Introduction: Sew a Fox Earflap Hat

About: Enthusiastic cook, blogger and (sometimes) crafter.

My niece is completely given over to "What does the fox say?" madness. So I wanted to make her a winter fox hat as a Christmas gift. But I wasn’t thrilled about the prospect of buying fake fur. It’s expensive, messy, and usually the synthetic fibers aren’t actually very warm. And it seemed like it would still be hard to get the right colors to achieve the effect I wanted. So I modified a technique that I had used for a very different project and came up with a similar technique for sewing faux fur. This method allows you to create high-quality, soft, warm, beautiful faux fur using a sewing machine and an old wool sweater! The technique isn’t difficult-- you basically just cut a sweater into strips, sew those strips onto another piece of fabric with a zigzag stitch and unravel the knit strips to create fur. And (because they'll be cut up anyway) it's a great way to upcycle stained or damaged sweaters. I'm including the pattern and procedure that I used to create this hat, but it could easily be modified to make different animals, or different furry garments.

Steps 1-6 of this instructable cover the technique for sewing the faux fur. (I'd imagine you could use this to sew all manner of warm furry projects.) You'll want to sew a little swatch using this technique to make sure that you've got the hang of it, and to make any adjustments to achieve the fur you want.  Steps 5-8 cover the hat construction. You could also use this pattern to make a hat out of different fabric, or purchased faux fur.  Skip around to suit your needs.

My niece loves her new hat! She would also like to note that while she is wearing the hat she would prefer to be referred to by her fox name, Buttercrumb.

Step 1: Materials

For the most part, you'll only need general sewing equipment plus an appropriate sweater. Fabric paint or markers are also helpful if you want to create more involved color effects.

Materials List:

Sewing machine
Pattern (pdf files are attached for this pattern)
Lightweight base fabric (this is the fabric you’ll sew fur onto)
Comfortable dark-colored lining fabric (this is the fabric that will be inside the hat and show on the insides of the ears)
An old sweater  or other knit garment in foxy-red, plus some trimmings from a sweater or other knit garment in white or ivory
Thread (you’ll need lots, this technique gobbles up a ton of thread.)
Scissors, pins and other general sewing equipment
A stiff, wire-bristled pet brush
An image or two to help you decide how you want your animal to look.
Fabric paint or markers (optional)

Measure the head of the person who you're making a hat for. There are plenty of charts for standard head sizes, but I have found that there is a huge variation, with many children having "adult" sized heads. The only way to know you're going to get a fit is to measure. And if you're in doubt, go with a bigger size. Also, this pattern starts out seeming much bigger, but as it progresses it will get smaller, so don't be worried if the pieces look really big at first.

Step 2: How It Works

If you’re at all like me, the mention of “cutting sweaters into strips” gave you visions of an epic mess, with snippets of wool and yarn and unraveling knit fabric everywhere. Trust me, this is not as crazy as it sounds. The end result is a very sturdy fur-- you actually brush it quite hard to help fluff the fur in the end, the fur doesn’t unravel or leave tons of snippets of yarn. Let me explain why it works. (And how it could go wrong if you made a crucial mistake.) Skip ahead if you want to get straight to the how-to part.

First, a quick note about the different structure of knit and woven fabrics: Knit fabrics are constructed out of one continuous piece of yarn-- each row is a scaffold that the next row is worked into. So in the end you have a structure made of parallel strands of yarn. Woven fabrics have thread (or yarn) running in two perpendicular directions.

This structural difference is why this technique works with knit fabric, but wouldn't work with woven fabric. If you cut a strip of knit fabric perpendicular to the direction the yarn is running, you’ll end up with a bunch of shorter parallel pieces of yarn knit together. If you fix the center of this strip by sewing it down, then the pieces of yarn can unravel, but since they are all connected at the center, they won’t fray or fall out. If you were to try to do the same thing with a woven piece of fabric, you’d get some horizontal pieces unraveling, but you’d also get a whole bunch of messy vertical threads coming out as well. And they might not be attached through the center seam at all. Likewise, if you were to cut a strip of knit fabric in the wrong direction (parallel to the direction of the yarn) You would not end up getting a fur at all, you’d just have lots of pieces of yarn that would unravel, and some of them might get caught in the seam.

Step 3: Selecting a Sweater

There are a handful of factors that you’ll want to weigh when choosing a sweater for your fur. Different fibers and techniques can create very different effects. I’d recommend using something that is inexpensive (or free), especially to start with. Test out your fur-making technique on a small swatch before taking on a big project. Any sweater will work to create fur, but it might look very different from a fur made from another similar sweater. The only way to know is to give it a try.  On to the specifics:

Stitch Size/ Gauge:
The stitch gauge is simply a measure of how large or small the stitches are in the knit fabric. Usually this is related to the yarn gauge. You don’t need to get too bogged down in the knitting terminology here-- for this project you just want to make sure that the stitches aren’t too small*. A medium or bulky sweater is ideal. I’d recommend sticking to knits with ten stitches or less per inch.

