Kim of Retro Mama has an extensive line of easy-to-stitch doll, stuffed toy and pincushion sewing patterns. She’s also the author of a new book coming out next month, Retro Mama Scrap Happy Sewing: 18 Easy Sewing Projects for DIY Gifts and Toys from Fabric Remnants. Kim is a softie stitching expert with lots of excellent tips for stuffing and finishing your work. Learn more about Kim in her introduction and feel free to add your thoughts on how to add a professional finish to your soft toys and dolls in the comments below.
For more tips and tricks in our Six Weeks of LOVE for Softies series check out these recent posts:
- Six Professional Supplies to Take Softies from So-So to Spectacular
- Advantages of Pure Wool Felt for Softies + Plush Toys: Tips + How-To’s
10 Tips for Stuffing + Finishing Softies
Hi! I’m Kim from Retro Mama, and I’m excited to be here today to share my tips for getting a professional finish on your softies! Stuffing and finishing softies is a little bit science and a little bit art, and I’ll try to give you the best of each so your soft toys will be both durable and polished-looking. The techniques that follow are demonstrated on the Pajama Bear Softies pattern from my book, Retro Mama Scrap Happy Sewing, and all of the fabrics are from the Pam Kitty Garden collection.
1. Triple Stitch: This is a great machine stitch for durability. Lots of folks don’t know their machine has this stitch but many of even the most basic machines are equipped with it. The symbol appears as three vertical dashed lines that are side by side. On my machine it looks like this:
(You may need to code in this stitch if it doesn’t have an assigned button, so check your manual if it doesn’t appear on the front of your machine!)
A triple stitch is a straight stitch that is reinforced with two extra stitches. It is the perfect stitch to use when you are assembling soft toys because it helps those seams stand up to lots of play and love! It takes a little practice getting used to the back and forth cadence while you’re sewing, but once you are going fast enough you’ll hardly notice it. If your machine doesn’t have a triple stitch I recommend first sewing a straight stitch and then sewing back over the original seam two more times.
2. Press the seam allowances before you turn the toy or individual pieces of it right side out. This flattens out the wavy texture in the fabric around the stitches and makes for cleaner edges after turning. If your toy has heat sensitive materials like interfacing, wool or synthetics, be sure to use a plain cotton press cloth between the iron and fabric.
The arm on the left below is pressed while the arm on the right is not:
Once the entire toy is turned right side out you’ll also want to press any stuffing holes, folding the fabric inward so the fold of the fabric matches the rest of the seam. This will give you a crisp edge for sewing the holes shut.
3. Pinking Rotary Cutter: Here is a fun little secret: I rarely use pinking shears! Instead, I use a pinking blade on a rotary cutter dedicated to trimming seam allowances, which for me is easier than cutting through many layers of fabric with shears. Pinking the curved seam allowances of your softie allows the fabric to stretch or compress inside the toy for a smoother edge. I use the pinking rotary cutter for outside curves (turning the project as I cut rather than trying to steer the blade) while for inside curves I use smaller scissors to trim notches.
4. Avoid the dreaded neck fold. Here’s quick technique for avoiding the annoying tuck of material that sometimes occurs at the neck seam of dolls and softies. Cut a notch into the seam allowance where the head and body attach, right above that horizontal seam. This is most important on toys with an hourglass shape between the head and body. On this particular softie this isn’t necessary, because it’s a straight line between the head and body, but the photo below shows where you would cut the notch if your toy had a distinct neck. Just make sure you don’t cut all the way to the seam!
5. Use small tufts of polyfill. I can’t emphasize enough that it pays to be patient when stuffing your toys. Especially for arms and legs (or tentacles?), it’s important to use small tufts of stuffing to help prevent bunching. This photo shows the largest bunch of stuffing that I would use.
Start stuffing at the spot furthest from the hole (usually the head) and work downward filling in the rest of the body. Make sure to take the time to fill every nook and cranny, which leads to my next two tips…
6. Use extra stuffing in necks, joints and limbs. Take special care to stuff toys firmly in places where one body part flows into another body part, such as the neck or legs. These areas need extra support so the head or feet won’t be floppy!
7. Turn the toy over frequently while stuffing to make sure you haven’t left any hollows that will be difficult to get to later. While the toy may look great from the front, there can be “air bubbles” on the reverse side, so make sure you frequently check the back so you don’t have to restuff it later! Fill the toy until it is pretty firm, but not so much that the seams are stretching. You’ll usually need way more stuffing than you think to fill the toy. When in doubt, keep stuffing!
8. Chopsticks: While we’re talking about stuffing I need to mention my favorite stuffing tools. I have relocated so many chopsticks from the kitchen to my sewing room that we now only have mismatched sets to eat with! It’s handy to have chopsticks of different thicknesses for different tasks. A narrow-tipped chopstick is great for running along the insides of seams to make sure everything is turned out properly, while a wider blunt end is perfect for pushing tufts of polyfill into arms and legs. I’ve got a few in between sizes for pushing stuffing up along the seam while sewing the toy closed too.
9. Hand Quilting Thread: For closing stuffing/turning holes, I like to use a nice, thick hand quilting thread. It has a lot of strength so it won’t snap while sewing and it allows you to tie a large starting knot that won’t slip through the material as you pull your seam taut. A natural cream or light gray color is very versatile for blending with most fabrics.
10. Ladder Stitch: The ladder stitch is a fantastic hand stitch for really hiding your stuffing holes. The trick is to make sure that your stitches are as parallel as possible; if they don’t line up very closely the fabric will tug in different directions as you pull the stitches tight. Also make sure that your needle goes through exactly the center of the folded edge of fabric. Keep the stitches small and once you’ve sewn the hole shut, sew backwards to fill in spaces where the stitches might have been too far apart.
Bonus tip: Keep stuffing the toy even as you are closing up the holes, poking in little bits of stuffing under the new stitches with a chopstick, continuing until you can’t fit the chopstick through the hole. This will help prevent a dip in the side along the hand-sewn seam.
To finish off the seam, tie off the thread, then push the threaded needle into the folded edge, and back out through any place in the fabric about an inch away. Carefully pull the thread until the knot pops into the softie. Keep the thread taught and trim off the end just above the surface of the toy. The end of the thread will be pulled back into the softie.
I’m so looking forward to seeing the softie contest submissions! Thanks for reading and I hope you’ll find some of these tips useful as you are working on your own softies.