Epic How-To: Make a 3-D Plush Pattern from a 2-D Drawing (Starring Mitch from Neon Monster)

I’ve made some 2-D plush monsters in the past.  They can have a lot of character (like Aristocrates here and his little buddy Protegé).  They’re also the best place to start if you are new to making plush.  This, however, is not a 2-D plush tutorial, and it is not well suited to sewing beginners. If you are looking for such a tutorial, try here.

aristocrates plush monster

plushmaterials

Materials:

  • paper or cardstock
  • cushion foam
  • straight pins
  • safety pins (optional)
  • X-acto knife
  • fabric glue
  • paper scissors
  • fabric scissors
  • fabric marking pen
  • pencil
  • ballpoint pen (optional)
  • fabric similar to what you will use on your finished plush toys
  • seam ripper (not pictured)
  • chopstick (optional)

When the good folks over at Neon Monster approached me about designing a plush version of their logo monster, Mitch, 2-D was not going to cut it. In my opinion, most of Mitch’s charm comes from his shape — his long, dangly arms, his hunched back, and his slightly saggy belly — none of which can be adequately expressed in a flat format.

logomitch

Since Mitch has never existed in 3-D, and all I had was this single three-quarter view of him, I needed to start with an intermediate 2-D step, an orthographic projection.

Step 1: Orthographic Drawings

Orthographic drawings (or projections) are a series of 2-D views that give you a complete sense of a 3-D object when taken all together.  At minimum, you need to draw your character from the front, side, and top.  Since Mitch is not my creation, I was lucky enough to get this set of sketches from original artist Reuben Rude.

orthographics

When you make (or in my case, print) your orthographic views, you want to make sure that the dimensions all match up.  The height of the front and side views should be the same (C), as should the width of the front and top views (A), and the depth of the top and side views (B).  You can leave small details like surface decoration out of these.  You just need them for the general shape.  In my case, I erased the eye and the “spinal nodes” from Reuben’s drawings, since I would be adding them on later as separate pieces.

When you’ve got your sketches looking just right, cut them out.

Step 2: Foam Block

My pre-visualization skills are not the most developed, so I drape my plush pieces like garments.  That means needing a base of some kind to drape them on — a “monster form,” if you will.  I made mine from regular density cushion foam (I used the Airtex brand), which you can get in sheets or by the yard from most craft or fabric stores.  It comes in different thicknesses (1 inch is most common), but you’ll likely have to glue a few layers together to get a thick enough block to carve from.

Measure the widest point of your side-view drawing (B) to find out how many layers to glue together.  If it’s four inches wide, for example, you’ll need to glue together four 1-inch layers of foam.  Next, measure the height and width of your front view drawing (C and A).  This is the size of the rectangle each layer will be.  Mitch’s body was 10 inches tall, 6 inches wide, and four inches thick at its widest points, so I glued together four 10” x 6” foam rectangles and let my foam block dry.

foamblock

Step 3: Foam Model

In order to make my foam block look more like Mitch, I needed to do some carving.  I taped the orthographic drawings to each side of the block and traced around them.  For the side view drawing, I traced it on one side, flipped it over and then traced it again on the other side.

foamtrace

I wish I had a foolproof carving method to share here, but I don’t.  Maybe someone can post something in the comments.  I just sort of eyeball it while wielding a regular #11 Xacto knife, removing small chunks so I don’t overdo it.  The nice thing is that you can always glue the foam back on if you make a mistake, and your foam model doesn’t have to be perfectly smooth in its shape.

sideform

Here’s my finished model (see, not smooth).

mitchform

I decided to add on the arms as separate pieces (with straight pins) rather than try to carve them out of the block with the body.  I also made a completely separate piece for Mitch’s eye.  Depending on the number of appendages your character has, you may also want to carve and add these to your model separately.

