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

IMG_6433

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.

IMG_6423

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.

IMG_6414

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.

IMG_6416

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.

IMG_6418

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.

IMG_6419 IMG_6420

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.

IMG_6422 IMG_6426

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.

IMG_6427

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.

IMG_6428 IMG_6429

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.

IMG_6430

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 Un-Toy: A Celebration

IMG_6368Toys, it must be said, can be as annoying as they are delightful. Toddler toys have gazillions of pieces, some of which are required for the set-up to work. Puzzle pieces and the like inevitably end up in the sofa cushions, the car seat, even the refrigerator, making it part of the puzzle just to keep the darn thing together!

So I’ll have to give credit to the inventiveness of Maya’s former preschool in showing me that excellent toys need not be, well, toys. They used tennis balls with mouths cut into them and eyes drawn on for holding buttons, lovely little thrift store change purses with zippers, snaps and clamps for practicing fine motor skills, and even several sizes of old sets of hair curlers with the bristles for building blocks. And of course, there is the always popular cardboard box, which can be a fort, hiding place, or other retreat.

Then there are natural un-toys, like acorns, dried leaves in fall, stones, pine cones, shells and other wonders. These can be displayed on a nature table seasonally with small dolls or building structures if you have the space and patience with all the bits that will inevitably end up on the floor.

Sadly, thrift store toy aisles are rather depressing, plastic-filled places. So get out of there and into the tchotchke aisle instead. Here are some things to look for while at thrift stores, on-line on places like Ebay, or at yard or estate sales:

  1. Old fantasy chess sets or other interesting game pieces, the more elaborate the better;
  2. Sets of interesting similar items, like the three bags of miniature painted duck decoys I found for a buck each;
  3. Small wooden figures;
  4. Small furniture that can serve for dolls;
  5. Glass baubles and stones for a light table (easily made with an upended plastic storage box and flashlight or light stick);
  6. Small figures for the sandbox or a shadow box;
  7. Craft supplies (I found a large bag of simple wooden blocks that Maya has had a ball painting; also birdhouses for painting and raffia for use in 3-D constructions);
  8. Dress-up clothes and small purses;
  9. Large pieces of nicer fabric and scarves to use as forts, dress-ups, etc.
  10. Stamps and batik blocks, rolling pins or cookie cutters for tracing and playdough;
  11. Muffin tins, measuring cups, wooden bowls and nesting bowls;
  12. Baskets to keep all the toys (and un-toys) organized and accessible.

Here’s some of our current items in circulation, including these cool stamps:

IMG_6370 IMG_6367 IMG_6366 IMG_6365 IMG_6362There’s nothing I enjoy more than inventing a new purpose for some castaway that gives it renewed life. What are some things you’ve scored along the way?

Related posts:

5 Toddler Transition Tips That (Sometimes) Work for Me

IMG_5777Just this morning, we were rushing to get out the door, late and harried, and I was putting our bags in the car when I heard Maya start to loudly bawl behind me. She had wandered out and was standing on the sidewalk leading up to our house, in bare feet, and she evidently didn’t much care for the cold. I ran and scooped her up and into the car. Just another morning with tears, I thought, wiping her cheeks and kissing her while I buckled her in.

There are many mornings I would like to throw a tantrum of my own. After all, like Maya, I would prefer to hang out and play instead of throwing us all willy-nilly into a vehicle. One of the hardest things about modern mommyhood is, perhaps, the amount of schlepping we all do. School, playdates, classes, even a trip to the library can be the trigger for an episode of push-a-me-pull-you that wears both parent and child to the edge.

For this reason, among others, I’m a big proponent of a simpler schedule for kids, especially younger children. As adults, we forget how stimulating the world is, more or less all by itself, and the lessons that come from being able to interact with relatively simple materials. To find that reverie in a quiet moment of play, children need lots of space and time. Rushing from yoga class to music class to kiddie gym does not allow enough stillness for kids to catch up to themselves or to invent the games and fantasy play that they need to experiment with the world on their own terms.

