Looking Good and 'Eeling Gorgeous!

So some people might remember when I got to go home last Christmas! By home, I mean my homeland of New Zealand [cue fireworks!]. It's been a long time away for me, as the last time I got to go home was in 2001 for my sister's wedding. There's a lot I could say about my time spent back in Christchurch, but I'll just sum it up by saying it was one of the most rewarding and wonderful experiences, and gifts, I've ever been given in my entire life and I am so full of gratitude and joy because of it. I have a wonderfully supportive family, and I will never stop saying thank you to the people who got me to where I needed to be. 

Among the many wonderful things I got to do was a trip to Willowbank Wildlife Reserve with my beloved cousin. I have only a handful of strong memories from my childhood, and Willowbank had some of the clearest ones. There are bossy deer who steal your pellet bag off you, and chatty birds, unfussed wallabies and maybe a kiwi if you're very lucky and very patient. But - best of all - there are long fin eels. 

Aren't they hideous? I love them. 

At WIllowbank they live in this little river/pond arrangement that snakes through the park, and has a section with a glass tank wall and steps down so you can see them lurking away in the shadows. I have memories of it always being wet and dank and vaguely unpleasant, and that my brother absolutely hated them and would refuse to go near them. That might be why I love them so much - a mixture of them being perfect Halloween creepy crawlies, and because I'm a complete brat of a baby sister. 

Returning was a slightly different experience, as the walkway wasn't nearly as dark and miserable as I remembered it, and the eels were mostly pretty chill and just hung out near the jutting feeding areas waiting for tourists exactly like me to offer them pellets that would suck up, and then grumpily spit out in disgust [took me a while to remember I had to buy meat for them]. 

On leaving, I was disappointed that there weren't any eel plushies to buy to accompany me home, and of course this naturally meant I had to make one upon returning to England and my studio. 

 

'Ello. Is me!'

Hello there cutie. 

Ok, so let's be honest - eels are not particularly cute. They're pretty awful looking to be honest, they're long and slimy, with big mouths hiding little white teeth and then there's the eyes - like the eyes of the dead staring unblinking up at you from the murky water. They're perfect if you're into creepy looking sea monsters, but they're hardly going to win any Miss Wildlife Universe pageants. But, surprisingly, there's a lot more to them to be appealing than you'd assume. Firstly, those long bodies are actually very soft and velvet-like when you touch them [do it, I dare you, touch the nightmare fuel] and they move too slow and gawky to seem threatening. Watching them, they seem pretty good at bumping into things, stopping momentarily to internally roll their eyes, and bumble off in a different direction only to bump again. They may have the eyes of soul suckers, but the look they give you when they bump into your leg is priceless - like how dare you stand there, the sheer audacity. Spending time with them, two words I would use to describe them would be ridiculous and downright sassy

I played around with the scale for a while [I made one that could have easily been a ring, and trust me that gave me enough ideas to write down and never get around to], and also with the pose. Truthfully, long fin eels are a little stiffer than the moray eels we're used to seeing twist and turn, but I thought it would be nice to mimic some of the traditional Maori pounamu [greenstone] shapes as the flowing designs would match so well. 

The design that ended up being the most visually successful was the fishhook, with the little guy peeking over his own tail and giving a bit of a cheeky look. The decision making in this one was pretty organic - the black plush was the best choice for the velvet like skin of the eel, and of course he had to have his little nostril tendrils. For the underbelly, I had to bring in a little Patchwork Toad colour and give him multicoloured spots. 

I feel like seeing the underbelly of an eel in the wild should be a bad omen or something. The only thing I found challenging with this [aside from photographing a solid black toy] was picking his eyes. Longfin eels have these weird bleached out eyes that sometimes seem completely blind and pointless, and then other times feel like they're zeroing in on you. I tried a few of my regular eyes, I even painted set set this odd shade of grey. Eventually I had a go with some flat back rhinestones, and they worked a treat! Unfocussed, yet glittering with intent. 