Step 4: Draping

To me, this is the most fun part of making a 3-D plush, but it can also be kind of tricky. Cut a large piece of light-colored fabric similar to what you ultimately want to make your plush with.  It should wrap all the way around your plush at least 1-2 times.  I used polar fleece because it has some stretch but doesn’t misshape too easily.

Using regular straight pins, pin the center of your fabric to the most important part of your foam model — a part where you don’t want any seams showing.  For Mitch, this was his belly.

startdrape

Working your way outward from that first center pin, continue pinning the fabric to your model.  Start wrapping it around the sides, top, and bottom of your model, keeping it as smooth as possible.

continuedrape

At some point, your fabric will start to gather in folds.  Any place there is a fold in your fabric, there will have to be a seam, so take care in deciding where you want the folds to fall.  You may have to re-pin your fabric and/or stretch it in a slightly different direction in order to get the folds where you want them.  I made sure my folds landed in the least visible places on Mitch: under his arms, under his legs, and straight down his head and back (under the spinal nodes).

Pinch the folds tightly together and pin them as close to the model as possible (safety pins may be helpful for this).  Here is the fold that goes from the top of Mitch’s head down his back (he’s lying on his side here).  You can also see the drape wrapping around his right arm:

pinchfold

Once you have your fabric tightly wrapped around your entire model, cut away any excess, leaving an even seam allowance.  I tend to use a 3/8” allowance when I sew plush, so that’s about what I tried to leave around the edges.

cutseam

Here is a simple, finished drape of just the eye model (side, top and bottom views):

eyedrapeside

eyedrapetopeyedrapebottom

And here is a finished drape of the whole monster, with his eye pieces on top.

When I first draped the monster form, I tried to include his eyelids and his body in the same piece of fabric.

overeyedrape

This made too many folds to be workable, so I marked where the eyelids ended and undid the drape.  Using those marks I then cut a new piece of fabric to become the eyelids and re-draped the body, this time under the the eye piece.  You can see the neatly wrapped and trimmed body and eye here, along with the new eyelid fabric:

fulldrape

Step 5: Tracing the Pattern

Now that you have a finished drape, you can write notes directly on the fabric about any immediate changes you’d like to make, such as making the head rounder, the feet pointier or the arms longer.  Drawing arrows or cut lines in place is also helpful.

markings

Now the excitement begins!  Un-pin your drape(s) so that the fabric lays flat.  Remove it from the model and spread it out onto a large piece of paper (or several taped together).  Trace around it/them with a pencil.  These are what Mitch’s pieces looked like when I undid them — not something I would have been able to visualize beforehand.

flatdrape

**Tip: number each seam as you un-pin it.  Then you will know the (reverse) order in which to sew your plush together.

Step 6: Refinement

Now that you have your general pattern, you can make some adjustments with your pencil.  You can smooth out lines or fold your pattern in half to make sure things line up correctly.  If you’re more tech savvy, you can photograph or scan your pattern and then trace it in a program like Adobe Illustrator.  This is what I did, which is why my pattern is sliced up.  It was too big to scan all at once so I had to cut it into a few pieces.

patternscan

Step 7: Test

To test the accuracy of your pattern, cut out the paper pattern pieces and trace them onto a new piece of fabric.  Cut the fabric pieces out right on the line and sew them together in order (see step 5 tip), leaving your normal seam allowance.

**Tip: use a contrasting color of thread and a wide stitch so that you can easily rip out and re-do seams if you need to.

paperpattern

Cut off any exterior corners, then snip into interior corners and clip into the seam allowance along any tight curves.  This will allow your seams to remain smooth and eliminate bunching inside your plush when you turn it inside out.

snipandclip

Open up a 1-2 inch hole in a central seam with a seam ripper and turn your plush inside out. Poke out any tight spots or corners with a chop stick, a capped pen or a high gauge knitting needle.

poekout

Stuff your plush with your desired material and take a look.

**Tip: Use smaller pieces of stuffing for narrow sections like arms and stuff them tighter than the main body.  Use larger, looser chunks of stuffing for bigger spaces to keep things cuddly.

