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.
- paper or cardstock
- cushion foam
- straight pins
- safety pins (optional)
- X-acto knife
- fabric glue
- paper scissors
- fabric scissors
- fabric marking pen
- 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.
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 you 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.
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.
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.
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.
Here’s my finished model (see, not smooth).
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.
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.
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:
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.
Here is a simple, finished drape of just the eye model (side, top and bottom views):
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.
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:
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.
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.
**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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.