Fiber: Many fibers can work for this technique, but if the fiber has pilled and matted on a sweater, it will pill and mat as a fur. Different fibers will give you different effects. Again, the only real way to know what you'll get is to try it and see.  I used wool and wool blends for these furs. The resulting faux fur is soft and warm with a texture similar to a sheepskin. Because cotton is very absorbent, I would avoid using cotton to make fur for a garment. (It would get incredibly heavy when wet and take forever to dry.) I could imagine some uses for toys or dolls that might work with cotton, though.

Cables, ribbing and other knit patterns: You’ll get the most consistent and easy results from using a plain, unadorned fabric. (Stockinette stitch for all you knitters.) It will be more difficult to cut even strips out of patterned knit, and also more difficult to unravel.

Damage & Wear: Garments that have stains, tears or other holes can work great for this project! Just make sure to avoid knit fabrics that have already begun to felt. Felting happens when a garment is exposed to heat, water and agitation (say, machine washing a sweater that is meant to be hand washed.) This causes the strands of yarn to mat together. Some wools felt easily and others don’t. Because we need our knit fabric to unravel into fur, a felted fabric wouldn’t work. Look carefully at the stitches and make sure that the strands of yarn can separate easily.

*Technically, it would still work, but at some point it would become absurdly labor intensive

Step 4: Cut Sweater Into Strips

First you want to cut the sweater into its constituent pieces. You can rip the seams out, or just cut neatly right next to the seams. I like to cut off any ribbing at the edges too so I have an even surface to work with.

Now you need to decide how wide you want your strips to be. As a general rule of thumb, after you’ve unraveled your fur, the loft will be as high as the strips that you cut. So: ⅝” strips of sweater give you ⅝” high fur. Wider strips use up your knit fabric more quickly and they also take more time to unravel. Thin strips are easy to unravel, but they are not very forgiving when you sew them on, so more precision is required up front. I’ve found that ⅝” is the minimum thickness that is easy to work with on the sewing machine. If you want a shorter fur, I’d say just sew  ⅝” strips and trim down the fur afterward.

Before you start to cut, you want to make sure that you have your sweater aligned the right way. The knit stitches look kind of like little arrows-- they should be pointing up and down, not left and right.

Measure the width of your strip onto your knit fabric. Cut a little notch at the correct width. Count how many stitches will be in each strip. Continue counting and cutting notches at the appropriate width. Carefully cut out your vertical strips, using the lines in the knit fabric to help you cut straight. Trim away any diagonal edges at the end of the strip. (You can either toss these scraps or save them to use as stuffing on another project.)

Step 5: Sew Strips to Base Fabric

 Set your sewing machine to the zigzag stitch. Adjust the stitch width so it is wider than one stitch of your knit fabric. Adjust the length of the stitch so they are no farther apart than one knit stitch.

Before sewing down the first strip, mark out the area that you want to cover with fur using tailor’s chalk (or even regular chalk). Leave (at least) a ⅝” border around the edge of the area you want to cover with fur. Sew down the first strip to your backing. I found it easiest to not pin down the strips and just maneuver the strips as I went. When you get close to the end of your marked area, just snip the strip off at the correct length, then continue zigzag stitching into the ⅝” border. Turn your fabric 180 degrees and position another strip as close as you can to the first strip. Fold over the side of the first strip, tucking it away from the area you want to place the second strip. Lay the second strip as close to the first strip as you can. Sew through the center of the second strip, scooting and repositioning the strips as necessary. Once you get to the end of the area marked for fur, snip and continue your stitching into the border just like you did before. Keep sewing strips down in this manner until you’ve covered the entire area.

When you get to the end of a strip, just add a new strip in right behind it. There’s no need to stop your seam.
Save smaller strips for later, often you’ll need short strips to fill out the ends of your fur covered area.
To cover irregular shapes, or items that have already been sewn together (like the hat), you'll likely have to sew some short seams, rather than just parallel rows back and forth. Be sure to anchor the ends of these seams well by sewing backwards and forwards a few times. (Just like you would ending any seam.)
Try not to stretch the strips as you sew, it makes it more difficult to get even fur coverage.
I used a standard presser foot on my machine, but I bet a zipper foot would make positioning the strips easier.

Step 6: Unravel Fur

If you have used relatively thin strips of knit fabric, you'll be able to unravel your fur simply by brushing it with a stiff, wire-bristled brush. (Cool, right?)

If you used strips wider than 3/4", then you'll probably have to start unraveling the fur by hand. To do this grab a darning or knitting needle (or anything with a blunt smooth end that you can slip into a knit stitch). Start at one end of the strip and completely unravel one piece of yarn down to the zigzag stitch. Gently pull at the piece of yarn below-- it should pull out and start a run in the fabric. If it doesn't run easily, try starting from the other direction on the same strip. Keep pulling at the run until the whole strip has unraveled and you're left with little curly pieces of yarn dangling. It sounds kind of tedious, but this step is the kind that can be done rather absentmindedly (even while watching a movie or singing fox-related songs.)