If you like the way things look, you’re finished.  Sew up the opening with a ladder stitch and rejoice!  (Video here)

If you have additional pieces, you can drape them onto the finished body.  This is what I did with Mitch’s eye.  His “spinal nodes” are regular cylinders and didn’t require a pattern.  I just sewed those on by hand, again using a ladder stitch.

eyedrape

backopt

What happens if your plush still doesn’t look quite right?  In this case, you have a couple of options.  One, you can make slight adjustments by changing the amount and/or placement of stuffing in your toy, or two, you can adjust the pattern.  If it’s an easy/small change, you can make your alteration directly to the paper pattern, either by trimming some off, or by taping more on.  Otherwise, I recommend writing those “cosmetic surgery” notes directly onto the fabric again and ripping out the seams, essentially taking you back to step 5.

**Tip: the type of stuffing you use can go a long way toward helping you choose a desired effect. I stuffed Mitch’s legs, bottom and fingers with rice and everything else with polyester fiberfill.  This made him cuddly yet hefty, with a weighted swing to his long arms and that “dumpy bum” look I find so charming about him.  It also lets him sit upright without support, which is great for something that will live on a shelf.

Epilogue

I noticed that some of Mitch’s features were different in the logo (three-quarter view) image than in the orthographic drawings, so I made one side longer than the other and let the Neon Monster folks decide which one they liked better.

frontopt

They liked the left side features better, and also wanted a few other changes, like darker fabric, an outline behind the pink iris, and for Mitch to be 18” tall.  Glad that I scanned everything into Illustrator, I blew up the pattern by 50% and then cut it down the center.  I deleted the right side of the pattern (which they didn’t like) and replaced it with a duplicate of the left half (which they did).  Then I printed it out and sewed it up into Mitch #2.  Here he is:

Mitch-front-sitting

The Neon Monster crew really liked Mitch #2 (enough that he traveled to toy fairs all over Asia), but they also wanted to try out a version with longer arms and more eyelid folds.  I made another copy of the pattern and added those changes.  This became Mitch #3 (he’s not pictured here but he is on display at Neon Monster).

Mitch #3’s long arms were great for hugging, but they bunched up when he sat, so that idea was ultimately scrapped.  So were most of the folds of his lower lid.  Thus was born Mitch #4, the ultimate Mitch.  He used Mitch #2’s body pattern and Mitch #3’s eye pattern, minus half the lower lid.  Here is Mitch #4, gazing pensively out my window.  For more photos, you can see my earlier post celebrating his creation.

mitchquarter

Mitch #4 is now being reproduced as Neon Monster’s first exclusive limited-edition plush toy.  He is due to be released this October, in time for the holidays.  To cuddle Mitch #3 in person or to sign up for the release, you can visit Neon Monster at 901 Castro Street (on the corner of 22nd) in the Noe Valley neighborhood of San Francisco.

Thanks to anyone who made it all the way through this massive tutorial!  I’d love to see what you make if you use the info I’ve shared here.  I will post any photos you send me (with your permission). Also, please feel free to post any questions or comments below.  I promise to respond to all of them.

Crafty Business Questions: Etiquette

I got a lot of etiquette questions this week, so I’m posting all the answers below:

I’m just starting out, and I have lots of questions I’d like to ask successful business crafters. What’s okay and not okay to ask about?

In general, it’s okay to ask about process, not product, and it’s always best to ask for help from businesses that don’t compete with yours. For example, if you sell plush toys, it’s not okay to ask another plush artist where they get their fabric, who their distributor is, or what consignment stores they work with. Instead, try asking something like, “Can you recommend somewhere to start researching distributors/stores/wholesale fabric suppliers?” Then, instead of giving away their contacts/sources, they can give you the name of a trade association or web site where you can begin your own research.

