Arkin Plush – From Sketches to Completion

As you may or may not know, I’m offering arkin plushies as a reward for higher level pledges for my Kickstarter campaign for Unbroken Light. What are arkins? They are large, winged, catlike creatures that appear in my science fiction series The Star Hunters, and they make great companions, both in the books and in plush-form in the real world.

Arkin plushies from almost two years ago. Cute, but there was a lot of room for improvement…

I operate as a plush-maker on the side, and I’ve been working on a new design for the arkin plushies. I made a few arkins a couple of years ago, but since then, I’ve learned a lot about plush making in general, and decided to make a new pattern from scratch.

For the Kickstarter, there are two versions of arkin plushies that will be available. One is a simpler and smaller beanie plush, and the other is this more “realistic” version. I’m not going to share the pattern for it (and actually don’t share any of my patterns because I do make to sell) but I thought it might be interesting for some to see my overall process and get a sense of what kind of work goes into the craft.

SKETCHES

I’ve gotten into the habit of sketching out what I’d like the finished product to look like. This has actually proven to be incredibly helpful for me, because it’s another way to translate 3D forms into 2D shapes. As I’ve made more and more plushies, I’ve come to have a grasp on how certain shapes will translate from the pattern to the final plush, but it’s always good to have a clear goal in mind. As with every skill set, plush making takes time and practice to improve, and while I’m still learning, I’m also at the point where I can figure out a few things for myself.

These were my first two sketches. They're pretty loose and I made changes from these initial designs, but it always helps to start somewhere.
These were my first two sketches. They’re pretty loose and I made changes from these initial designs, but it always helps to start somewhere.

The sketches are always useful, though, because I can start to figure out where I’ll need to divide up the pieces of the pattern and where they’ll all fit back together during the sewing. I also don’t feel too bad about marking the crap out of my sketches. I make a lot of notes to myself and try to work out how new ideas may or may not pan out in the test stage. Speaking of which…

FIRST FELT TEST
Felt test for the arkin plush. Lacking details but still showing proportions and shapes.
Felt test for the arkin plush. Lacking details but still showing proportions and shapes.

This is, admittedly, my least favorite part of the whole process. It takes time and patience, and you have to be willing to let go of mistakes and just finish what you start. I generally try to scale down my first tests to save on time and materials, but you don’t want to go too small because you won’t fully understand how certain pieces will actually fit together. Something that seemed to work on the smaller scale might be a total nightmare when your pieces are 10x bigger. Likewise, something that was impossible on a tiny plush is actually pleasantly simple on a bigger one. So, my scale tests are never teeny tiny little things. At least, not unless the final product is meant to be teeny tiny little things. But anyway. This time around, I decided to keep the pattern to scale, just to be absolutely certain that what I was making would work in its final form.

I make my first tests out of felt. It’s dirt cheap so I don’t feel too bad about messing up and making something on par with Frankenstein’s monster, but it’s a decent enough material for testing out the shapes and checking the overall proportions of the plush.

Once the felt test is done, I flip it, lightly stuff it, and make notes on what needs to be changed. From there, I redraft the pattern. If the felt test is not absolutely horrendous, I can move on to another material. Otherwise, I try to work out the problem area before cutting and sewing more expensive materials.

FLEECE PROTOTYPE

I guess technically the felt test is the prototype, but I usually never test in felt to the point of perfection. That’s actually where my fleece tests come in.

Fleece is a tricky fabric to work with in that it can be very stretchy. It’s not good for testing embroidery, unless you’re embroidering simple shapes with single thread colors. But I do like to run a fleece test for basic color checking and further proportion tests. I can also try out thread sculpting on fleece, which doesn’t work so well on stiffer felt. Fleece can work for plush making on its own, and I myself use it for most of my dragons. For the arkins and other more complex plushies, I use it just to make sure things have scaled up the way I want them to, and to be prepared for some of the stretching and slipping that will come in the minky stages. Sometimes, I offer my fleece tests for sale at a lower price than the final minky version, but only if they are nearly perfect. For this arkin test, this one is suffering from a few flaws. While they’re actually easy enough to fix, I’m not keen on trying to sell this particular plush because there are things about it that feel too “off” for my taste. As such, this wonky Blade will be living with me for the time being.

Fleece 1
Blade’s first form. I wasn’t thrilled with a few things, including the colors I had used for her eye embroidery, but that’s what these tests are for!

FINAL MINKY VERSION

So, once all that is out of the way and I have my final pattern drafted, I can make the minky version of the plush.

Minky fabric is amazing. It’s incredibly soft and very high quality, which means the plushies will last even longer than the ones made out of fleece. Of course, it’s also a bit of a pain to work with. Because it has a ply, it tends to shed when you cut it (be prepared to get yourself and anything within a 20-foot radius of you fuzzy), and you have to wrestle it into submission with more straight pins than you knew existed in order to avoid fabric slips. It’s also much more expensive than fleece, so you really want to know what you’re doing before working with it. But the end result is so worth the struggle.

Minky is not as stretchy as fleece, but it can still shift out of place during embroidery. I have a temporary spray adhesive that helps with that, and pull compensation in the embroidery files to counterbalance the stretching. The good thing about minky, though, is that it only stretches one way, so you can kind of anticipate it and get your embroidery to work for you.

One of Blade's eyes, embroidered on to minky fabric with water-soluble topper to keep the fabric flat and smooth during the process.
One of Blade’s eyes, embroidered on to minky fabric with water-soluble topper to keep the fabric flat and smooth during the process.

Once the embroidery is done, I trace, cut, and sew the pattern together, adding one of my tags into a seam. Then I flip the plush, stuff it, and finish it by hand. There are usually some pieces that need to be done by hand-sewing, either because they are too delicate for the machine, have some element like wire armatures that you really wouldn’t want your machine snarling on, or there’s just no feasible way to do them on the machine. I think most commonly, heads get attached to bodies via hand-sewing, but that still depends on the pattern and the size of the plush.

Minky 1

And that’s how I make a plush, from conception to construction. It’s a long process, and often a frustrating one, but once I hold that finished final product, it does all feel worth it. Then all that’s left is the photo shoot.

THE END PRODUCT

Final 3Final 2Final 4

So this is Blade, available as a backer reward for those who pledge at the highest tiers in my Kickstarter. There’s also the opportunity to design your own custom arkin plush! They are quite large, measuring in at 24″ long from nose to tail, and would make a great companion for just about anyone. I certainly love them!

I had to take a photo of myself with Blade. I had to!
I had to take a photo of myself with Blade. I had to!

And that’s the overall process! If you have any questions about plush making, I’d be happy to answer them to the best of my ability. And if you have a moment, I would really appreciate you taking the time to check out my Kickstarter campaign for my second novel. It’s through the campaign that you can get a Blade plush of your own, along with some other Star Hunters merchandise!

Please take a moment to check out & pledge to my campaign if you are able! Be sure to tell your friends about the project, too! Thank you!!
Please take a moment to check out & pledge to my campaign if you are able! Be sure to tell your friends about the project, too! Thank you!!
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