Altering patterns can result in dramatically different looks.
If, like me, you have a low boredom threshold, you will likely run out of inspiration quite quickly if you just keep repeating the same pattern. Once you have gained a little experience drafting your own patterns, you will probably begin to ask yourself “I wonder what would happen if…” questions. “I wonder what would happen if I lengthen/shorten the torso?” “How would it look if I changed the shape of the feet, made the paws bigger/smaller, altered the muzzle, added a tummy insert?”
Some of these alterations are easier to achieve than others and require little more than common sense. Other changes need a certain amount of understanding of the way fabric behaves when you want to shape it in a particular way.
For instance, many people have trouble getting the soles of their bear’s feet to stay perfectly flat during the stuffing process so he can stand unaided. A few artists insert a rigid sole under the felt made of cardboard or thin plywood, but the simplest way to achieve a flat foot is to alter your design at the pattern-cutting stage.
Mohair cloth has a certain amount of stretch to it so that when stuffed firmly it has a tendency to bow outward. To counteract this, you need to make the foot sole of your leg pattern slightly concave (see illustration at right). Thus, when you stuff the leg, the foot will be stretched neatly flat.
Changing the shape of the muzzle can make a bear look dramatically different, but remember to keep in mind the overall proportions, and remember, too, that if you alter the shape of the side head piece, you must accommodate a corresponding change to the head gusset. You may wish to make a center seam gusset, which, apart from giving a bear a pleasing aged appearance, can be used to achieve a “center parting” effect to the fur, especially when using a mohair with a wayward pile that does not lie uniformly in one direction. Don’t forget it is not simply a matter of cutting a head gusset in half; you must allow for the extra seam allowance (see illustration at left).
A more ambitious adaptation that looks particularly cute when making bear cubs is to change the arms and legs into bent limbs. The easiest way to do this is to take your conventional straight-limbed pattern and use it as a guide. Think where the elbow and knee would be. Draw the shoulder and hip parts of your existing pattern and then turn them carefully at the hip and elbow points until they are bent sufficiently to your liking.
You may also want to alter the shape of the paws a little. Take care that you don’t end up with limbs that are too big—remember that they will look shorter than the straight limbs because they are bent (see illustration at right).
You need to be quite disciplined and tidy when adapting patterns, marking clearly on all pieces which bear they belong to. For instance, I have adaptations of nearly all my patterns, and if you were to look in each file you would see pieces marked “B.B. bear bent limb,” “Classic Bear gusset #3” and so on. Sometimes I will use a combination of several different alterations, so if I want to repeat that design I have to make sure I write everything down. It is a bit like baking a cake: If you don’t write down the recipe you can never be sure it will turn out the same next time!
Michelle Lamb has an excellent method for making alterations to her patterns. She keeps a generic pattern called “BB” (for “Basic Bear”) and uses it as a skeletal reference point in conjunction with her rough sketches for a new design.
“I trace the skeleton onto large poster paper with just a pencil,” she notes. “After that, I can look at my smaller sketch and draw those ideas onto the larger paper, surrounding the BB skeleton that is there in order to keep my new sketching in reasonable proportion. Even if my new adaptation is requiring bent arms and legs, but I have a straight-limbed skeleton, that new bent limb will still need approximately the same size shoulder or hip joint, so I sketch on top of what’s already proven accurate so as to keep to scale.
“After I have this messy sketch of all the pattern parts,” she adds, “I then take a fat Sharpie marker and redraw over those many sketched lines, choosing the best ‘average’ of all my drawn lines. Then I cut it out and examine those pieces in silhouette against a darker surface to see if they need more tweaking. After that I cut it out of inexpensive fur or fabric and quickly sew it up and stuff just enough to see the shape, even jointing if necessary.
“Then I can see what works and what’s flawed and go right back to my rough pattern and fix it. After I get what I like, I then transfer the rough pattern to stiffer cardstock and redraw, cut it out and label it with something that reminds me of this pattern: BN=big nose, PVM=pivot waist medium, ATT=attitude, DR=dressed, etc.”
This may seem like a lot of effort, but by doing all this preparation work Lamb can be confident that her new patterns will sew up true and she need not worry about making expensive mistakes or having a disappointing outcome. She also advises would-be pattern designers to write the names, or attach pictures, of the bears made from pattern variants so they can see for the future what is likely to be most successful.
Of course, you don’t always have to alter your pattern to achieve dramatically different results. Making two pieces in different furs can achieve the same end, though you would never know they were created from the same pattern. Another easy way to ring the changes is to enlarge or reduce a favorite pattern on a photocopier or scanner. Reducing a pattern is also a great way of squeezing that last bear out of a piece of mohair that wasn’t quite big enough for a full-size design!
Keeping notes of any changes made is vital, as it will help you in the future. Look critically at any new bear or animal you make. Are you completely happy with the overall look? What might you alter to make it more successful next time? What did the changes achieve and were they what you hoped for?
Ellen Borggreve is renowned for her wildlife soft sculpture and always keeps a notebook on hand to jot down ideas for improvements; she also to keep a record of “vital statistics,” such as choice of eyes, joint sizes, etc.
“If I make something that is not based on any other pattern, I will just sketch a side view from the animal that I want to make, then a front view as well and then start working on the pattern,” Borggreve says. “I can have a design in my head for months before I sketch it and I always work out any design problems in my head first, before I put pen to paper.” This way, she can anticipate any design problems and examine the piece in her mind’s eye before cutting into any fabric.
“I find this quite helpful, as I really never make something that I have to throw away,” she shares. “If I really cannot figure something out, I will make a quick prototype of a head or body from kitchen towel paper. It makes me see immediately where the problems are, and that way I do not spoil any expensive fabrics.”
As you can see from the working methods of these two excellent artists, there are no quick fixes to pattern design. However, taking time and care at the drafting stage will avoid any heartache and disappointment when you come to make up the actual bear. As time goes on you will become more confident in your own designing capabilities and this, in turn, will increase the pleasure you get from creating your own original bears and soft sculpture.