It is also okay to ask a fellow crafter general business information, like if they can recommend any good crafty business books, marketing classes, banks, or bookkeeping software. Your successful accounting practices will not harm their business. Other things that are sometimes okay to ask about include who designed their logo/web site, and how they developed a good pricing structure. You can also ask non-competing businesses for general feedback on your Etsy store, packaging, etc.

If you are unsure about whether your question falls within the bounds of etiquette, try asking it by beginning, “Would you be comfortable sharing information with me about X? I totally understand if you’re not.” That way, it’s easy for them to say no and neither party has to resent the other.

I sell handmade toys with buttons that have clever sayings on them. Yesterday one of my customers told me she also wants to start selling (mass-produced) toys with clever buttons on them. She asked me for my button source and their pricing! I think this is really rude. How do I respond kindly without blowing my top?!

Again, this goes back to process, not product. How did you find your button source? How did you research pricing in order to comparison shop? It may be as simple as telling her you Googled the phrase “button makers” and then requested prices and samples from five local businesses. She still has to do the legwork, but you’ve answered her question helpfully, while insinuating that maybe it’s not so cool to ask a competitor for such specific information.

I’m thinking of applying for a particular craft fair, but I don’t know anyone who’s vended there. Is it okay for me to ask a random vendor (posted on their vendor page) how profitable it was for them?

This is a tricky one, but I would say yes, provided: you ask someone who does not sell competing products, you ask using the “Would you be comfortable sharing…” preface, and you don’t ask specifics, like “how much money did you make at that fair?” or “what were your best selling items?” Instead, stick to more general questions, like “was it worth your time?”, “did the customers generally fit your demographic?” and “would you do it again?”

Do you have thoughts about these questions? Do you have other etiquette questions? Ask them in the comments and I’ll try to answer them!

Making Making Things Better Better

I’ve been hearing a lot about crowdsourcing lately.  In general it’s a good idea, tapping the collective brainpower of your fans or customer base to generate ideas you might normally have to rely on hired professionals for.  It’s been around for a long time, (think Betty Crocker recipe contests, American Idol or the 2002 vote for the new M&Ms color), but the Internet has made crowdsourcing infinitely easier and the scale infinitely larger.  The X Prize Foundation did this in 2004 when they offered a $10 million prize for the first reusable privately-built spacecraft.  $10 million may seem like a lot of money, but it’s a fraction of what it would have cost NASA to develop in both time and money.  Why?  Because they only had to pay for success.  They got the trial and error of the other contestants for free.

In a slightly different vein, Apple recently began offering free iPhone App development courses through Stanford University and iTunes.  The cost to Apple is minimal.  They just open up the developers’ software and course materials, all of which already exist.  In return they get a huge influx of iPhone Apps, all developed free.  They post the ones they like to their App Store, and sit back while they collect their share of the profits.  Of course, the developers are getting a great deal, too.  They’re getting everything they need, from the education to the the global distribution platform, to bring a useful and potentially profitable product to market.

And that’s what can be so great about crowdsourcing.  It’s symbiotic, mutually beneficial, win-win.  It’s become so popular that there’s even a crowdsourcing project designed to make crowdsourcing better (everything good goes meta).  It’s called “The Better Project,” and while it doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of feedback yet, if I know the Intertubes, it’s only a matter of time.

So how can you use crowdsourcing in your small business?  It can be as simple as sending a survey, holding a contest, or opening up a blog post to comments.  You can also produce idea collections, as books, zines, bundles of fabric or free downloadable art.  You can even build your entire business around crowdsourcing, like Threadless or Prickie.  Either way, as long as your customers are getting something out of it, whether it’s a prize, a commission or just better products, they’ll be happy to share their knowledge.

Biz Miss Workshop in San Francisco April 4th

Reading blogs is great, but sometimes you want more.  Sometimes you want to be able to ask questions in person, as they come up.  Sometimes you want to be around other people who are struggling to do the same things you are.  Sometimes you want to learn a little more interactively than you do by just reading.

