Hillary Lang, designer and owner of Wee Wonderfuls, is also author of the ever-popular Wee Wonderfuls: 24 Dolls to Sew and Love. Hillary designs sewing patterns for all experience levels as well as embroidery and cross stitch designs, all stocked in her online Wee Wonderfuls shop.
Hillary’s designs have a classic, whimsical style influenced by vintage toys and books. She shows us how to take the best from vintage sewing books to make cute, modern toys. Take advantage of your local library and find some treasures from the past, just waiting for you to sew those softies up and make them fresh again.
Are you hooked on sewing toys? Are you coveting expensive Japanese toy making books or have a pile of books in your Amazon cart that you’re dying to pull the trigger on? If you’re looking for a cheap fix for new patterns visit call number 759.642 at your public library.
Most likely your library has many soft toy making books to choose from. Only one caveat: they may be from 1945 or 1967 or 1983 and have projects like these…
But do not be discouraged! If you have some basic toymaking experience under your belt– if you know your way around a gusset, have sewn up a doll or two, have good stuffing techniques down and, most importantly, know what your soft toy tastes are– then you are ready to hunt down some real treasures from vintage sewing books.
I should put a little more about my caveat here before I get any further along; not all vintage sewing books are created equal, of course. Some are wonderful books, just dated, and then some are not great as well as dated. Everything I mention here is a matter of taste and opinion. I may think that clown face is creepy, you may think it’s cute! I may think the styling is outdated you may think it’s the bee’s knees. My crazy may be your awesome, so please take my opinions with a huge grain of salt and know I do not mean to be offensive.
Crazy or cute? You decide!
All that said, I think universally two of the biggest obstacles that will keep you from diving right into a project from a vintage sewing book are terrible photos and overwrought directions. We are spoiled. Photographs in books used to be an expensive luxury. The 1” black and white photo of a toy taken outside on a sunny day in a field of grass are not going to draw us in the same way the projects in books would today. Instead of photos you get pages and pages of directions. In paragraph style. With no bullets or numbers. And no diagrams. For a visual learner like me, it’s a nightmare. And the terminology can be different. Stuffing is kapok and seam allowances are turnings. So you have to be a detective. You’re going to have to read the pattern pieces.
Soft Toys by Delphine Davidson, c.1971
When reading the pattern pieces I’m evaluating their shape and design. Does it have gussets? Does it have darts? If so it will be more fully rendered, more 3-D. Can you envision its finished shape? Is it cute? What are its proportions like? One thing I know about my aesthetic is I go in for big heads on smaller bodies. I like that pop Japanese 60’s style much better than a more real to life look. So I think to myself, is that head too tiny? Often the answer is yes. One example was this guy below. But oh my what a happy accident. His head was supposed to be on another body from a pattern in this book but it didn’t turn out like the photo at all (which is how I came up with the proportions rule!). Tiny head on a big body = ack! So I realized the head was the same as this other pattern for “cuddly bear” that had a smaller body and I made up that body for my abandoned head. Holy cow, this guy is the CUTEST! He is the new favorite in our house. My daughter adopted him right away. He cracks me and my husband up because of his cute round tellytubby body (because of the darts!). Made up in super soft shaggy fleece from Joann’s, he’s definitely a cuddle doll!
Good Design in Soft Toys by Rudi de Sarigny, c. 1971
Here’s another pattern you wouldn’t pick from the photo, because there was none!– Just an illustration. But a look at the pattern pieces (above) show that it has a great vintage shape, a functional gusset and it should work OK. And it did! It turned out great!
You could make it up in a calico floral for a more 70’s look. I choose a geo print from my Japanese fabric stash. It’s canvas so firmly stuffed it has a great soft sculpture vibe. So cute for a nursery decoration.
Another reason you may pass by a pattern in a vintage book is the styling. The fabric, fur, details, etc. are unappealing. Put your rose colored glasses on and look beyond those to the shape. Is it a good shape? Then update that crazy long shag fur with a short pile faux fur or fleece and give it a go. Are the calicos giving you 80’s flashbacks? Then make it up in any of the amazing choices we have at the fabric stores today. And then remember the fabric stores of the 80’s (if you can) and be grateful! Are the facial features unappealing? Redraw them in your mind. Find a cute toy/doll online that you like and imagine it with that face. Cuter now? You bet!
The Woman’s Day Book of Soft Toys and Dolls by Joan Russell, c. 1963
I picked this next pattern, a doll, because I loved the pattern’s shape. She was sort of a cross between the two doll patterns available in my shop. What made me zoom past her the first couple times I looked through this book though were her facial features, her puckery understuffed face and her elaborate costumes. I thought: too much detail, too much work, not cute. But look how wrong I was. I love, love her!
I made the Pueblo Doll with a dress and a blanket poncho and moccassins. The pattern pieces for the clothes were simple and not fussy or intimidating. I opted for long braids instead of her buns and I love how she turned out.
Another drawback to making projects from a sewing book, vintage or not, can be resizing patterns. More effort is given in current toy books to offer full-sized patterns, but in most vintage books the patterns are laid out on a grid for resizing. I use the copier feature on my printer to resize patterns and then glue together the pieces. It’s not too bad but it is sort of a hassle. I thought this lion was pretty cute but I was feeling lazy so I came up with a brilliant plan to just keep it the size it was laid out in the book and make it a hand sewing project. I cut him out in felt and sewed his seams with a whipstitch. I liked the shape of this guy and the clever way he looks sideways at you.
The Woman’s Day Book of Soft Toys and Dolls by Joan Russell, c. 1963
Of the eight books I checked out from my library, four had projects that looked like they’d work for me and I only ended up using three, so it’s definitely hit or miss. But the search is great fun and I could not be more pleased with my results. If you find a pattern that works for you try others from that same book. And try not to be discouraged if a toy doesn’t turn out as you’d like. That will just make you a better pattern detective and that’s a skill that will help when sewing any toys, from new or vintage patterns. I’m inspired now to go back to the library and see what other books I may have missed!