Introduction: Patterning a Cartoon Character

About: I'm an animation director by day and Queen of the monsters by night. I picked up most of my costume and prop building skills through hands on experimentation with materials. Experimentation led to addiction,…

I've had more than one occasion to create a plush tribute piece to my favorite cartoons, as gallery works, commissions, or just for my own collection. Our two dimensional friends can be tricky to convert into the three dimensional world of fabric; what works as a drawing doesn't always translate to the real world. Over my years of animation and crafting, I've developed some simple methods for converting cartoons into patterns for fabric/ plush projects. These have ranged from finger puppets and plush toys to wearables, wall art, and appliqués for clothing.

In this Ible I'll cite multiple fabric and plush character projects, but will mostly be using Krang from TMNT to walk you through the step by step. He's simple, and demonstrates our main areas of interest. Know that you can use the principles discussed here to create just about any cartoon character you like, and hopefully springboard into creating original character patterns of your own.

Step 1: Source Image

Find the image you'll be using for your pattern. This can be done through a simple Google search, or, if you have some favorite toy/ DVD art on hand you can take a photo to reference.

Choose a view that is most iconic and clear for your character. For instance, My Little Pony characters look good in profile, whereas someone like Krang is best serves by a frontal view of the face. Don't fret about finding a perfect image because you can make some small adjustments in the next step.

In animation, artists opt for poses with a good, clear silhouette. A quick test to see if your poses are strong is to black out the character and see if you can still tell what they are doing. The clearest poses tend to have limbs, tail, and ears, etc. positioned away from the body so that actions and mood can read in silhouette. This is worth considering when choosing your source image for a cartoon plush pattern. See the examples of Rocko above. One pose has a distinct silhouette and we get an immediate read of the pose. In contrast, the second example offers a poor silhouette. We can't tell much about the pose or Rocko's attitude once it is blacked out. Downshots, upshots, and other weird angles will very rarely make good pattern source images since it is harder to decipher the form.

Step 2: Photoshop Pattern Making

Pull your image into Photoshop.

Crop the image so it encompasses your character in full, without excess background elements.

Create a New Layer and Paint Bucket the whole thing white.

Now decrease the opacity so you can see your source image underneath.

Create a second New Layer. Using a black paintbrush, trace the main features. No need to do every little wrinkle, just capture what is necessary for your character to be recognized and defined. Here's where you can make some simple adjustments. Krang was a little twisted in my screen grab, so I leveled out his ridges. I also made the mouth a bit smaller than in the original.

If you're making a plush toy, make sure to trace a general outline of the main body shape.

If you're creating a wearable or costume piece, you may want to focus on the face and forget about a body outline. Since my Krang example is intended for a hat, I decided to forgo the lumpy brain-body shape.

If scale is important to your final product, go to the Image menu and select Image Size.Type your desired printable pattern height or width in the dialogue boxes.*For projects larger than the standard printable page area, I suggest making one print on 8.5x11 paper, then scaling up on a xerox machine. You can tile multiple pages together with tape to make one BIG pattern.

When printing your pattern, make sure your printer is outputting true to image size, not "scaled to fit page".

Step 3: Cut Out Features and Line Work Guides

Using an X-acto, cut out your black line work.For the most fluid lines, I prefer a small rotating blade.

SAFETY NOTE: Always work on a cutting mat and be mindful of your finger placement while working.

Some large features that are independent of the black line work can be removed entirely and set aside to become pattern pieces of their own. In Krang's case, his mouth offers several mini-pattern pieces that will be separated and ultimately traced on different colors of fabric.

In the case of this Roger (American Dad) pattern, I chose to make separate pattern pieces for both arms. That way, each plush arm could be somewhat articulated and independent of the body. The left arm would be attached on the back side (far arm) and the right arm would be attached to the front (near arm). This also made it easier to apply the Marie Antoinette costume.

Step 4: Transfer to Fabric

Pin your pattern to the fabric. Make sure your work surface is flat and free of bumps that might interfere with tracing.

Once your pattern is in place, use a marking pen to lightly trace the line work onto your fabric. No need to go all the way around your noodle-like shapes, just do a single line. When working on colored fabrics, I like to use a sharpie a few shades darker than my fabric color. You won't struggle to see your work, but any mis-steps will be less glaring than if you had done the markings in black.

For large shapes like the mouth, just make a notch or dot in each of the upper corners as a placement guide.

When you remove the pattern, you should have guides for your line work, as in photo 3.

Step 5: Applique Features

Remember those features you cut out and set aside earlier (eyes, mouth, tongue, etc)? Now you'll be tracing those onto your different colors of felt/ fleece, grouping them together, and appliquéing them onto the grander form.

Trace features onto their respective colors. When you trace them onto the colored fabric, give yourself a little extra all the way around the edge of the pattern piece. This will ensure there are no gaps between your colored pieces and yarn "lines" you apply later.

