Chloe, I'm so grateful to you for making the gorgeous Kevin plushie - three of them, in fact! They're such a great talking point when Philip Reeve and I do events, and everyone wants to give Kevin a cuddle. How did you first get into toy making?
Hi Sarah! I have to say making the Kevin toys was an absolute dream commission. He’s the most fantastic character and it was a pleasure to get to know him so well! While I was making them I had to pinch myself- seven year old me would have been seriously impressed.
Book launch photo by Dave Warren
When I was younger I used to make clothes for my toys from old socks, J-cloths and bits and pieces of fabric I found around the house (don’t worry I didn’t cut chunks out of anyone’s trousers). One of my Cabbage Patch kids ‘Muriel Caprice’ was a favourite model and was furnished in all sorts of occasional hats and matinee jackets. I’ve always loved my toys and became hysterical when my beloved troll Bob was left in the car one hot summer in the 1990’s and was convinced he must have cooked to death…
I suppose it started around then!
Kevin in flight! Photo by Sarah Reeve
Later on when I was doing my A-levels I made a toy called ‘Dog Vein of Mein’ from an old sock I found in the airing cupboard. It might have been a weird thing to do, but I was just compelled to do it. During my Art Foundation course in fashion and textiles I carried on making these animal toys, puppets and sculptures from other old clothes while most of my course mates were experimenting with making garments from scratch. A plain white shirt was entirely reconstructed to become a unicorn; an old faux fur coat became a bear puppet you could walk along with your hands in its pockets. The key was taking inspiration from the redundant clothing to both inspire and create a character. I enjoyed making them and the reaction from friends was always fun. As well as loving illustration and stories I am drawn to the tactile qualities of physical objects and the crafter in me thrives on technical problem solving.
Sarah's initial sketch ideas for a 3D Kevin; Chloe laying out fabric
Moving into my first degree, which was interdisciplinary, I created some humanoid sculptures from old t-shirts. During this time I learnt about other artists who worked with textiles in a similar way. I was especially interested in the artist Louise Bourgeois. She’s a fantastic inspiration and carried on working well into her nineties.
Kevin material, with an uncorrected proof copy of the book (pre-publication)
How did the Kevin commission come about?
A few years after I graduated from my first degree, I did an MA in Children’s Book Illustration at Cambridge School of Art. I decided to make a toy of one of my characters from a children’s picturebook I had been working on. Over Easter 2017 I went to Bologna Children’s Book Fair to show my work to potential publishers and I took my toy Monty Mole with me.
We introduced ourselves to the Oxford University Press stand at the fair and that’s where I met Fraser Hutchinson – the Senior Marketing Manager for the OUP Children’s books. I was holding Monty the Mole aloft like a proud new mum when, Fraser appeared. He liked Monty and asked if I might be able to ‘make one of these’, pointing at a banner of with a wonderfully round white flying pony emblazoned on it. Of course I said “Yes!” When he took a photo of me with Monty I realised it could really happen. After that I was buzzing! I kept Fraser’s business card and emailed him as soon as I got home. drawn to making toys out of clothes, there might just be a place for that somewhere in the world.
I’m so happy I made Monty and took him along with me. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time and I find it also helps break down barriers when you have a funny looking toy with you, so you end up chatting to people you might not normally talk to. From a professional point of view, I think it helps that I have an understanding and interest in the children’s publishing industry. From this experience learnt that it’s a good idea to play to your strengths and if you find yourself strangely
What are some of the challenges of making a character to order, and turning a flat character on the page into something three-dimensional?
With every character you make, you learn something new. This was the first time I had made a toy for another illustrator’s character and I really wanted to get it right. It took me a few attempts to get Kevin’s uniquely roly-poly proportions right. My first attempt looked a bit too much like a normal pony, and social media helped me get in touch with you, Sarah, to figure out the head needed to be a lot smaller for it to look like Kevin. It’s a very tactile task and different fabrics react differently.
Fraser also asked me if I’d be happy to make not one, but three Kevins! I’d never made three identical toys before so this was another new challenge. I sewed all three cuddly Kevins by hand to make sure the stiches were just the right tension. For me the tactile element of the work is really important and I think there’s something special about toys that are entirely hand made.
I took photographs as I went along and constructed unique templates so all three Kevins were consistent. It was a great help that from the outset you gave me a series of drawings to help me create the character in 3D along with a proof copy of the book. Your suggestion of adding a flash of pink to his legs really worked and gave me the opportunity to add a nice extra detail, which I always enjoy. The collaborative aspect has been something I’ve really enjoyed and learnt a lot from. I would love the opportunity to work in this way again.