I had so much fun making this little dude. Making new designs for my growing patchwork zoo is my favourite part of this whole process! I wish I had more time to focus on it, but between work, work and moving it only pops up in moments like these - and I wouldn't miss them for the world! I sent this little guy off to New Zealand for my cousin as a thank you for showing me around so much, and just because I love her. Hopefully I'll be able to do some more work with this design in the future, you never know! 

Robin Redbreast

Patchwork Toad is in transition at the moment - we've been heavily downsizing and moving house, moving in with some friends! That meant I was rushing like a crazy person trying to catch up on all my open commissions and mailing orders, whilst also packing - inventorying - repacking - labelling - the cycle is never ending. I had to be quite hard on myself with letting quite a lot of my collected craft supplies go. I'm sure I'm not the only artist whose lovely friends give them colourful wool and paper flowers and glitter and buttons, and pairs that with that mentality of 'oh, it'll come in handy eventually, I shouldn't get rid of it because then I'll suddenly want it'. In the end, I paired up a lot of the supplies with the criteria of 1. when did I last use this? and 2. would it fit into the new directions I want to go? 
1 is a lot easier to answer than 2. 
But regardless, I stuck with it and got everything organised, packed, labelled and safely stored away until a suitable studio arrangement is found. Unfortunately this does mean I won't be available for custom orders for a little period of time, but I do have a large amount of stock I will be selling off in a series of sales - one in September, one for Halloween and another for Christmas. I'm hoping to have the studio up and running before the end of September, but I will keep that space open for updates. 
Moving house is hell, and I have been to the recycling centre so many times in the last two weeks that they now know my name, and see me coming bright and early with a new carload of stuff. But finally, blissfully, I find myself in my new place with my new housemates, with all my essentials carefully organised into storage boxes under the bed and Tetris'ed onto shelves - and the last job on my seemingly never ending to-do list is ticked. This day was foretold, and yet I struggled to believe. 
So what to do on a quiet, rainy Wednesday afternoon with no demands on my time? Well, I probably owe a blog post or two, and probably best to start with the redbreast I teased in an early post...

 

Previously, on Patchwork Toad...

Um, excuse me? Who are you, and what are you doing on my head? 

Look here, branches don't talk - and they certainly don't complain! 

Well, it seems this little visitor may not be the sweetest songbird in the flock, but at least he's beautiful and brilliant. I originally wanted to make two little birds that were vaguely inspired by lovebirds but were more like sparrows or tits. That's a really long way of saying I wasn't sure what I wanted them to look like, but I knew I wanted them in earth tones. This was definitely one of those occasions where I didn't have an exact plan in my head, just a series of vague ideas. That included the pattern as well. I have bird patterns from when I first started making toys, but I have of plans to improve them all [endless plans, so many ideas with so many directions...]. 

I sat down at my desk with a small stash of gradient fabrics, a bit of drafting card and a pencil... and what followed was a lovely afternoon of all the elements just working together, and flowing into this beautiful little bird I essentially conjured out of thin air. I sometimes get very enthralled in the transformation process of raw materials being used in such a way that something brand new and completely unique forms out of them, and it's one of the best parts about what any artist does with a blank canvas of any medium. I realise that could sound a little narcissistic, but it's something I think a lot of creative people understand and it's maybe a subject to go into another time. 

 

Focussing back onto the little robin redbreast, I decided to give him a brilliant red and fluffy chest - hoping to mimic the way robins puff themselves up in winter for warmth. I also experimented with a technique I've seen all over the internet on craft projects and attached the wings using a very straight forward buttonhole method - which gives it the added feature of being able to rotate and really add some character to the overall toy. Lastly I decided to add some glimmering green tail feathers to this little guy. Call it artistic license, I know robins don't have green feathers, but I just thought it would add a little drama. 

