Cloth characters

‘Boro’ and visible mending is fundamentally about the repair and re-use of functional items, but I believe it’s important to remember that there are many possible functions for the things we make by hand. It’s as important to feel loved as it is to feel warm.

A doll made for a Roman child in Egypt AD100–500. Roughly-stitched linen stuffed with papyrus and rags with fragments of wool suggesting hair and a blue bead that might have been a hair ornament.
https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/G_1905-1021-13


I try to give my students some idea of the variety of things they can make with scraps of fabric and thread, slow stitching by hand. Bags are good, in fact bags are excellent. Patch your clothes, make new clothes from assemblages of patches. Scarves! Pincushions! Needlebooks! All so very practical. I wanted something more off-the-wall. That Roman doll made from a twisted scrap of cloth made me think about how much we want to give children something tangible to say “I love you” every time they hold it.
Stuffed toys.

Wandering idly around the Internet when I should have been working, I found Ann Wood‘s pattern for a tiny cat figure. I made one from tiny scraps of Japanese quilting cotton and discovered I need more practice making tiny stitches let alone choosing an appropriate fabric for tiny stitches. But the result was cute.

My first attempt at a sewn cat figure

So I tried again, re-drafting some of the pattern pieces for a more complex but more cat-like shape. Despite an even more disastrous fabric choice (scrap damask linen napkins that frayed as soon as I cut the pieces due to linen being SO SLIPPERY) the result was so cute I made it clothing. A Japanese jacket and trousers, because I could. Note that the jacket has a centre back seam because Japanese adult clothing has a centre back seam. And it is lined. And has a gore for the cat’s tail. The trews open at the back and are tied with a drawstring that leaves a gap for the cat’s tail. Both Jacket and trews have genuine patched repairs. I’d say ‘How sad am I?’, but in truth I am not sad: it doesn’t look much like a cat but I smile every time I see it.

Pinterest found Kapital Kountry’s limited edition Teddy Bear that seems to have been sold for USD350 in 2018. Not a child’s toy, more an accessory or collectible, I think.

But… teddy bear. Hmm.

I searched for patterns. So many are ‘Disney bears’ of very little brain and less character. I found ‘Barbara Ann Bears’ selling patterns for much older bears on Etsy and chose ‘Fosdyke’.^1 I have almost no experience making garments, let alone stuffed toys, and I wanted a button-jointed bear rather than the internally-jointed one in the pattern, but managed to muddle through. I stitched ‘boro’ patchwork compositions onto the pattern pieces before assembling them, and experimented with some interesting but philosophically-dubious^2 techniques for distressing fabrics to make them look ‘older’. Note that the result is very definitely NOT child-safe. There are buttons, and beads, and loose fibres. You could certainly make a child-safe bear in this way, but it would be more honest to make the bear properly so the child or children can love it to pieces properly in the traditional manner.

Two quarters of the body sewn together.

As I stitched the pieces together I realised that the pattern really was designed for a mohair fabric, where the pile of the mohair conceals some things and accentuates others. Stitched flat cloth shapes quite differently.

I was able to overcome some of this by using internal stitches to re-shape things to my liking. Bear 1.0, aka Berwick is the result. I did not expect him to be so lovely. Fudging the neck join in lieu of a rotating joint left his head wonky, giving him a wistful air of hopeful affection. He hopes to be liked. I know how he feels.

He even stands upright although this may be short-lived as the soles of his feet round out.

I thought he needed a friend so gave him a pocket mouse and a pocket to keep him safe.

After some time spent admiring Berwick I drew a new pattern to create the shapes I prefer, and to better account for the difference between mohair and flat fabric. I was about to cut it from the same (old hand-dyed Thai pants) fabric when a box of ‘cabbage’ aka scrap costume fabric arrived from my friend in the UK. It included a wonderful burgundy brocade velvet.
Once again i have made a disastrous fabric choice for a novice sewer: it unravels, you can’t mark the velvet side, the velvet *creeps* as the pile moves as I sew, and I sort of forgot/did not realise that velvet is directional and it matters. I have made 2.5 heads in order to get one worth stuffing. But still, glorious. If he comes together as I hope I may make him a waistcoat of velvet embroidered with gold, an antique lace cravat, and name him ‘Liberace’.

A burgundy velvet leg.

^1: Because Fosdyke was a Tonkinese of brief acquaintance and extreme character fulness, ‘the ugliest kitten ever seen’ who so over-flowed with character and self-interest that we had to re-home him after 6 months, before his bullying was the death of our aged Siamese.

^2: ‘boromono’ and mottanai are concepts based on respect for the intrinsic value of fabric, to preserve its functionality as long as possible. Artistically distressing a perfectly decent and useful piece of fabric by cutting holes in it or staining it to make it look ‘used’ is not in accord with the spirit of ‘boro’. But it’s art, so that’s alright. Right?

2 thoughts on “Cloth characters

  1. enallagma9

    Utterly charming. I admire your ability to make Small Things. I saw some post of yours on Facebook back in the spring, something with small patches sewn together into a small thing, and I was inspired to make a quilt. I just finished the top this week; it is not a Small Thing. It is king-bed-sized and I have a queen-size bed. (At least it’s not any bigger than that.) I’ll send you a photo when I figure out how to take one adequately.

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    1. sarahw Post author

      Ha. You admire small things with details, I admire your ability to commit to — and finish, more often than not — really big things. We are well matched, I think. Send me lots of photos and tell me how you did it and I’ll post it here for the world to see. And if you have any hints about how to make and stitch *perfect* triangles I’d love to know. I want to make a small quiltish thing based on an Annie Albers drawing. It’s like learning to weave all over again, I should Just Do It instead of standing still, stalled by the thought of making bad triangles.

      I want to make more characters. There is something about https://thepalerook.com/portfolio/gilda/ that makes me want to try to make something similar. Such clever use of stitching!

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