It was an interesting process and challenging process. You need to be methodical and patient, piece by piece creating the character from simplified shapes in 3D. Having worked with cuddly sculptures before, I had a sense of the way they would begin to take shape once they’re stuffed. But there are always new challenges. I wanted to get it just right so I even had to use Pi to work out my measurements for his legs. It’s surprising what you can remember from GCSE maths when you need to!
It’s important to imagine how people are going to physically interact with the toy, and how it will look when it’s photographed. The commission was the first of it’s kind for me so another challenge was for me to work out how much I would need to charge.
In the past I’ve used second hand fabrics to make my toys where possible. For the Kevins commission I used a combination of new fabric, soft white cashmere jumpers, and silver cashmere wool for the edging and second hand jumpers to create them. The grey detail was made using a second hand cashmere jumper that had been shrunk in the wash, which I hand-dyed. I love using shrunk woollens because they’re so soft and it means that great quality materials can have a second life. However, It’s difficult to find second hand jumpers that are the bright white I needed and a uniform size to create three identical Kevins!
It’s great to have the opportunity to source fabrics online as well as in on the high street. In that respect I’ve certainly moved on from using odd socks and J-cloths, but essentially the material must be appropriate for the commission in hand. Funnily enough, I was working on the Kevins during the middle of a heat wave so I had two fans keeping me cool at one point and it was a challenge to keep my threads from flying about. My making was also interspersed with frequent dips in the paddling pool.
What are some other examples of toys you've made?
Here’s Monty, the character I’m drawing and writing about at the moment. I wanted to encourage people to have a look at the books I’d made for my degree show. I could tell he’d make a really cuddly toy and I had the perfect grey cashmere jumper I’d found at a car boot sale a few years ago. Like all the toys I make, it just had to happen. Funnily enough, I first came up with the character Monty Mole in about 1993 when I was five and he resurfaces unexpectedly in a story I wrote for my MA.
Toys act as a conduit between people and stories. They can encourage reluctant readers into stories. They are a source of fun, imagination and play. They help us create stories, they can offer comfort or they can help us to imagine and communicate. I think toys are magic. That’s why I make them!
What are one or two of your top tips for creating a 3D character?
My top tips are:
* Draw the main parts of your character in 3D as you expect it to look when you’ve finished. If you’re working for another illustrator it’s good if they’re able to help you with this, like you did for me Sarah. This will give you a good idea of the separate shapes that need to come together to create the whole character.
* Choose you fabrics wisely. All fabrics have different qualities when you sew and stuff them so it’s good to feel it, stretch it and maybe try a sample piece before you begin. It’s amazing the difference it makes when the shapes you’ve sewn together have been turned inside out and stuffed.
* Always have more fabric than you think you’ll need, and if you only have a certain amount, it’s a good idea to use a test piece. I made Kevin’s ears many times before I got them to just the right size….the same can be said for his head! This type of work involves trial and error. It’s really satisfying when you get the proportions right. Don’t worry if you don’t get it right the first time but keep going until you get there - it’s worth it.
* Set aside a good amount of time, as it might take longer than you imagine, especially the details towards the end.
What would be your dream commission? Would it be illustration or toy making, or a mixture of both?
I’ve always loved drawing and I see my toy making as 3D drawing in some ways. I am currently working on my own picturebook involving animal characters who share a garden. My dream would be to continue create a series of illustrated books and to create the characters. I really enjoy performing and would love to find ways tie these elements together. I’m interested in the ways that toys, stories and characters can help people connect with each other and communicate. I’m open-minded as far as commissions are concerned and I enjoy the opportunity to work with people and learn new skills along the way.
I would love the opportunity to work with schools and groups and am particularly interested in the ways visual culture, story telling and play can help children and adults, whether in engaging reluctant or struggling readers or in terms of broader emotional learning. More than ever I think it’s important for us to communicate in ways that don’t exist on a screen, so for me books and toys are a part of that.
Are you open to doing more commissions?
Yes! I’d like to develop my portfolio of 3D character work so if you want somebody to make a plushie for your character then please do get in touch. You can see some of my illustration work at chloeapplinillustrator.com and if you’d like talk to be about a project idea send email and me at firstname.lastname@example.org I’d be happy to hear from you!
You can follow Chloe on Instagram as @chloeapplin and on Twitter as @chloe_applin.
Find out more about The Legend of Kevin book on my website, jabberworks.co.uk!
Book launch photo by Dave Warren