Yet life is full of schedules even when it’s not. Dinnertime, bedtime, the need to leave to meet up with friends — all these things require a toddler or older child to come along for the next thing, to get on board and with the program.

Of course, the gold standard in this area is the three “Rs:” Rhythm, Ritual and Routine. When we are really doing well, we use the natural rhythms of the day, their repetition and predictability, and the nature of our routines to establish the order of things. Around bedtime is the easiest, given that the order is so easy to maintain. But even for dinner times, our very simple ritual of lighting a candle when we sit down to eat can bring Maya to the table and establish the right mood for a nicer meal together.

And then there are the other times, when chaos and change rear up and obliterate all our good intentions. Maya, like me, is a dawdler and a homebody, and she often needs that extra push to leave the house. So here are five tricks we use to move things along that work at least some of the time:

1) An advanced warning and joint review of “the plan:”  I try to tell her, when I remember to, what the plan is for the coming day, highlighting the things I think she might find fun. Then I provide a 3-minute or 2-minute warning for each new thing — “In two minutes, we are going to stop playing and get ready to leave for Grandma’s house” — and ask for her “ok.” This tends to work best when the plan is something she’s genuinely excited about, and not so well for more hum-drum affairs, but even when it’s not enough on its own, the clear communication can’t hurt.

2) The direct request with consequences: I will ask her to come along a few times, but no more than two. If she is unresponsive, I will say, “If you won’t come, I will have to pick you up.” If there is still no agreement between the parties, a last step is to say, “Ok, I have asked you to come by yourself and you are not listening to me. I will count to three and then pick you up if you are still not coming along.” Sometimes, she makes me count and then comes along; other times, she just stares defiantly and makes me pick her up. Either way, the impasse is resolved. (In general, providing some warning with a count-to-three before swooping in tends to be a good strategy for preventing some meltdowns, and works in many situations, including when an interaction with another child has gone south.)

3) Beginning the action by skipping a step: If I think she’s unlikely to come to eat breakfast without a fuss, for example, then rather than asking her to come over, I’ll invent a question that will bring her to the table, like, “Would you like molasses on your oatmeal? Yes? How much?” She always, predictably, wants “a lot” of molasses. More importantly, she wants to come monitor the amount I am pouring, taking her seat as she counts the drops. Mission accomplished.

Tony Soprano

Tony Soprano (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

4) Bribery: Since we’re all in on it, let’s be clear: parenting a toddler is an unexpected education in all available means of extortion, in ways that might shame Tony Soprano. Phrases like: “if you come to the table/eat one last bite/clean up that mess… then I will read you a story/wear that silly hat/give you a treat” slip without much hesitation from the lips, because blackmail is preferable to a physical wrestling match which you will inevitably eventually lose, with your dignity (or even your shirt!) in tatters. The real art is in picking an incentive, as we can call it among friends, that doesn’t unduly compromise your values. Enticements like attention and special time together can work just as well as sugar, I’ve found, though they can also add delay. (And sometimes a little “chocolate-ish” milk can go a long way towards domestic tranquility and achieving a decent bedtime.)

5) Setting an alarm: Maya’s insightful preschool teacher suggested this, and I have to say, it works like the charm it is. I will set the timer on the microwave (or my cellphone if we are out and about) for 30 seconds, and warn Maya that “when the beeper goes off, it’s time to stop playing and come to dinner.” If we’re at home, I usually step away from the timer to let her know: hey, it’s not me, it’s the microwave that’s running the show. I’m shocked by how well she listens to the microwave. And unsure, really, whether to be pleased or insulted…

In moments of timer-less desperation, I have even been known to beep myself like an insistent and inane machine, and, believe it or not, that works as well, although I do tend to get odd looks from other parents who have apparently not yet learned the persuasive power of imitating household appliances.

Mikrowelle, microwave

The new Parent in town  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

###

What transition tricks do you use with your reluctant child? Do tell!