Monday, 12 March 2012

Elephant No. 162: Stuffed Animal

For a meeting of the fibre arts guild tomorrow, people are bringing teddy bears they've made. So I thought, of course, that I'd make a teddy elephant.

A few weeks ago, Jean from the fibre arts guild gave me a couple of magazines with patterns for toy elephants, one of which is the perfect size for this blog.

Stuffed toys and dolls have been around for millennia. They likely originated in Ancient Egypt, as substitutes for real animals in the afterlife. Although no ancient stuffed toys have ever been found in Egypt, paintings on the walls of tombs suggest that they did indeed exist.

The first modern stuffed animals were introduced in the 1830s. They were usually homemade, stuffed with bits of cloth and straw. The idea for stuffed animals actually comes from the world of taxidermy, and the stuffing of hunting trophies.

Commercially produced stuffed animals debuted in 1880, when the German company Steiff made toys with adapted upholstery techniques. In 1903, a Peter Rabbit toy inspired by Beatrix Potter's books became the first stuffed toy to be patented, but it wasn't until 1905 that Steiff made its first soft, furry bear.

Vintage 16-inch Steiff teddy bear from a collection valued at $1.9 million.

In 1902, Morris Michtom approached U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt after seeing a political cartoon of Roosevelt with a bear cub. Michtom asked if he could use the President's name in association with a stuffed bear, and they have been known as "teddy bears" ever since.

Today, stuffed toys range from the realistic to the completely fantastical. There are also collectors' societies and guilds all over the world, and many vintage stuffed toys sell for thousands of dollars.

For today's elephant, I wanted to make something on the small side, so I reduced the size of the pattern for this elephant by Celia Baham. I planned from the outset only to make the elephant itself, as I knew I wouldn't have time today to also make the blanket and headdress.

Stuffed elephant by Celia Baham.
Source: Teddy Bear and Friends, September/October 2005, pp. 56–59,
published by Madavor Media, Boston, U.S.A.

I started by cutting everything out. For fabric, I chose this low-pile upholstery velvet that I got for less than two dollars. I decided on velvet rather than furry fabric because of the elephant's size, and because a furry elephant wasn't quite what I wanted.

I stitched the head together first. I decided to sew everything by hand because of the elephant's size. From previous experience, I knew that this would be nearly as fast as with a sewing machine, but easier to control.

After the head was stitched, I turned it right side out. This is where the problems started, as the trunk was so thin and so curly that I nearly destroyed the head trying to turn it. I actually ended up having to unstitch the trunk, turn it, then whipstitch it by hand. It took me forever, and I was not a happy camper.

Once the head was done and stuffed, I turned my attention to the body. This went quite well, again until I had to turn it. The legs were a bit on the thin side, and it took me about 45 minutes to turn everything. But at least I was almost done at this point.

Next I stuffed the body. For both body and head I stuffed things very firmly, using the flat end of a metal crochet hook to pack the stuffing in.

Then I whipstitched the head to the body.

To finish this off, I added two black beads for eyes and tied an old-fashioned ribbon around its neck.

I don't usually mind making little toys at all, and I did learn from my mistakes in terms of turning narrow things like a curly trunk and thin legs. I was very frustrated through much of this process, however—probably because I thought it would take far less time than it did.

Although this took a lot longer than I would have thought possible, I like the final result so much that I forgive it everything. But I don't think I'll be making another one in a hurry.

Elephant Lore of the Day
All elephants like to play, but playtime and toys are particularly important for captive elephants. Because elephants spend a great deal of time foraging and eating, some toys and games relate to food. Other important forms of play involve problem-solving and releasing aggression.

According to animal behaviourists, elephants enjoy searching for food and preparing it themselves. At some zoos, hay and other treats are placed in narrow openings so that the elephant has to "forage" in order to eat.

They also enjoy food-related problems such as retrieving fruit from barrels and hanging baskets, and will even use tools to get at the tasty treats. Apparently, elephants are especially fond of the sound of chains hitting the barrels, and will run at them again and again, even without food as the main attraction.

Elephant playing tetherball with tire, National Zoo, Washington, D.C., 2011.
Photo: Olivia V. Ambrogio

A large part of elephant play, however, involves tossing things around. Captive elephants in particular enjoy having tires and large rubber balls to play with. Because elephants like to fling their toys and push them into ditches, toys must usually be secured to chains to keep them from injuring visitors. Tires help elephants test their strength by pushing and tossing them with head, trunk, tusks and feet. If given a heavy ball of solid rubber, a favourite pastime involves pushing the ball into a pool, fishing it out, then throwing it right back in again.

Like many of us, elephants also get bored of their toys after a while. It is thus important for zoos to replace, exchange or move toys every few days.

Elephants playing with soccer ball, Taronga Zoo,
Sydney, Australia, 2010.
Photo: Renee Doyle ©Solent News & Photo Agency

Elephant's World (Thailand) 
David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust


  1. Very interesting blog. Alot of blogs I see these days don't really provide anything that I'm interested in, but I'm most definately interested in this one. Just thought that I would post and let you know.Eddy the Teddy bear

  2. Thanks so much for taking the time to let me know. It's much appreciated! And I love Eddy the Teddy!