That’s why on Saturday, April 4th, I will be co-teaching a crafty business workshop with Jamie Chan (Bazaar Bizarre, Mary Jane’s Attic, Urban Fauna Studio) at the California College of Arts.  From 10am until 4pm we’ll be covering everything from marketing to pricing to leasing retail space in an intimate, interactive format.  This is a Continuing Ed. workshop, so there’s no application necessary, but space is limited, so be sure to register early.  At $75 for the whole day, this workshop is already a bargain, but I guarantee it will pay for itself in less than a week.  Bring stories and questions to share, and we in turn will provide a cornucopia of resources for you to take with you.  See you there!

Tax Season Sale on Bookkeeping Workshops

Hilliard Management, the company that runs the awesome small business bookkeeping and Quickbooks workshops I’ve taken is offering them at a discount during tax season.  Normally $179 for a six-hour industry-specific class, the workshops are just $99 until April 15th.  I’m a little annoyed I wasn’t privy to these prices when I took my workshop a couple of weeks ago but at least you can benefit from my bad timing.

Studio Lighting Class was a Bust

It turns out that the studio lighting class at Rayko is actually a portrait lighting class, though it doesn’t say that anywhere in the workshop’s title or description. At least of three of my fellow students and I were there to learn product photography, so the instructor, studio manager Michael Schindler, said he might add a product staging workshop in the summer or fall. I will ask that my class fee be transferred to that future workshop or be refunded.  I wouldn’t say that I didn’t learn anything in the workshop, but I didn’t learn anything that is directly applicable to what I’m currently trying to accomplish.  If I were trying to take realtor photos or shoot milk ads it might be a different story.

Policies of Truth

Two customers recently complained about orders that arrived late to their destinations.  One was ordered through Etsy during the holidays.  It was an order for a single button, which was shipped using stamps and cost $0.60 in postage.  The customer left “neutral” feedback as a result. The second was ordered through my own web site using UPS Ground.  It was supposed to be a Valentine’s Day gift, but arrived the following Tuesday. That customer wanted a full refund.

Both customers, referring to quoted transit estimates on the USPS and UPS web sites, were annoyed that their shipments took two weeks to arrive.  This is perfectly understandable — I have received shipments that took weeks when they were supposed to take days and I was annoyed, too — but they left my company’s hands on time, and shipping estimates are just that — estimates.  Winter weather can cause all sorts of cross-country delays.  I would never think to ask for my money back or penalize a company for delays due to the Postal Service or UPS, especially if I had chosen a non-guaranteed shipping option like First Class Mail or UPS Ground.

Despite feeling principally certain that my business carried out its responsibilities properly, I wanted my customers to feel listened to and fairly treated.  It seemed unreasonable to offer refunds for products that were not defective and were not being returned, but I wanted to keep these customers coming back.  To the first customer, therefore, I offered another button or charm free of charge.  She declined the offer, but was glad that I made the effort, and she upgraded my feedback.  To the second customer I offered a $20 gift certificate, which she accepted as a good compromise.

I might normally think of these as expensive ways to sastisfy customers who are angry at another company’s mistakes, but they both provided a valuable service to me: pointing out flaws in the clarity of my shipping and return policies.  That’s the sort of practical education I’m willing to pay for.

Worth Its Weight: StartupNation

If you don’t already use StartupNation on a regular basis, you probably live under the same rock as I do.  I was a little appalled at myself to have just discovered the site this morning.  It’s extremely comprehensive and well-written, but what differentiates StartupNation from other entrepreneurial web resources is its integration of information and services.  For example, in an article about timing a good PR campaign, you can click right to a page that gets you quotes from pre-screened PR firms.  The best part?  Everything at StartupNation is 100% free.  You don’t even need to sign up for anything.  You just visit the site and use whatever you want, barrier-free.  I’m currently loving the ten-step plan for growing your business.

In addition to the web site, StartupNation also runs a weekly radio show, which you can download as a free podcast.  It’s great for commutes, though it admittedly has a “boomer emphasis.”

