believe it is a store brand. It took 1 1/2 - 16oz. bags to stuff my Dala.
I am really, really pleased with this particular stuffing product. Other products have not preformed nearly as well.
To close the seam, I used a ladder stitch which worked especially well for this seam which was under so much pressure from the stuffing. Here is a great tutorial for the Ladder Stitch which I found on CRAFT.
I still have lots of lovely white Pendleton Wool and decided it would be perfect for the saddle and the mane.
The pattern designs - basically trial and error - drawing shapes, laying them on the pattern and making adjustments until I found a size and shape that was pleasing.
Patterns needed - 1 saddle, 2 mane pieces. I don't know what they are called - the circular pieces that go around the chest and belly that appear to anchor the saddle. I will call then medallions! 7 - 2" diameter medallions.
As mentioned earlier, I used Carina's beaufiful Pink Snowflakes embroidery pattern for the saddle design. It was necessary to modify the pattern slightly so that it filled the area of the saddle - hence the extra lopsided hearts I added! Carina would never make lopsided hearts. Never. Ever.
I used blue non-waxed transfer paper to transfer the design to the saddle fabric. Unlike the white transfer paper from the very same packet, the blue is not keen on going away. It does seem to fade a little with time, so I am hoping one day it will not be so noticeable as it is now. Gentle brushing only seems to work the dust further into the fluffy woolen fibers.
In stitching the design, I followed Carina's stitching guide that comes with the pattern to create the hearts and stems etc. However, I used perle cotton floss in shades of soft cranberry, light teal and dark green because many Dala Horses seem to have been painted using these or similar colors for the saddle and mane.
The saddle border was first stitched using an edge stitch called an Antiwerp Stitch - which is kind of a knotted blanket stitch.
After all that work - I just didn't like how it was working as a border all that much. Couldn't exactly say why. But I did know I didn't want to pull it all out! Then Fly Stitch came to the rescue.
(My muse at work again! I had been ignoring this simple little stitch until my muse made it jump off the page to get my attention!)
A Fly Stitch was stitched between each Antiwerp Stitch and the use of two shades of green floss gave the border dimension.
Now I love the look of the border stitching and the fact that it no longer draws attention away from the design but rather frames it! Cool huh?
At first, I could not find anything just the right size to act as a template for drawing a circular stitching line on the medallions. And then I spied Fanie's adorable little pin smiling up at me from it's place of honor at my work table. Perfect! The back pin did a great job of holding it in place while I traced the outline onto the fabric.
Thanks again to Joanie, I have a water erasable marking pen. It was perfect for tracing the outline onto the felted sweater fabric used for the medallions.
These magical pens are available in almost all fabric shops.
I wanted something simple for embellishing the medallions - something that would not distract from the saddle and mane. A modified Buttonhole Eyelet stitch was the perfect answer!
Most of the stitches used on the mane are from Carina's beautiful e-book - Stitching Borders and Beyond. LOVE this e-book! I used both her Fabulous Fiesta Border (composed using petal stitch and ermine stitch) and her Pompeiian Villa Border (composed using fern stitch and wheatear stitch).
For the edge trim, I decided one layer of Turkey Stitch would give the impression of hair.
It seemed that divisions between the sections of the mane were needed, so I used a Threaded Backstitch in cream and white floss to create a dividing line.
The directions for making a threaded back stitch I used actually have you thread a second yarn through the stitches so that there are loops on both sides of the backstitch.
Once the stitching was completed, however, more definition seemed to be needed - subtle definition, so I ran red floss through only one half of the stitch as shown in the tutorial above carefully laying it along side of the white floss already in place.
The reins? Knitted I-cord was perfect. Small reins were made using one strand of baby weight acrylic yarn and #2 dpn. The larger rein section was knitted using a double strand of yarn and #5 needles.
Bead caps create a perfect detail at the intersections of the reins and pretty silver beads a nice touch where the reins come together under the chin - nose- head?
Red and green beads work as pretty accents at the tips of the reins and pick up the colors in the embroidery.
The saddle, mane and medallions were attached to the body using a very long needle designed for doll making (available at all fabric shops) and off white thread. They are each held in place by just a few single stitches.
For instance, the saddle is held in place by a tiny stitch at each indentation at the edge. The medallion - a small stitch at the top, bottom and both sides.
I hope the information I have shared will be helpful and will encourage you to try anything you have a fancy to try! There is so much help available on the internet today, I can't imagine anyone not finding the answers they seek - (unless they are trying to learn how to make shaved wood ornaments)!
Type in " How to make "whatever your hearts desire" and magically the answers appear!
Patience, research, testing, and the willingness to try are all that is needed. I promise, once you begin your journey, your muse will guide you and share insights and secrets in ways and from sources you never thought possible.
And, of course, you can always send me an e-mail if you get stuck. I will do my best to help.