Nearly everyone has that stuffed animal that they can’t let go of even though it’s beat up past recognition. But what if you could rejuvenate that beloved stuffie?
Giving your stuffed animals some tender love and care takes little more than simple hand sewing skills, patience and the know-how to make your beloved stuffed animals look their best.
There are a number of crafters who professionally repair stuffed animals, from vintage teddy bears to precious plushies that met a grisly fate at the hand (or teeth) of the family dog. These seamstresses take orders from around the country — and around the world.
Armed with tips from stuffed animal repair experts around the country, I took on the task of repairing a stuffed animal to see if someone with middling sewing skills and a bit of gumption could do it for themselves.
Step 1: Find your stuffed animal
All my personal, well-loved favorites are back at my childhood home in Virginia. I had to get creative — so, I headed to a thrift store. I wanted to pick a project that was doable with my limited sewing skills, so I asked the seamstresses what they recommended.
“For your first attempt, I wouldn’t take something that’s really, really drastically damaged,” said Cheryl DuFrense, owner of Cheryl’s Doll Hospital in Almont, Mich. “[Opt for] something more on the simple side.”
I dug through the bins of stuffed animals at Goodwill in Bangor with that advice in mind, turning down anything with complicated joints or other tricky features. Finally, I landed on a simple stuffed pig that looked worse for wear, but not so beat up that she was unrecognizable. I named her Molly, after the happy hog that recently passed away at Peace Ridge Sanctuary in Littlefield. (Rest in peace, my porcine friend.)
Step 2: Open your stuffed animal
Over time, stuffed animal stuffing becomes compressed and may even accumulate mold, mildew or whatever else it may have been exposed to (baby vomit, dog drool — you get the picture). Stuffing isn’t washable, so the professionals say that the best thing to do in most cases is to take it out and replace it.
To open the stuffed animal, look out for a seam that is thicker and looser than the rest. Beth Karpas, owner of Realms of Gold, Inc. Cloth Doll and Stuffed Animal Hospital in Los Altos, Calif., said that will often be along the spine, which is usually where they were closed when they were made.
On Molly, I found seams on the back that were loose and I opened them up with a seam ripper (Karpas said she personally prefers small scissors, as they are more precise, but I found the seam ripper worked fine for me). The feet and arms were stitched separately, but I was able to find seams that were easy to open as well. The process was surprisingly simple, if somewhat surgical.
Step 3: Remove stuffing
Once you have your patient opened up, it’s time to take out the stuffing.
Sally Winey is the owner of Winey Bears, a mail-in stuffed animal repair and restoration workshop in Statesville, N.C., said that you might find some interesting things when you’re unstuffing. Some old handmade stuffed animals are filled with quilts or old nylons. Winey said that she has even found money inside stuffed animals she repaired.
“Lots of times, we have to use pliers to pull stuffing out, and gloves and a mask because you don’t want to inhale sawdust, pellets [or other] things,” Winey laughed. “When people bring them to me to be redone, first, they’re already turning to dust, and there’s probably bugs.”
Molly’s stuffing, aside from being a little compressed, looked pretty clean. Molly also had beanbags to weigh her hands, feet and belly that I removed and put aside. It is possible to get new plastic beads to replace these as well, but I decided to keep Molly’s because they were in pretty good shape.
At this stage, Molly looked like a deflated shell of her former self. I promised to get her back to her original chubby form.
Step 4: Wash the stuffed animal
The next step is to wash the husk of your stuffed animal, which the experts say should always be done by hand.
Winey said that cleaning has many variables, including the type of material and how badly it is damaged. She said that some materials can only be spot cleaned, while others like mohair or wool should be put in the freezer first to kill any bugs they might attract.
Luckily, Molly is a fairly simple stuffed pig made with newer materials, so she, like most stuffed animals, could be cleaned with a touch of detergent or dish soap.
“It takes out all the greases that your hands or body would put on it,” Winey said.
When washing, Karpas said you also might want to separate parts of the animal by color, or else the colors may bleed. Since Molly is pretty much all the same color, I decided to just wash her all at once.
I used an eyebrow brush to scrub the Dawn dish soap into the fur. The water after the first wash had a grimey yellow color. It took about three rinses to get the water to run clear, and then another to get the soap out.
Step 5: Line dry the stuffed animal
Next, air dry the soaked stuffed animal. Never put the stuffed animal in the dryer. The high heat can melt the stitching or burn the fur. I hung Molly on a line tied between my two pantry doors with magnetic plastic clips that I had on my refrigerator.
The fur will likely be matted, knotted or compressed over time, so you can brush it and fluff it up as it dries. There are special combs for this purpose, but Karpas said you can use a needle to tease out knots as well. I used an eyebrow brush to fluff up Molly’s fur. The fur was short to begin with, but even a little bit of brushing made the pig look plusher.
Step 6: Make repairs
After the stuffed animal dries, it is time to hand sew any holes or other damage that needs to be addressed.
Find a thread that matches closely to the stuffed animal (though Karpas said that nylon fishing line-style thread, which is common in modern stuffed animals but difficult to work with and quick to become brittle and break down, can be replaced with a regular cotton all-purpose thread). Use simple stitches — the ladder stitch is especially helpful — to close up any holes.
“Most people don’t know how to sew today, so that makes it harder, but it’s really not a difficult project if you know how to use a needle,” Winey said.
Professional stuffed animal repair shops may also replace eyes, noses and other features that have been lost. Karpas said that Etsy or CR’s Crafts are good places to look for after-market replacement parts. Fur that is worn down beyond repair can also be matched and sewn in to make the stuffed animal look as good as new.
Luckily, Molly didn’t need her eyes replaced. Closing up tiny holes, however, was very difficult for me and my limited sewing skills. I eventually switched out my too-large needle for a smaller one after struggling with it for some time, and that made things easier.
Step 7: Restuff and close up
Once the stuffed animal is repaired, the final step is to restuff it and close it up. The experts agreed that a standard Poly-Fil stuffing will work in most cases, so I picked up a bag from the craft store.
Karpas said you can purchase different varieties of stuffing in order to get it as close as possible to the original density. If you have a bit of the original stuffing, you can creatively incorporate it into the final product, too.
“I always put a little bit of the stuffing in a heart in the patient’s chest,” Karpas said.
When it comes to closing the plush up, the ladder stitch will come in handy again. When doing the ladder stitch, it looks like it is too loose and it is easy to get discouraged, but once I pulled everything together, I was surprised how nice and tight the stitches became.
When I was done with Molly, I was proud of my work. The before and after was noticeable, and I would feel good about giving this updated stuffed animal to a child. I think simple repairs and cleanings are definitely doable for people with basic hand sewing skills and a little bit of patience.
I could see, though, how repairing a stuffed animal could get very challenging very quickly — not just for technical reasons, but because of the emotions behind the stuffed animals themselves. In those cases, it might be best left to the professionals.
“There’s a lot more to the stuffed animal than just repairing it,” Winey said.