* I highly recommend using felt or fleece for most fabric cartoon projects. These materials deliver a clean edge without risk of fraying when cut and are easy to stitch.

Once you've cut all your small pieces, it often helps to group them. This way you won't lose track of smaller bits and you can stack features to make sewing easier.

For example, lay the black pupils on top of Krang's lavender eyeballs. Attach them to the lavender using a simple running stitch. Now you just have to sew the one unified piece to the larger project, rather than juggling lots of tiny bits.

The same stacking can be applied to more complex areas like the mouth. Stack outward: whatever is closest to you goes on LAST. So, 1) Inside of Mouth > 2) Tongue > 3) Teeth

Your character's features will vary, but stacking outward will never fail you.

The lines you traced on your main body of fabric will make placing the features correctly a no-brainer. Pin features in place and and appliqué using the stitch of your choice. I favor a handmade aesthetic on most pieces use contrasting threads with a running stitch.

If you're pressed for time you can always use a fabric friendly adhesive as an alternative to stitching, or just use a dab to help hold small/ tricky pieces in place for sewing.

Step 6: Line Work

This is a technique I use often when re-creating an animated character with fabric. It translates the bold, solid lines of cartoons into the craft world very well.

To get "lines" as if he's a cartoon drawing, you're going to apply pieces of black yarn that correspond to the lines you transferred from your pattern.If you're really pressed for time, you could also use something like Black Tulip fabric paint. Personally, I think squeezable fabric paint can look really bad, really fast, but it is an option if you feel comfortable controlling your application.

Lay a length of yarn on top of a line.

Snip off approximately the length you'll need to cover your pen marking.

Use fabric glue to attach the yarn to the line. I used Crafter's Pick "The Ultimate", which dried clear and held the yarn in place very well. If you're worried about too much glopping out of the bottle at once, you can apply the glue to the line using a toothpick.

You may not be able to get super sharp angles with the yarn and adhesive alone, but generally you will cover your line work and describe the form.

If your character does require a sharp angeles line, this can be achieved by tweaking the yarn's placement with stitching. This technique is called "couching". Using thread that matches your dark yarn, stitch over and under the yarn line, pulling tight where you need your dramatic corner to be. The thread influences the curve of the yarn and gives you a crisper shape. Secure the thread on the under side of your fabric when finished.

Repeat until all your lines are covered.

*For very small items, yarn lines may be too thick. Go over your pen mark hides with colored thread to create defined black cartoon line work, like I did on this Squabbit (Brickleberry) hair fascinator.

*If you prefer a handcrafted, embroidered look, you can also do artful stitching to create delicate line work with colored thread. In this Skeletor interpretation, I used stitches to define the skull, teeth, abs, and costume details while embracing a cute handmade aesthetic that made the piece unique.

Step 7: Limbs and Extensions

Sometimes parts that extend off your character's main body shape (arms, wings, etc) will have to be improvised and made separately. Since this will vary so greatly from cartoon to cartoon, I'll offer some general tips here to help make your fabricating easier.

Flat or Stuffed? Would this feature read most clearly flat or stuffed? Flat pieces are definitely less work, so if your character is still clear without making fully three dimensional limbs, I say go for it! The wings on Rainbow Dash are a good example of a flat piece that serves the character perfectly well. For Krang, stuffed arms felt like a must-have to capture his attitude.

Don't lose touch with your reference. Keep your original reference image handy, or do a fresh google search if you can't quite remember the nuances of your character's features. If you want your project to be true to character, don't just wing it. Arm length, whether the fingers are tapered or round, the size of the buttons on a shirt; all these specifics can make or break a cartoon character's look. With answers just a keyboard away, there's no excuse not to get these details right. Deviating from a character's classic look can be great, just make sure it's a deliberate creative choice on your part.

Drawings vs. Gravity. Some characters present a real challenge when being brought into the tangible world. For example, I once made a 4ft tall plush giraffe. As a 2D drawing, the pattern works, however the real world has this thing called gravity. Same issue with this plush Octopus, made for L.A.'s Comikaze in 2012 and based on their logo. Those tentacles were a nightmare to haul around! Long extensions are heavy and floppy. If the character you're making absolutely needs these extra long parts, consider how you will make this work for you. You may consider stuffing the piece with something denser than regular ol' polyfill, or making a wire armature to support the form. If this is strictly a display piece, as my giraffe was, hang it from the ceiling and let gravity work FOR you.

Step 8: Happy Cartoon Crafting!

Now you're armed with the basics of patterning cartoon characters for fabric. You can replicate your favorites, make custom gifts for friends, or do creative home decor interpretations by playing with style and proportion.

If you enjoyed this Ible, consider sending a vote in the Pattern contest. I'd love to see your works of fabric cartoon art in the comments below.

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