Easy DIY Toy: How to Turn an Old Sweater into a Cuddly Snake

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I love hand-made toys, and this one, an adorable and not-at-all menacing crafted sleeve snake we dubbed Sammy, takes only an hour or so. Ergo, it’s yet another low-risk high-reward DIY adventure. And it’s a form of recycling to boot!

The basic idea is to felt a sweater in the clothes machine and cut off a sleeve, which minimizes (much to my relief) the sewing involved. A needle felted set of eyes, pointy tongue and optional rattler tail completes the project.

Even if you’re not super-crafty, this project is totally possible. So let me bend your ear a sec about why you should bother throwing together some hand-made toys for your home.

Our kids have been born into a world in which most things come from a store. Virtually everything has been designed for them and assembled by machines. The stuff of their lives is mass-produced, mass-marketed, often plastic, and sometimes (like most dolls) made of toxic materials like PVC. It beeps or has buttons that allow only certain interactions. It needs batteries and can break.

But the nicer toys that don’t fit this mold (literally) can be pricey. So we use “un-toys” from the thrift store, upcycle what we find (like these classic blocks or this dollhouse), hunt through yard sales for good finds (like this awesome handmade truck), or try to make our own (like these discovery jars, needle felted animals (including a sheep!) and felt boards).

This is both a practical choice and an aesthetic one focused on simpler, more natural, open-ended materials. The things that kids are surrounded by do inform the way they operate in and learn from the world – after all, that’s what toys are for. Objects that are more like things that we find in the natural world make space for them to notice and appreciate things that aren’t all hot pink and beepy.

Another benefit is that our kids see the care we put into these kinds of toys (choosing or improving them) and the process and patience it takes to make something. Imperfections and flub-ups become opportunities to learn, and signs of something produced by humans. Choices – of color, material, shape – arise, and children can be consulted as participants and co-creators. Most importantly, kids notice when things are handmade, and know that is a form of love.

And sometimes they can even help! Here’s my daughter running her hands through the buckwheat stuffing for the snake.

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So make something, or find something and do it up, or even just paint a picture or make playdough together, as your time allows. It’s all about sharing the act of creating with your child, and having a little something to show for it afterwards.

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What you’ll need to make the cuddly sleeve snake:

  • An old sweater (if not from your own closets, check thrift stores or even ask the neighborhood list serv, where I got some generous and free donations)
  • Some wool roving in contrasting colors to the sweater, including a little white, black and red
  • A needle and some thread
  • Stuffing for the snake and a funnel to fill it (I used leftover buckwheat hulls from another project, rice or dried beans or lentils would also work well)
  • Felting needle and felting block

First, shrink the sweater in the washing machine. You can find a few more details on how to do that here, but the basic concept is to wash a mostly natural materials sweater (more than 75 percent wool or the like) with hot water, a little soap and, optionally, a few tennis balls until it has shrunk considerably and you are happy with the result. You may have to keep an eye on the washer and check on the shrinking progress, repeating the cycle a few times before letting it go to rinse. Pop it in the dryer when done.

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Next, pull your materials together and cut the sleeve off at the shoulder. At the wider end (mine happened to be the end of the sleeve, due to the design of the sweater, but yours is more likely to be the shoulder), bend and tuck the ends into the inside of the tube formed by the sleeve, and experiment with the form until you have a diamond-shaped head with two slanted sides.

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When you’re happy with the shape, sew up the mouth by starting at one corner and doing a simple stitch through the turned-in parts. It’ll look a bit messy until the shape returns, but just keep adjusting until you get it back into the diamond.

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Once it’s well closed up, use the funnel to fill it with your stuffing material. This can be done with a helper to keep filling the funnel. Do leave a little play so that it’s floppy and cuddly when done.

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Next, close up the tail by starting an inch or so inside the tail end and anchoring the thread inside. Stitch around in a circle, cinching it tight as you complete each circle around the tube, and stitch it all the way down to the end.

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Then needle felt in some eyes, using a small amount of the contrasting roving directly on the snake, and then the white and black. It helps to make balls of roving before felting to get the basic shape, and then use your needle to create a circle by poking repeatedly within the shape.

Keep the needle straight up and down, and poke it in the spot you’d like the material to go, picking up stray threads as you work. More detailed instructions on needle felting are here and here, but it’s really very easy and intuitive.

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Buttons would also work for the eyes, of course, if the child recipient is old enough not to worry about choking.

Last, use a little red roving to roll in a line and form a forked tongue, and either needle felt or sew the tongue onto the “mouth” of the snake where you closed. If you like, you can add a black “rattle” wrapped over the tail by needle felting a little roving around it.

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And there you have it: your own Sammy, a ssssimple ssssssssleeve ssssssnake.

