Monday, May 30, 2011

Successful stuffing– a tutorial for the novice!

I decided to make a doll this weekend, and as I was in the process of creation I remembered that quite a few of my friends had asked me how I stuff my dolls so firmly and without unsightly ‘bumps’. So – I thought I would share my tips with you.

Of course, there is no right or wrong way to stuff a doll or a soft toy… but this process is the one that works best for me.

This is a fairly intensive post primarily aimed at beginner doll makers – so if you want to read on – you might want to get a nice cuppa and make yourself comfortable for a while!

Back to basics

Fabric choice

First of all let’s think about fabric choice. To choose the most appropriate fabric depends on the style of doll (or softie) you are making. Most country-style dolls are designed with flat faces (two pieces of fabric sewn together and turned right sides out) and are created with tightly-woven 100 per cent cotton fabric. The doll I am working on at the moment is a good example of this:

Stuffing project in progress

The pattern is called Faerie Noelle and has been designed by Annie Smith of Country Keepsakes.

A tightly-woven fabric is defined by its thread count – the higher the number, the thinner each individual thread is and more importantly, the more tightly it is woven. Which means it is less likely to fray – and exactly what we need for a successfully-stuffed doll! The seams are less likely to split or gape. Here’s an example of various fabrics where you can visibly see a difference in how tightly-woven they are:

Stuffing fabrics

From left to right: loosely-woven Hessian, then Calico, Homespun, cotton, and finally, tightly-woven quilting cotton fabric.

Pimatex cotton is widely used by doll-makers due to its high thread count and good quality, it comes in various plain hues, can be overdyed or indeed, purchased in various patterns. For country-style dolls, muslin or seeded calico is a popular fabric choice. I am using the latter for the Faerie Noelle doll.

If you have been making cloth dolls for a while and want to challenge yourself with needle-sculpted dolls (dolls with 3D facial features)… you will need a bit more ‘give’ or a one-way stretch in the fabric. For example, I used a Craft Velour to make this Pixie doll.

Pixie close up picnik

Craft Velour is a polyester fabric, but still tightly woven. It has enough stretch that it can be manipulated, which is essential for needle-sculpting as the face will need to take on characteristics created by 3D effects. Where, and how densely you stuff a face within this fabric can determine the final ‘look’ of the doll – thus is the wonder of ‘stuffing’!! I won’t talk any more about advanced doll-making at this stage, but just wanted to let you know that there are other products out there in the market if you want to take the doll-making experience one step further. For some fantastic inspiration on a wide variety of dolls, check out

A note on stitch length

Okay, so you’ve selected your pattern and your fabrics and it’s now time to sew the basic shapes from the pattern. A lot of designers will state in their patterns that a smaller stitch length is advisable for areas of the doll that will take a lot of strain – such as the neck, for example. If the doll is intended for child’s play, it’s essential that the seams are strong.

I stuff my dolls firmly and therefore, to reduce strain on the seams, I use a smaller stitch length for ALL parts that will be stuffed. I learned by trial and error! I’ve made toys in the past, such as this dragon, that have had the seams burst due to my poor choice in fabric and from using a standard stitch length:

Stuffing tute dragon back seams

Stuffing tute dragon neck

Hmmm… another thing which didn’t help to disguise the bulging seams was the use of a contrasting thread!! It’s a good idea to use matching thread in your sewing machine, as you are my witness!!

(The dragon on the right was made a few years later and I chose a good quality quilting fabric for his body and a stretch jersey for his snout,wings, horns and tummy, as they required a bit of sculpting.)

The standard stitch length on sewing machines differ marginally. My Brother machine has a standard stitch length of 2.5 and I adjust it to 1.6 for ALL of the sewing I do when constructing body parts, or indeed any parts of a pattern that require stuffing. (If I am making individual fingers for a hand on a more advanced doll, I go down to a stitch length of 1.4)

Here is what the stitch length adjustment looks like on my machine. If you are unsure how to change yours – just refer to the manual or go online and search Google!

Stuffing stitch length normal

Stuffing stitch length small

What stuffing do I use?

Most craft stores sell polyester stuffing – the type that is used in the manufacturing of pillows and cushions. This is the most common option as it’s reasonably-priced and widely available (if you live by a craft store, of course!!). The polyester stuffing has a high loft, which means that it is very springy and full of air.

Tip: If you don’t live close to a craft store and are desperate to get hold of some stuffing, you could wash an old polyester pillow or cushion and once dry, use the stuffing from within.

I actually prefer to use wool stuffing. It has a lower loft, which means that when you stuff with it, it doesn’t bounce back up again… it packs in to the space more densely, and I have found it much easier to work with.

Stuffing stuffing

Wool stuffing is most commonly used for bear making (as I understand it), and can be purchased at bear-making supply stores. It is however ,more expensive than it’s polyester neighbour. I just love the feel of the stuff! Therefore, I use it in projects that I’ve put a lot of work or money in to.

Stuffing tools

Chop sticks are most commonly used to insert stuffing. I have a specially-designed ‘stuffing fork’ manufactured by American doll artist, Barbara Willis (purchased from here). It’s pictured below and has a blue and white pattern on its handle. Also pictured is a chopstick, a small wooden stuffing stick, and some doll-turning tubes.

Stuffing tools

The little wooden tool was much cheaper and purchased from a bear-making supply store. The one thing that the ‘stuffing fork’ and wooden tool have in common – is that their ends are notched – enabling them to get a good grip on the stuffing when you are pushing it in to position.