A few things I still want like to improve going forward - I need to change how I make the beaks! They're always a little stumpy, and maybe I could sharpen them up by making them out of clay or a similar material to my claws. I've been a huge fan of Justien van der Winkel for a few years now, and adore their work with birds. We approach our birds in a different way, but I'm very inspired by how they translate the elegance and the essence of each bird into their sculpture work. I've been wanting to move my work away from the crafty element and more into soft sculpture and toy art, and van der Winkel has got the perfect blend of fabric work mixed with precise elements - the beaks and feet are particularly birdlike, without taking away from the 'feathery' textile work. I'm not a copycat, I would never lift someone's ideas from their work but inspiration is a very different thing. 

Overall, while there are definitely elements I would like to develop in my own birds, I'm so happy with how this little guy came out. He's definitely got his own character and sassy personality, and after finishing him, I just let myself sit and stare at him and enjoy the little moment of creation. I think he's one of the most beautiful toys I've ever made, and I regret telling him that because now he won't let me forget it. 

A Lovely Older Lady

A few months ago one of my partner's work collegues got in touch to ask about making him a very special toy. He wanted a large cuddly beagle for his partner - but not just any beagle, a specific beagle. His beagle!

 

Sadly, I deleted all the reference photos except this one, but look at this beautiful lady!

I've done a few pet portraits in the years, and they're always tricky because capturing the essence of your four legged friend is not the same as just following a pattern - everything's a little bit different, whether it's the ears or the eyes or (in this case) the charming patches of white on her face and snout. 

Not only did he want a cuddly representation of his beloved pooch, but he also wanted a very specific fabric he'd spotted on my social media - the Alexander Henry tattoo flash cotton that continues to be popular! On that front, there were no problems. I already have several variants of it in stock, and I've made plenty of inked up keepsakes in the past. 

Appliqué tattoos are becoming a little bit of a speciality now - maybe I should take this idea a little further in my spare time (Spare time, who am I kidding, I'll just file it away with the rest of my wish to-do list). My Alexander Henry fabrics come in black, sepia tan and cream - which is perfect because so do beagles! I started with my basic dog pattern, adding some bigger ears and adding the shape of the head simple. 

 Nosy lil guy, aren't you?

Nosy lil guy, aren't you?

 

I should really do in progress shots for some of these stages, but I never remember to.

Adding the black patch across her back was the easy part - it's very similar to draping on a dressform but with plush cuddle instead of satin or cotton. Plush cuddle is a perfect fabric too, not only is it super soft and tactile but it doesn't need a hem!! Perfection. I spent so much time folding it under as I stitched it before I realised it didn't need me too. 

To be honest, with a commission like this, it is all about the face. I ended up hand-stitching most of the plush elements of her head and face. I had to resize and move her ears about three times before they rested the way I wanted them too. In the beginning I made them way, way too big because beagle ears are heavenly, but by the time I was finished - they are everything! 

The inside of the ears were tattooed as well - because this older lady is a badass. 

When it came to making decisions about the colouring of her face, I was torn between representing what we think of as a classic beagle colouring, and wanting to make her look as much like the subject matter as possible. In the end, I draped the fur onto the whole of the face with the arrow shape of her head at the top. I also added the white muzzle which gave me an opportunity to sculpt the shape of her muzzle, give it a bit more definition on the chin and around the nose. 

The smile of this lovely lady was hand-stitched, and wrapped with embroidery thread to create a raised effect. 

The eyes were a little bit of a problem. I have yet to find any safety toy eyes that glint and sparkle like real eyes too, that have depth in them. I have a lot of beautifully painted eyes, but I'm still on a quest. In the end I picked some dark blue clear plastic eyes, and painted the dark details in myself, after adding the black and dark brown around the eyes. You know how dogs can get those dark, wet patches around their eyes, like they're holding all their love in their eyes? I added those first, and the end result of layering darkly detailed eyes over black plush meant that the majority of the details got lost - but there was just enough depth in them that I was happy. Unfortunately for me, they didn't photograph the same way they appear in life.  