You may also like the following crafting and up-cycling ideas for greener, more sustainable living:

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, All Over Again in Bangladesh

English: Image of Triangle Shirtwaist Factory ...

English: Image of Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25 – 1911.jpg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The fire that killed 112 people and counting in a nine-story high-rise building in Bangladesh last night was in a sweatshop in which people were working late to make clothes for Walmart and Sears, news reports indicate. There were evidently no exterior fire exits, and people jumped from the top floors to get away from the flames.

ABC News also reports that Walmart was aware of issues at this supplier with safety as of last year, noting both that this is the worst fire on record in terms of fatalities, and that the death toll is supposed to increase.

In fact, this is merely a small part of the overall mortality from clothing factory fires in just the last five years alone, as they explain:

The Tazreen fire is the latest in a series of deadly blazes at garment factories in Bangladesh, where more than 700 workers, many making clothes for U.S. consumers, have died in factory fires in the past five years.

Ugh. This is so upsetting.

The utterly pointless sadness of this story eventually made a little angry, reminding me that I’d been meaning to put together a post about how completely unnecessary it is to buy any new clothes for children. Basically ever. Turns out, you can opt out, more or less completely. Which sounds better and better to me all the time now.

I’ll be the first one to admit that this kind of terrible tragedy was not my motivation when I resolved last year to buy all of Maya’s clothes (and many of her toys and books) used. But it sure will help motivate me to see the project through.

When I hatched my plan, I was thinking of reasons like those in this fascinating Slate piece by Elizabeth Cline, based on her book about the used clothing industry. Much like this 2001 documentary, Cline follows our castoff threads back to Africa, where a glut of cheap Western clothing has helped to decimate African clothiers.

Cline writes:

Most Americans are thoroughly convinced there is another person in their direct vicinity who truly needs and wants our unwanted clothes. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Charities long ago passed the point of being able to sell all of our wearable unwanted clothes. According to John Paben, co-owner of used-clothing processer Mid- West Textile, “They never could.”

Then there’s the high cost in natural resources that Tom Philpott pointed out in “Are Your Skinny Jeans Starving the World?,” in which he describes how the rising world demand for cotton produced in places like China is supplanting food crops.

He’s right, of course — clothes cost much less than they used to, at least in some shops, and that is leading us to buy more:

In 1985, Americans on average bought 31 items of clothing a year. Today, we buy roughly 60—more than one per week. And when we lug home our haul we’re not shy about making room in the closet: We throw out 78 pounds (PDF) of textiles per person—five times as much as we did in 1970.

Even setting all these high-minded reasons aside, when I think about Maya’s wardrobe, I also see the problem as a Mom. I’d like her to be decently clothed, but I also don’t want to fuss when she predictably ruins something, or grows out of it before she even has a chance to put it on. And I really am far too cheap to pay what children’s clothes cost new, just to have her wear it for the two seconds that she can fit into something.

Thus far, I’ve managed to keep clothes on her, and have bought new items on only, say, three occasions in her two years (excepting shoes, which are harder to come by in good condition). I’ve also collected sufficient used clothes to see her through, at this point, for several years to come, and so am actually done for a while, which is a relief of sorts.

One side-benefit of this approach is that I don’t go into big box stores much, which keeps the crazy requests for owl pillows to a minimum. Also, she has a lot of jumpers and dresses, which seem to end up on the used clothing racks for little girls in disproportionate numbers. I actually like the look of dresses, and with most, you can use them for two seasons because they pose as a “frock” in year two.

Here are few tips if you want to join me in my quest to recycle children’s clothing, one family at a time:

1) Buy ahead. Look several years ahead while you’re there in the store. Once you get a bunch, sort them by size, season and store away. I plan on telling Maya the “clothing fairy” has come again. We’ll see if she’s as naturally skeptical as her father.

2) Keep track of discounts. The thrift stores in my area have “customer appreciation days” where everything is even more marked down.

3) Get there early or very late. Most of the good items go quickly at yard sales, but you can also find worthy stuff on the last day of multi-day rummage sales, when it will be deeply discounted, typically by half.

4) Look it over. Check for loose buttons, stains and hanging threads.

I’ve found Hanna Anderson silk dresses for two bucks, like-new shoes for five, and wonderful winter coats for eight. You may still need to buy something like tights, but the bulk of the shopping will be done, with little money spent, and mostly just your time invested.

When you’re done using the items, be sure to find someone to pass on your goodies to, in order to keep the cycle going. Unless an item is stained or ruined, if we repurposed all these things our kids go through, we could really make a dent in the amount of clothing we all buy.