Stuffing tools close up

If you would like to make your own tool - you could carefully cut a notch in the end of a chop stick to create the same effect – just make sure you keep your hands and fingers safe!!

The technique

I discovered that the key to my success was to use very small amounts of stuffing… here is an example of how much I use to insert in to a shape each time I stuff. I’ve placed a 10c coin, a 20pence piece and one Euro in the photo to aid you in visualising the exact amount of polyester stuffing I use.

Stuffing polyester

And the wool-stuffing:

Stuffing wool

Notice I use less wool stuffing? That’s because it’s more dense. There is probably the same amount of stuffing in each photo, but you can see the difference in the ‘loft’.

In this next photo, I have inserted one of the turning tubes in to the leg piece to be stuffed. This aids in allowing the stuffing to slip down an elongated shape (such as a long leg or arm) easily, and it also prevents the raw edge of the opening from fraying.

Stuffing tool in use

Using a tube is personal preference and isn’t usually necessary when stuffing with a stuffing fork or other ‘notched’ tool. However, I find it useful.

Here is the ‘stuffing’ part:

Stuffing in progress

When I first begin stuffing – let’s use a leg and foot for example – I pack it into the furthermost and smallest area – in this case, the toe area. Any “little” areas should be filled first.

Once the stuffing is in position, I squash it down with the stuffing fork by jabbing at it four or five times. Then repeat again with another small amount of stuffing. As far as ‘jabbing’ at the stuffing is concerned – I really go for it! I’m quite aggressive with prodding it and packing it down, and I do so EVERY time I insert more stuffing. You want to get the stuffing as tight as you can so that it doesn’t spring back up.

To give you an idea of how long it takes me to stuff a doll - It took about 40 minutes for me to stuff this leg (7 inches). I know it’s a long time for a little item – but if you don’t want any lumps and bumps, patience is the way to go. You can achieve a densely-packed, solid-feeling leg by using this technique.

Stuffing the completed leg

There you have it – one completed leg, stuffed to the line as shown on the pattern piece. If you do happen to have a few lumps, try rolling the leg in between your hands as if you are making a sausage shape out of Play doe.

But all being well you shouldn’t have to do this - the key is to use small amounts of stuffing, pack it down firmly, and be patient. But most of all – enjoy the process!!


I hope you found this tutorial useful.

Well… I’m stuffed! I don’t know about you… but I’m off to make another cuppa!!

Till next time – hugs! Vikki xx Smile


Sue Niven said...

Such a cool post! Love it! It is also lovely how you have photographed everything, So nice and crisp!

Jodie said...

Awesome tutorial Vikki, I also use hemostats for stuffing - they are a surgical tool I believe - they look like scisors but are blunt and they clamp shut, Perfect for getting a piece of stuffing exactly where you want it.
I got them from a bear-making supply place and can not live without them !

Jo in TAS said...

Great tutorial, I use hemostats too for stuffing and turning, they're excellent if you can get your hands on a pair. I'll have to track down some wool stuffing, that's be nice to work with!

Abby and Stephanie said...

Terrific tutorial. I shy away from stuffing things since I always get the lumps and bumps. Good to know these handy tips if I ever want to make that giraffe I've been wanting. :o)

Maria said...

Thank you for the tutorial as I always have trouble stuffing. Your post will really help.

GerryART said...

Comprehensive, Vikki.
It's been a while since I've taken time for doll making.
Love all these gal we create.
thanks for taking the effort to explain how you stuff.

Allie said...

Vikki, what a WONDERFUL tutorial - now I see what I was doing wrong all the times I made dolls! Not that I've made many. Thank you sweetie!

Kerryanne @ Shabby Art Boutique said...

Fantabulous tutorial Vik and from someone who makes the most beautiful dolls.
Hugs ~ Kerryanne

Jenny of Elefantz said...

I was enthralled by your process, Vik, but when I got to "40 minutes to stuff this ONE leg" I was in awe of YOU! ;-)
Patience IS your virtue.
Great tute, my friend. :-)

Chris H said...

What an excellent tutorial... thank you so much.

Anne Thompson said...

Hi Vikki - what a great post!! I found this really helpful and probably also explains why my dolls are a bit on the floppy side!

Chris H said...

Yes we have a stud! He's coming here on Saturday to do the 'business'!
All well here thanks... looking forward to winter! Been too hot for too long.

John'aLee said...

What an awesome post! I still have yet to make a doll myself.
The same lady I just emailed you about, told me yesterday she is headed to a 'doll' convention next week. Now wouldn't that be fun??
Thanks for an awesome tutorial!

Anna Rosa Designs said...

Hi Vikki,
Gosh, a tutorial on stuffing!
I should probably pay very close attention but I'd much rather just post the piece to you. LOL
You must be one very patient lady.
Thank you for sharing this info.
Creative hugs,

Vicki ♥ said...

What a great tutorial Vik and it makes me want to make a doll :) I dont have half of those essential tools and they look like they make the job so easy. Thanks heaps sweetie :) hugs Vicki xx

PatchworkPottery said...

Hi Vikki! Great post! I also use tiny bits of stuffing at a time but have never thought of using a tube before! My favourite stuffing tool is a plastic kids paintbrush with the bristles cut very short. It grabs the stuffing and doesn't slip through it :o) Hugs, L xoxo

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Chiara said...

Really a great post!

I have made dolls and stuffed animals for years and I agree with all your tips.

Thanks for sharing!!

Laxmi Rai said...

Excellent post. I like your blog. Thanks for sharing.

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