Once you've unraveled the longer fur strips you can move on to brushing them out with the wire brush. This will unravel the individual strands of yarn and create your fur.

Step 7: Assemble Lining

Cut out all pattern pieces from the base material, making sure that you cut mirror images when needed and cut the center piece along a fold as noted in the pattern. Cut the same pieces out of lining fabric as well. For the base material use a 5/8" seam allowance. For the lining fabric use a 3/4" seam allowance.

Line up a side piece with an earflap piece. With right sides facing each other, sew the side piece to the earflap. Repeat for the other side.

Arrange the pieces of the hat so that the rounded edge of the center strip is in front and the earflaps are also in front. With right sides facing, pin the center strip of fabric to the side/earflap pieces. Sew seams. Now you have your base hat! Repeat these steps with the lining fabric. So you should now have two raw-edged earflap hats.

Step 8: Assemble Ears

Grab the fox ear pieces cut out of your base fabric. Make sure that you have one of each facing up (they are not symmetrical and you want to have one of each). Use chalk or a marker to draw a ⅝” border around each ear. Sew ⅝” strips of knit fabric to cover the ear.

Pin lining fabric to the ear with the right side of the lining facing the fur. If you like, you can sandwich in an extra strip of knit fur along the seam so it is hanging out the edge. This will give you longer tufts of fur around the ear’s edge. (I did this but only along the rounded side of the ear. )

Sew lining to ear around the outside edges. Turn ear inside out. Iron flat.
Repeat these steps to make the other ear.

Step 9: Attach Ears

Align the center of the ear along the seam connecting the side to the top of the hat, about for inches up from the front. Figure out which ear is left and which is right (the rounder side is on the outside, the straighter side is nearer to the center. With the raw edge of the base fabric from the ear turned out, pin the centers of the ears in place. (Don’t worry, you’re going to go in and cover up this unfinished edge with fur in a few minutes.)

Only using the base fabric (you can just leave the lining dangling free for now) pin the rest of the ear down to the hat. You have some options here-- you can adjust where the ears meet the base and change how the ears will sit.  (I wanted the ears to stand straight up.) I arranged the ears so the inside half of the ear makes a straight line at a sharp angle toward the front of the hat while the outside edge of the ear curves around and then comes forward again. You may have to pin and repin a couple of times until you like the way that the ears look. Sew the backing fabric of the ears down to the hat.

Now adjust the lining fabric so that it sits nicely along the inside of the ear. Some folds and gathering are okay, but you want the lining to be more or less taught along the inside of the ear. Pin the lining in place.
Hand sew the lining in place. You can add some stitches to help hold the ears in upright, too. Don’t go too crazy with your hand stitching-- this part is going to be covered with fur and reinforced with other seams later. It’s mostly just to keep the lining in place the way you want it.

Step 10: Sew on Remaining Fur

Use chalk or a marker to draw a ⅝” border around the outside edge of the hat. Sew 1” wide strips of white knit fabric to cover the inside of the ear. Sew a few 1” strips of white knit to the front top of the earflap to make the white sides of the fox face.

Starting at the center line of the hat, sew ⅝” strips of knit orange fabric down to the hat. Work your way outwards, covering with the fur strips. When you reach the ear, sew the strip all the way up to the edge of the ear, covering the unfinished fabric edge. Once you've covered most of the ear, switch directions and start working vertical strips up until it reaches the rest of the fur. Keep sewing down the strips to cover the remaining fabric.

Step 11: Sew in Lining & Invert

Turn your completed hat lining inside out. Pull the lining over the fur-lined hat. Carefully align the lining with the fur-lined hat, pinning the edges as you go. Starting at the seam connecting the center piece to the earflap at the back of the hat, sew around the edges using a 5/8" seam allowance. Stop the seam at the back earflap, leaving a 6" section of the edge unsewn.

Along the convex curves, cut little notches into the seam allowance every half inch or so. Cut slits along the concave curves. Turn hat inside out. Start by feeding one of the earflaps through the hole, then slowly work the rest of the hat right side out.  Press the edge of the hat so it lies flat. Once you are satisfied with how the hat lays, hand sew the back of the hat shut. If necessary, hand sew along some of the seams until the lining lays nice and flat.

Step 12: Finishing Treatment

Unravel the wider strips of knit fabric first. (See step 6 for details.) Use a wire brush to fluff out the fur. Trim the fur as desired. Now you can paint or color the fur with fabric paint or markers to add additional coloring variation to the fur. Depending on the type of paint, you might need to heat treat it to fix the pigment. Just follow the directions on your product, and try it on a test swatch first. I added a little black and brown on the insides of the ears, black on the backs of the ears and a little extra orange and red around the edge of the face.

Done! Enjoy!

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