Obviously, there are other sources besides thrift stores, both for buying and selling used clothes. Here are some helpful links:

  • ThredUp.com and Mommy Cycle are sites that allow you to list like-new items for sale, and get a nice price for them, with a premium for higher-end labels in particular;
  • Craigslist, Ebay, and neighborhood list servs are always a good bet (though my local parents’ listserv is cutthroat, and I never seem to respond in time for the really great stuff), and here’s some alternatives to those as well for other types of items, like furniture;
  • Mom’s groups yard sales, church rummage sales, consignment shops and stores like Once Upon A Child, and locally staged events like those hosted by JBF are good options for donations or shopping;
  • If you are bold, you can let friends on Facebook know you need or want to unload items and see if there are givers or takers, or start a Facebook group for selling items and let folks in your area join;
  • You can also give them away on Freecycle.org, where the receivers are more likely to make use of the items;
  • Last, you can host a clothing swap — which  works well for both child and adult clothes. I attended a lovely one a few months back that had been going on every six months or so for years, and was overflowing with new fashion options. The ladies all brought booze and goodies, along with the unwanted clothing, shoes and jewelry, and it was quite the social affair! Great fun, as well as good for the closet, workers and the planet.

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I also held onto some of Maya’s smallest newborn items, which make nice baby doll clothes without the added expense of having to buy those. (And for a few more tips, here’s an earlier post I did on my love of the thrift, Green Tips for Thrifty Parents, and one on a thrift-store dollhouse I upgraded a bit.)

For more sentimental items their children have worn, I’ve seen people say on the craftier list servs that they plan to make a family quilt or a pillow from the fabrics, which would be a nice way to recycle those beloved reminders.

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Needless to say, in context, I’m well aware that all of this is a rather frivolous response to a serious tragedy. And even if some considerable number of us stopped buying new clothes tomorrow, would Walmart and the other major manufacturers wake up?

Maybe, but just for good measure here’s some information from a group working on the problem of deadly working conditions, the International Labor Rights Forum. They have been at the table with clothing manufacturers over the past few years, trying to broker an agreement on the most basic and fundamental of worker safety issues in Bangladesh: fire safety.

Here’s what their press release says about the latest on that:

In March 2012, PVH Corp. (owner of Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Van Heusen, IZOD, ARROW, G.H. Bass, and Eagle) signed an agreement with Bangladeshi unions, international unions, ILRF and other labor rights groups to develop a fire safety program to prevent future deaths in Bangladesh’s garment industry. The program includes independent inspections, public reporting, mandatory repairs and renovations, a central role for workers and unions in both oversight and implementation, supplier contracts with sufficient financing and adequate pricing, and a binding contract to make these commitments enforceable.

These steps certainly make sense to me. But there’s a catch:

Other brands implicated in large, deadly factory fires in 2010 – including H&M, Gap, JCPenney, Target, Abercrombie, Kohl’s and Carter’s – have also been invited to join the agreement. “Unfortunately, Gap Inc. withdrew last month from fire safety discussions and instead announced their own non-binding program, which lacks central elements of the fire safety program signed by PVH and Tchibo,” said Judy Gearhart, executive director of International Labor Rights Forum. Gearhart added: “We hope the tragic fire at Tazreen will serve as an urgent call to action for all major brands that rely on Bangladesh’s low wages to make a profit. Their voluntary and confidential monitoring programs have failed; now it is time to come together and make a contractual commitment to workers and to involve workers and their organizations in the solution.”

Carter’s? The Gap? H&M? Target? It’s very disappointing that this agreement’s truly basic set of precautions is missing from factories. I would hope, along with the ILRF, that this fire serves as a wake-up call to these big international brands that the world will sit up and take notice of this terribly ugly situation.

I really don’t want anyone to die — half a world away, trapped in a sweatshop — for any stupid shirt, and I’m sure you feel the same.

A fire exit — which is something we get here in the U.S. every time we merely go to the movies — plus some basic worker protections are not too much to ask. In 2012. A full 101 (freaking) years after people died in our own New York City under basically the same circumstances.

So it certainly wouldn’t hurt to mention these feelings to the folks at Walmart, Carter’s, H&M, Target or The Gap.

You could also consider sending along to the ILRF the proceeds from any yard sales you might have, as we will next spring, to support their sensible efforts to fix this awful, but eminently solvable, problem. Any little bit counts, and the justice of putting that kind of money back into fixing the dire problems in the clothing industry could give you just that extra wee fillip of satisfaction as you go through the unpleasantness of sorting and unloading your duds.

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Update:  

The Diane Rehm show ran a terrific segment this week on the situation with garment workers’ conditions in Bangladesh, and the guests also were unabashed in comparing the situation there to the labor conditions that led to the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. As one guest remarked, the textile manufacturers have managed the feat of “time-travel” — recreating the terrible working conditions from the U.S. in 1911. As in 1911, the managers of the factory had locked the doors, trapping people inside, due to a concern that workers would steal the goods. How sad.

At least the 1911 fire galvanized reforms. We can only hope that this one does the same.