I've always been slightly fascinated by designer toy lines like Qee and Dunny, where vinyl figures are made in one shape but decorated differently by different artists. In this instructable, I'm going to be applying this idea to plush toys. That is, I'm going to start with one basic shape, and make it several times with variations.
My primary theme for this experiment is texture, but I'll also be playing with color and shape.
Note: this is more of a general exploration than a set of sequenced instructions. Please read the entire thing before making your plushie.
Step 1: About Fabric
When making a toy, keep in mind that woven materials hold a shape better than stretchy ones. This is probably more of a consideration when making a jointed toy like a teddy bear, but if you want your toy to be a very precise shape with no distortion, choose a woven material.
Also keep in mind the thickness of the material. A very thin fabric may allow internal seams and stuffing to be visible, and won't stand up to rough handling. A thick fabric (like denim, for example) will make a solid, sturdy shape but might not be as huggable.
And of course, there's fur. A wide variety of furry fabrics are available, ranging from expensive, woven, mohairs used by collectible teddy bear artists to cheap knitted synthetics. When choosing a fur, run your hand through the pile (that's the furry part of the fur). A good quality fur should be thick and soft. Poorer quality fake furs feel rough in comparison.
Step 2: About Stuffing
Fabric stores should also have plastic pellets used for beanbag filling. I recommend avoiding beanbags if you intend to give your toys to young children, as the pellets can be a choking hazard. If you're making adult collectibles, though, you can add weight by using glass beads or steel shot in your beanbags. Or, you can experiment with using actual beans, rice, or sand. All of these will give a different feel to a toy.
If you do make a beanbag, remember that it won't keep its shape as well as a toy filled with fiberfill. You might experiment with combining the two - use beans in the body and/or feet, but use polyester fiberfill in the head.
You can also experiment with other fillings, such as fabric scraps or small pieces of foam for a different feel.
Step 3: The Shape of Things to Come
The pattern is essentially a triangle with the top cut off. Cut the number of triangles you want from fabric - use more if you want a fatter toy, less for a skinny toy. Use at least 3 to get a nice round shape.
Sew the sides of the triangles together, leaving an opening in one seam so you can stuff it later. Then, cut out circles for the top and the bottom. You can simply place the sewn part of the toy on the fabric, make sure it's pretty circular, and then trace around it. No need to make exact patterns for these circles.
You can play with this shape to get different variations. Make it shorter or taller. Make the top and the bottom oval or square instead of round. Curve the sides to make a fat belly or a pinched in waist.
Step 4: Mix and Match
If you don't want to go shopping, try using old towels for a sturdy, fuzzy toy or old t-shirts for a soft, squishy one.
Remember to leave 1/4 inch extra around the sides of your pattern, and sew that far in from the edge of the fabric to avoid things unraveling on you.
If you are using fur, be careful about which way the pile goes. That is, most furs will have a direction in which the fur tends to lie flat. Stroke it different directions to find out which one is which, then decide which way your pattern pieces should go. (I HATE it when commercially produced toys have fur that lies different directions on different parts of the body. But maybe you like this effect?)
Another note on using fur - when cutting it, open your scissors just a little and slide them along the backing. This prevents you from cutting off the fur along the seams.
Step 5: Sewing and Stuffing
Now it's time for the fun part! Stuff the toy until it feels right. If you're using polyester fiberfill, pull off small pieces and push them into the top and bottom of the toy first. If you want the toy to be firm, keep pushing bits of stuffing in until it feels right, and then put some more in. (It will tend to squish down over time, especially if the toy is hugged.)
If you're using beanbag filling or other material, be creative.
When the toy is stuffed, close the opening using a ladder stitch (which will hide the stitches) or a whip stitch (which will display them.
Step 6: Embellishements
Some types of attachments are sewn into the seams. Others are added after stuffing the toy.
Here are some ideas:
Googly eyes - glue them on after stuffing the toy
Buttons - sew them on after stuffing the toy
Teeth - cut them out of felt and whip stitch in place after stuffing the toy
Embroider a face after stuffing the toy
Ears - cut four ear shapes out of fabric. Sew each pair around the edge leaving the bottom open. Turn the ears right side out, place them on the toy after stuffing it, and whip stitch along the bottom edge to hold them in place.
Feet - sew them into the seam. Cut feet shapes out of fabric. Sew each pair around the edge leaving the bottom open. Turn right side out. Sew them into the seam between the toy's sides and bottom. To get this to come out right, you need to place the side and bottom pieces right sides together with the foot in between them. The foot should be right side out with the edge lined up with the edges of the other pieces.
Be creative! Sew other attachments into the side seams. Put pipe cleaners inside tall skinny rabbit ears to make them poseable. And most importantly, have fun!
Step 7: Ta-da!
Make sure you hug them to fully appreciate your choices of texture =)