Everything I know about soft toy design I learned in one of two ways: sewing toys designed by other people and experimenting with my own patterns. These are the two tickets to my growth as a designer.
The more patterns I study, and the more times I try to incorporate a new technique into my own designs, the larger my repertoire of construction methods grows. This process of studying and applying and making my own is infinite. Every time I see an incredible new-to-me plush it makes my brain work, flexing that design muscle. How was that piece constructed? How did she get the mouth to open like that? Why do those tentacles curve downward? Are there darts in those horns?
I've sewn through many, many softie books over the years. One of my favorites is Soft Toys A to Z by Carolyn Vosburg Hall. I have all of Ms. Hall's books and I admire her so much. She is truly an expert designer and her books give me so much to think about. (On a side note, I know she lives in Michigan and I'd really like to get in touch with her and bring her on the blog for some reflections on a life of soft toy design, but I can't find her contact information. Carolyn Hall, if you're out there, I'm waving to you! Let's chat!).
This particular book has a softie pattern for every letter of the alphabet and in 2009 I sat down and sewed the toy for the letter P - a pig. Here's my post about it from that day.
This pig is really well designed. It's got just the right curve under the chin, the ears are attached in a most clever way, and the underbody gusset? Oh my. I really love a good underbody gusset and this guy's got one to die for. So I sewed this pig and I dissected the pattern and I learned a ton.
The pig sat on my studio shelf for three years. I picked it up and examined it many times, thinking about the shape of the pattern pieces and how they fit together, remembering the cool ears and the curved chin, admiring the legs, so upright due to that lovely gusset.
And then one day a few months ago I looked at the pig and I realized something important. The presence of this beautifully designed pig was inhibiting my growth. I would never design my own pattern for a pig while this one was still here in my studio. It's design perfection was a trap of intimidation.
My neice's birthday happened to be approaching so I created a pig themed gift. I bought one of our favorite book series, Mercy Watson, which stars a charmingly self-centered pig who loves to eat hot buttered toast, (we also love Freddie the Pig, by the way, and of course Charlotte's Web, while we're on the subject of pig literature).
I wrapped up the books and I gave her the beautiful pig.
And it set me free.
I don't have a new pig to show you yet, but I will. Without this perfect pig hanging over my head, I know I could go into the studio right now, pull out a big sheet of freezer paper, and design my own pig. And it will be beautiful in it's own right, maybe not in the same ways as Ms. Hall's pig, but in new ways, in my ways.
Making this pig, studying it's construction, looking at it again and again as my own skills developed, was invaluable to my growth as a designer. And so was giving it away.
Do you ever feel held back by other people's designs? Have you made something from a pattern by a designer that you really admire, maybe a toy or a quilt or a handbag, and it was just lovely - cleverly designed, perfect proportions, and really great results.
Does that pattern, or the finished piece, inhibit your own design work or intimidate you in any way? I can't be alone in this, right?
Disclosure: The book links in this post are affiliate links.