I knew the face needed a bit more dimension, and who can resist those puppy eyes made even more manipulative by big slanting eyebrows? I pinned them in place, but my partner wasn't convinced. I ignored him, and I'm glad I did - I think they added a crucial detail to her face! I would have liked to have gone further with the detailing, maybe done some more fading around her eyes, some tones in-between the dark brown and cream - or even some hand embroidery stitching, but another idea, another day. 

Lastly came the patches of white on her muzzle. I was originally going to leave the snout white and the forehead cream, but I kept coming back to the photo of her in the kitchen and thinking how obvious the shapes of white fur were - almost like swirls! I changed the spacing a little bit, simplifying the shapes and using the space on the canvas rather than worrying about the proportions of the original (artistic license, it's a handy tool). 

Overall, this was a great commission - it had a lot of small challenges, and gave me a lot of ideas to play with and develop and I'm very excited to continue with some of the new ideas I have to play with. 

Oh, wait - who's this? 

Um, excuse me sir, you're on my head. 

 

Quiet you - branches don't talk. And they certainly don't complain! 

(Stay tuned for more on this little red breast!)

Revisiting Old [and Micro] Friends!

I went to visit a lovely friend from University for her hen do and got to meet a lot of lovely other people, reconnect with friends from afar and say hello to some of my first Micro toys! 

Hello babies! Still so cute even with pattern revisions, and I remember how in love with Kaffe Fassest fabrics I am. Not much else to say except - look how cute and colourful! 

Love Letters

So I had this idea bouncing around my head for a while now, and I'm still working out the details. I've been making map elephants for a while now, and they've always been pretty popular. I've been making them in a variety of colours, but the sepia ones have been the most successful. 

I had this idea of highlighting the countries in thread for people as travel souvenirs, but the idea kind of evolved into something a little different.

Ok, bit weird, but go with me here: anyone remember that phase when people were mailing fruit and veg in the post to each other? Like just a whole potato, with a stamp stuck on, and an address written on it? 

I thought I could make an elephant that looked like a manilla envelope, and add a fabric postage stamp/post mark and embroider an address on it. I thought it would be a cute way to send someone some love, like a postcard in the shape of an adorable elephant! I have this little habit of sending my friends weird postcards and letters, and I put stickers all over the envelopes and write speech bubble jokes and colour things in and doodle little stars all over them, and apply liberal use of the gold ink pens in my collection. I thought by applying my little illustrative quirks to the elephant in thread, it would add a little bit of unique charm!

The idea evolved a little bit more, and instead of the whole address [because who lives in the same house year on year anymore? People with mortgages and real jobs to pay for them, that's who], I thought I would add a little personal message instead, like on a postcard. 

I also toyed with the idea of adding a little luggage tag with the address and the real stamps required for sending love the old fashioned way, but I didn't for two reasons [ok, maybe three]. Firstly, I didn't think the Royal Mail would let me actually send a tiny elephant in the post. Secondly, I would be worried about it getting dirty or snagged! And thirdly, anyone else think a luggage tag around the neck of a small loved one being sent away by themselves is a little too... Blitzy?

Not a word. Nevermind. 

Tiny elephants!!! 

I'm hoping to have these little guys online to buy custom made very soon! 

 

These photos aren't great - sorry toy lovers!

Glitterbug

I took myself on a little shopping trip through a very glittery section of eBay, and trust me - I had a lot of fun. 

So what does this mean for future toys? Well it means sparkly eyes for some, jewelled ears for others, teeny tiny stars for a small number and UNICORN HORNS!! White, pastel pink, hot pink, electric blue, ultra violet - RAINBOW UNICORNS. 

Happiness is sparkly stuff. 

Seafoam Green

I accidentallly deleted the first draft of this blog post. 

It's actually very frustrating, because I'm finding concentrating and writing a little challenging due to some personal issues, and I was pretty happy with what I wrote! I started with this little introduction about this being the year of bears, and then elaborating on how much I enjoyed designing my bears to have traditional elements, but to be off the wall and colourful in every other respect. I then segue [albeit a little inelegantly] into a paragraph about how collaboration can take these traditional and quirky attributes and elevate them into the perfect keepsake toy. 

