Saturday, 11 February 2012

Elephant No. 132: Pipe Cleaners

I'd been thinking of making a pipe-cleaner elephant for awhile, but didn't want to make some sort of stick figure. Unfortunately, stick figures were all I'd ever made with pipe cleaners, so I'd been more or less avoiding the whole thing.

Although various tools for cleaning pipes have existed at least as long as people have been using pipes to smoke tobacco, fuzzy pipe cleaners have only been around for about a century. Invented in Rochester, New York by John Harry Stedman and Charles Angel in the early twentieth century, pipe cleaners consist of a fluffy material or "pile", held together by a double twist of wire, or "core".

The pipe cleaners used for cleaning tobacco pipes are made of absorbent materials such as cotton or viscose. Stiffer bristles made of nylon or polyproylene are often added to improve scrubbing ability. Some pipe cleaners are also tapered, with one thin end and one thicker end. The thin end is used to clean the stem of the pipe, and the wider end is used to clean the bowl.

In addition to their original purpose, pipe cleaners are made for specialized purposes such as  cleaning medical equipment. These types of pipe cleaners are sometimes made of polyester, to wick away moisture, rather than simply absorb it.

Today, pipe cleaners are perhaps best known as a craft material. These types of pipe cleaners—also known as "chenille stems"—are usually made of nylon or polyester fibre, are longer and fluffier than the type made for tobacco pipes, and come in a wide range of colours, fibre length, and even unusual materials such as mylar. Craft pipe cleaners are virtually useless for cleaning tobacco pipes, as the polyester doesn't absorb liquid, and may not even fit into a normal-sized pipe.

Pipe cleaners are usually made two at a time. Yarn is wrapped around an inner wire. Another wire is then twisted around the matrix of wire and yarn, trapping the yarn. The yarn is cut, forming tufts. Finally, the finished pipe cleaner material is either cut into shorter stems, or wound onto large spools. The average length of a tobacco pipe cleaner is usually 15 to 17 cm (6 to 7 inches); craft pipe cleaners are most often 30 cm (12 inches long), although they can be as long as 50 cm (20 inches).

For today's elephant, I figured I'd need some kind of coiling technique, but I wasn't exactly sure how to start, or if I needed some sort of superstructure underneath the pipe cleaners. I didn't have a lot of time to do much research today, so I more or less just dove in. The only rule I set was that I had to use only full-length pipe cleaners, except for the tusks.

I bought two packages of beige pipe cleaners, and one package of white. I also went back to get a few pink pipe cleaners. Each package contained 40 pipe cleaners, which I thought would be more than enough. I ended up needing about 55 beige pipe cleaners, one white one, and two pink ones.

I started by making a small coil for the head. To close the coil, I pulled the end through the middle of the spiral and folded it under.

I knew I would have to cover this over later, but I didn't really worry about it at this point. I made a trunk next, first securing the pipe cleaner to the head by looping it through, then twisting it tightly enough to secure it. I folded it where I thought the end of the trunk should probably be, then twisted the loose bit around itself to make it tidy.

Next I added ears. I started by folding a pipe cleaner in half, then looped it through part of the head spiral. I did this on each side, then formed a sort of triangular ear shape, which I secured by twisting it around itself. I also gave each ear a twist at the base to make it sit tightly against the head.

I turned my attention to the body next, making a general outline shape. I honestly hadn't a clue what I was doing, but I thought this might work as something over which I could coil a body. I also gave the end a little twist to give me a place to attach a tail.

After this, I simply started coiling pipe cleaners over the general body form. I twisted each pipe cleaner around the top and bottom of my general body outline to lock things into place. I also made sure to graduate the size of the coils so that the body was a little more rotund in the middle than it was at either end.

When the body was close to complete, I secured it to the head by folding a pipe cleaner through one of the coils on the head, then through the main coil on the body outline. To secure everything, I twisted the pipe cleaner around itself.

I finished the body coils next, from the base of the head to the tail. At the back, I looped pipe cleaners horizontally rather than vertically. I figured this would keep the coils from sliding off.

I wanted to add a bit of pink inside the ears, so I took two pink pipe cleaners and made some small triangular shapes. I poked the long ends into the head, then secured the pink inside the ears by taking beige pipe cleaners and going over and under the outermost coil of the pink bit. I forgot to photograph the ear-weaving in progress, but you can see it in the final.

To further secure the ears themselves, I made over-and-under coils around the head. To complete the rest of the head, I coiled a couple of pipe cleaners down the trunk to fatten it up.

The legs were pretty much all that was left at this point. I started by folding a pipe cleaner in half, then in thirds. I locked the end of a second pipe cleaner into the lowest point on the first bend, then began coiling to make a leg. To attach the legs to the body, I simply pushed them up into the body's web of coils.

To finish up, I made a couple of tusks by first cutting a white pipe cleaner cut in half. This was the only pipe cleaner I cut. I then folded and twisted each half over itself twice. To attach the tusks, I simply pushed them into the head near the base of the trunk. Because of the relatively tight weave of coils throughout, and because of the friction of the pipe cleaner tufts, most things stayed where I put them.

I like the final elephant better than I thought I would. It's bigger than I expected it to be, and it's a bit eccentric, but it wasn't all that difficult, and it has a sort of folk art quality that appeals to me. It's also kind of soft—although the wires make it less than cuddly, and a small child would be sure to poke its eye out with such a thing in its playpen.

I'm not sure I love making things with pipe cleaners, but I'll have to try it again sometime to be sure.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Elephant breath was once thought to be a sovereign cure for a headache. As late as the sixth century A.D., Roman senator Cassiodorus was writing that elephants could be trained to exhale in a man's direction, as a way of relieving even the worst migraine.

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home
African Wildlife Foundation 

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