Worth Its Weight: NWBC Town Hall Meeting

Today I attended a San Francisco Town Hall Meeting sponsored by the National Women’s Business Council — an advisory council that reports to the offices of the President and Members of Congress the issues that women in small business face every day.  While it is obviously important to make your voice heard to your representatives in government, our concerns as small businesswomen could have been collected via e-mail or online survey.  Such a method might have gotten more more responses (today’s event was limited to 200 participants) and certainly would have cost a lot less than holding a full-day conference in a hotel.  But I’m glad the NWBC didn’t go this route and I’ll tell you why:

  1. Networking.  It’s true that as one speaker said today, “women love to help other women.”  I had many more people approach me wanting to offer advice or moral support than wanting referrals or publicity.
  2. Resource sharing.  I have four pages of notes filled with nothing but the names of web sites, organizations and business services that other women at this event have used and can personally recommend.  I will be sorting through these in the next few days and reporting back which ones live up to the hype.
  3. Brainstorming.  I can come up with several issues I confront every day about which my elected officials should be concerned, but there are also some I almost never think about that are nevertheless important.  One example: a woman in our break-out section on micro-business mentioned something about sustainability, which reminded me that sometimes I feel frustrated that there are no incentives for greening home-based businesses.
  4. Sharing ideas directly.  I was able to speak directly to a member of the NWBC about my green home-office issue and she told me that this was an issue on which immediate steps could be taken, and would therefore be sure to bring to Senators John Kerry and Olympia Snowe of the Senate Small Business Committee.  Wow!  Also, an outreach member of the I.R.S. listened to me gripe about their web site: that the completeness of available information was excellent but that it is extremely difficult to navigate or search.  She recommended I use Publication 910 (her professed favorite) to find a list of the I.R.S.’s free resources for small businesses, and a full index of their other publications.  I suggested that this publication be made visible in the Small Business section of the web site, and while I was I surprised that she seemed suprised by this suggestion, she nevertheless thanked me for it and said she’d pass it along.  You just can’t beat direct results, folks.

Sure, the NWBC could have conducted an electronic survey, or just directed us Biz Misses to Obama’s new web site, but even in this age of online sales and networking, there is still no substitute for being in the company of your sisters.

p.s.  If you didn’t a get chance to attend one of their Town Hall meetings, you can e-mail the NWBC at [email protected] with your concerns.  There are only four women in the office, so they will read your message and get back to you.

Worth Its Weight: the SCORE Web Site

SCORE stands for “Service Corps of Retired Executives,” and is a volunteer organization dedicated to helping individuals start successful businesses by receiving advice from those who have already done it.  I’ve taken a few SCORE-sponsored workshops in the past, and used their sample business plan to write my own, but today I discovered even more free, useful goodies on their web site.

I’m particularly taken with their “60-Second Guides,” which cover everything from pricing to hiring.  Especially at this time of year, time is tight, and I love being able to learn how to make real improvements to my business without having to read a lengthy guide.  One of my favorites is the 60-Second Guide to Building Word-of-Mouth Referrals.  Similar to the 60-Second Guides is their collection of “Top 5 Business Tips,” which also helps you focus on just the essentials in a variety of topics.  In this section, I especially liked the tips on budgeting, which can help you put together a rough budget for when you don’t have time to go line-by-line.

Another collection of goodies I love is the template gallery.  Here you can find tweak-able templates for a lot of things you can’t find elsewhere, like a break-even analysis, and a business plan for a business that already exists.  The financial templates all come in both Adobe PDF and Microsoft Excel formats, with the formulas already programmed in.  This allows you to plug in your own numbers or to tweak the formulas and see how the totals change. No fancy calculations required!

Finally, for the days when you have more time for professional development, you can read in-depth articles in SCORE’s online “Reading Room.” There are literally hundreds of articles here, that cover everything from selling online to disaster preparedness.  And of course, I always recommend visiting the web site of your local SCORE chapter for free counseling and low-cost workshops.  Biz Miss, educate thyself!