I also had a brief divergence about the difficulties of matching a white or light coloured fur, with darker or busier fabrics and how mismatched and unbalanced it can look. That's not strictly very relevant, but it's a lesson I've learnt as a toymaker who graduated from two dimensional design into three dimensional soft sculpture, and it's a thought I might come back to at a later date potentially. 

Regardless, the whole original post was carefully written and used a lot of words I enjoy, and you would have loved it. Trust me on this. 

Anyway, let's talk about seafoam green fabrics: 

An old friend from high school got in touch with me. She sees my little keepsakes pop up online now and again, and wanted a teddybear made for the newest member of her family. A video call with my fabric stash had her picking out the exact fabrics she wanted, a service I'm very happy to offer to anyone wanting something perfect for a loved one. Originally she wanted white or light coloured fur, so it was more of a polar bear look, but this is where that divergence of white fur/dark fabrics came into play, and we agreed that I would go hunting online and offer her some alternatives. 

I buy most, if not all, my fur from Plush Addict. They have a warehouse I've been dying to go visit an hour up the road, but the website is amazing too - and the range of colours for their synthetic fur plush cuddle is brilliant. The fur itself is super soft, very easy to work with and adds so much more tactile enjoyment of the finished toy that I have been incorporating more and more of it into my creations for years now. Out of the four little samples I ordered, all of which were stunning, both myself and my friend agreed that the seafoam green was the winner. It's just shy of mint green, with a little bit more cool blue in it than white, and very soon the bear began to take shape! 

This dapper young bear is called Quincy, and he is a very handsome and charming little gent. You can probably tell how fond I was of Quincy, and the colour of this incredible seafoam green fur from just how many pictures of him I took. 

I'm still not any closer to being a world famous photographer, but luckily for me Quincy looks great in most settings, particularly in my sister's newly furnished and gorgeous home. I mean, even her cushions are just fabulous. 

The bear's good too. 

Quincy was made with seafoam green plush cuddle from Plush Addict, and handpicked fabrics including a Michael Miller cotton in mint, and a beautiful teal with contrasting orange flowers and parakeets, all edged with gold metallic ink. I hand stitched the smile, and his heart shaped nose and gold eyes were carefully picked. I also hand-stitched the gold edging on the top of his ears and the toe bean pads on his paws. 

Deep Sea Blues

Teddybears are a staple of every toy lovers collection, it seems. People have been loving their teddy bears for years - decades even. Back when I first became interested in toys [the long lost summer of 2009 if memory recalls through the years of oversleeping and procrastination], I remember researching the Steiff Teddybear, the first plush teddy as we know it - complete with moving limbs and a tongue in cheek nod to Teddy Roosevelt.

A teddybear is one of the most recognisable and nostalgic symbols of childhood and innocence. They're a beloved playmate through countless tea parties, midnight kitchen raids, sleepy long car journeys. Sometimes lost under the bed, sometimes propped up on the couch with a plate of peanut butter toast that they're inexplicably expected to eat, but always just there.   

I've been making teddybears since I first started making toys. They weren't the first toys I made [that honour goes to a handful of sock mice I gave to my cats, followed by some better designed mice I gave to my housemates], but they were where the seeds of Patchwork Toad were first planted. 

I have come a long way with my teddybear designs - and I have plans for them going forward too, but this post is all about one bear. One beautiful sapphire blue bear called Baloo! 

While In New Zealand over Christmas, one of my relatives asked me to make her daughter a bear. She gave me the creative freedom to go anywhere I liked with it - which is always an exciting and something daunting task to give a creative. I decided to make a bear to reflect my cousin's interests as I saw them online - she loved being in the water and the beach, being part of her environment and loving every minute of it. 

