Thursday, May 18, 2006

Designing Cuddle Animals - part 1

If you have children, grandchildren or just love to knit fun things, eventually you will be asked (or will want) to knit an animal. I have five children and at one time or another I have designed a lamb complete with lederhosen, a bunny wearing a sweater, a bear, a cow, a T-rex, a penguin and a chick. I currently have requests for a polar bear and a Dalmatian puppy waiting for my needles to free-up.

I have designed these each myself – not resorting to someone else’s idea of what my children wanted. I have sold some of these designs for publication and some we’ve kept in the family. I just did a cow (with matching blanket) for a friend who wanted a unique baby present for a family that owns a dairy farm. Each time, I have made these designs slightly different, imbuing each with its own personality and that of the one I was making it for. I also design them to be extremely huggable and long-lasting.

So, enough about me. How can you do something similar? In this article, I’ll explain my design process and give you tips on how to create any animal (or stuffed “thing”) you can think of. For this article, we’ll use the penguin that I made for my son. We’d just read Mr. Popper’s Penguins and my youngest was penguin-crazy!

The first thing you must do is really look at what a penguin looks like – there are different breeds of penguins so you need to decide which one you want to emulate. Check you local library – particularly in the kids’ section – for books about penguins. Many children’s books have excellent illustrations, fine details, and interesting information in an easy- and quick-to-read format. If you have Internet access, do a “Google Image” search on penguins. You’ll get many more pictures than you can use!

We chose the Emperor penguin because it’s the largest breed and the egg is kept in the dad’s egg-pouch during incubation – an interesting design detail that I wanted to include for my son’s penguin. It also has the simplest coloring – black and off-white with just a flash of yellow at the throat. Reading about the Emperor penguin helped me understand how he can live in the Earth’s harshest climate – short-stubby clawed feet for crawling up the icy rocks, a tail for balancing, flippers for swimming and a sharp, long beak for pecking at the krill it eats.

Now that I had a general idea of the penguin I wanted to make and the basic body parts necessary, I then went to sketching what I wanted the penguin to look like. Don’t let this step throw you if you’re not an artist – I’m not either. Which probably ends up being better for the end result. I sketch the basic shape that I want and mark in color changes or body parts. I look at the images from the Google search – usually a few cartoon or line-drawn pictures come up on the search that can help give me an idea of the basic shape.

For a penguin, its shape is basically a rounded triangle with feet, a short tail, and a knobby head with a pointy beak. I wanted it to be highly cuddle-able, so I made him wide at the bottom and tapered him into the neck area. I decided to stick to just a black-and-white penguin and ignore the bit of yellow at the neck.

I had my basic shape, my colors and approximate dimensions. Off to the yarn store to find just the right yarn for my penguin. I knew I wanted to add an egg pouch – one of the most unique things about the Emperor – and a baby penguin inside the egg. So I would need black, off-white, and a fuzzy novelty yarn for the baby penguin (who comes out of the egg just a ball of feathers!).

Because this toy is for playing, cuddling, sleeping and using as a football, I knew I needed to use a yarn that would be soft but sturdy, washable but wouldn’t be plastic-y. I found the perfect yarn: Coats and Clarks has come out with a cotton/acrylic blend that is soft and works up nicely – TLC Cotton Plus. This is a worsted weight yarn so a US-size 8 needle would give a gauge of about 20sts x 25rows over a four-inch swatch. For a stuffed toy, you want the knitting firm but flexible. With a worsted weight yarn, I use a US-size 4 needle and get just the “hand” (or feel) that I want. Because I wasn’t sure of how much yarn I would need, I overbought, knowing that I could return the yarn if I needed to (or slip it into my stash -- which I usually do!).

Check you stash before yarn hunting – with some toys you might need just a bit of yarn – for instance with the baby penguin to go in the brood pouch, I founda novelty, fluffy acrylic that had flakes of black, white and grey – and I only needed a partial ball.

I purchased four balls of black and four of off-white and actually used two skeins of black and one off-white skein.

end Part 1

Tomorrow I'll post Part 2 -- the actual "pattern drafting" (which sounds daunting, but it's not at all!)


Taffy said...

Mary, I LOVE your penguin! I may have to do something like this myself and with your directions, I have a starting point! Thanks!

One question though. What stitch do you find works best when making animals? Do you prefer a straight stockinette stitch (knit each row) or is it better to do the other standard or knit one row and purl the next, etc (sorry, I can't remember my knitting terminology at the moment)?

I'm thinking that my middle child will want a traceratops soon...

Mary G said...


About the stitch to use -- it really depends on the item. When I made "Ludwig the Lamb" for Bam-Bam, I used a textured stitch to emulate the bumpiness of a lamb's skin.

When the animal is two- or more-colored, I tend to use stockinette (which is the one you knit one row and purl the wrong side rows) -- this gives a nice smooth look that doesn't interfere with the colors. For appendages or things I don't want to curl, I do garter stitch -- knitting every row -- which causes the bumpiness and non-curling that I want....

Taffy said...

Thanks Mary and sorry about my poor use of terminology!

HAINAngel2000 said...

I live these adorable animals you make! I currently homeschool, knit and my name is Mary G. Wierd huh! If your kids or yourself ever want to do something for a good cause we would love to have you!
Check out my profile and click on my blog to learn more!