Immediately I thought of a bear made in this stunning electric blue, the way water looks so deep and cold when the beach gives way to the ocean. I have this incredible underwater coral fabric that I've posted before, and will probably post again on my Instagram - it has this glorious quality of shifting light through water, showing the colours and textures of corals and fish just out of reach. It's all a little mermaidy - which is never a bad thing from my point of view! I wanted to go further with the underwater theme, and maybe add some teeny tiny shells to him. I've been very inspired by some seashell crowns I stumbled upon online [which I will post about soon, I promise] and I thought I could build off that idea as well - but a quick visit to Australia's import customs page turned me off - I didn't think it wise to send anything even slightly biological in case the poor bear was traumatised on his journey! Instead, I looked at coral reflective beads and bits of rounded sea glass, before settling on some tiny iridescent seed beads to sew into his fur, as if hidden treasure was just glinting up from the bottom of the sea. 

 

I love adding little elements to this design of bear to give them a few quirks or some added dimensions to their charms - including hand-stitched smiles and toe beans. 

I've had a few more commissions come in for new teddybears following the success of Baloo, so I'm looking forward to sharing some of those with you very soon!

Ocelots!

Hello again toy-lovers! 

I've been working on a lot of new patterns and designs recently - and first on my [very long] list was a series of tiny versions of big cats! I'm really looking forward to showing them all off, and there are some sneak peeks hiding all over my social media, but before that I had a very special commission to show off!

Oh hey there, little guy - don't be shy! Come on out and say hello!

A very dear friend I've known for a long time has been following me and my toys online for a while, and has always been a supportive fan, and reached out to ask if I could make her daughter an ocelot! I've made plenty of tigers and lions before, so making an ocelot seemed like a great project! Batting some ideas back and forth a few times, and I happened to mention I was working on making some mini big cats, and she suggested I could also make some kittens for this lucky little ocelot! 

So the base pattern for the mama ocelot was fairly simple - just a handful of gradient panels to show the light patches of fur and facial markings. Adding the muzzle shape in fur was the next step, a little pattern drafting on the fly! Then came the fun part - and by fun part, I mean fiddly and time consuming, exactly how I like it - adding all the facial and body markings! I added these once it was stuffed, and hand stitched them on with a mixture of appliquéd black minky [sometimes known as plush cuddle online!] and embroidery thread. As you can see from my photos [more on that in the footnotes] there are a lot of different types of markings - including large areas of black and white around the eyes! This all meant a lot of work, but I really enjoyed all the intricate work - and then replicating it on the mini-me kitten! 

It was so much fun adding the spots and splotches all over! Whilst I followed a mostly symmetrical pattern on either side of the body, there were subtle variations and quirks that added to the character of this mama ocelot, and gave her a lot of charm. I may have fallen in love with her a bit, especially with her big green eyes. I attempted experimenting with eyelids with her, sometimes I've come back to over and over again and still haven't found a solution I like! 

Once I had finished the Mama, I moved on to the kitten. I shrunk the pattern down to the ratio I wanted, having already edited some of the elements. Ocelot kittens have big ears when they're little so I made the little guy's ears kinda goofy! They're also really fluffy, which is adorable, but not very helpful when I wanted them to match! Shrinking down some of the panels for the Mama to the mini was very fiddly but I think it was worth it! 

Look how cute he is playing on his mama's back! What a lil scamp. 

I had a lot of fun working on this commission, and I might be able to make some more kittens down the line to join the little family as ocelots often have three or so cubs at a time! 

So until then, I guess Junior is just going to have to make the most of being king of the castle!

Boop! 

[A note on my photography! So you may have noticed I've bought myself a little photography studio set up. It's just a white backdrop but it's made it a lot easier to take photos, particularly for Etsy listings! It's still not perfect, I often find I want to fill all that white with backgrounds and plants to create colourful set pieces and I'm still struggling to light it correctly. I've made a few light diffusers and hopefully will be teaching myself some more photography tricks soon, just to improve the overall quality of my photos! Fingers crossed!]

Home Sweet Home

Going out on adventures and hunting for street art is all well and good, but there's something to be said for dragging yourself home and curling up on the couch, and enjoying the colours of home sweet home.