I make lots of toys, but the demand is growing and I can’t keep up! So, by request, I’m putting together a tutorial on how to make them for yourself.
When I send out toys, I ask that you donate time, money, supplies, or whatever you think they’re worth (and/or whatever you honestly can) to a local no-kill shelter, feral colony, or equivalent. I’d like to ask the same if you use this tutorial to make toys of your own. I’ve been developing these toys for years now, and they drive cats wild even when their humans previously expressed doubt as to whether they’d get any reaction at all. That’s worth a little bit of charity, right?
So. The first thing you need is tools and supplies.
This is my tool set, right down to basics. I’ll show you below how to turn it into a spool knitter.
- The round-nosed pliers aren’t absolutely necessary, but they’re useful at one stage, and you need round-nosed ones because regular ones would leave rough spots where the yarn would snag.
- The paperclips are basic ones from a dollar store, the larger sized ones; I typically use 5 of one colour and the sixth in a different colour because it makes it easier to tell where I started. I’ve had poor luck with uncoated ones and better luck with the sort that have a thin coating of plastic.
- The scissors should be obvious.
- I use the latch-hook all the way through, including the spool-knitting part where people normally use either a blunt tool similar to a knitting needle or maybe a crochet hook. There are points where I can’t think how I’d do things without it, but for the spool-knitting part, obviously you can use whatever you’re comfortable with.
- I like using the hockey tape, because it’s extremely sticky and holds well, and because being a fabric base, it gives me a good grip on the spool once I’m done. If you can’t find it or don’t like it, substitute whatever works for you.
- The ring is just a napkin ring I picked up in a thrift store, and hey, they even come as a set usually so you can make multiple spools! I went through a couple of sets before I found ones that fit comfortably in my hand, and as they’ve worn out, I’ve stripped off the tape and re-made them several times each because I like these ones so much. If the first ones you try don’t fit in your hand right, then try a different style.
Seriously. This is all you need, as far as tools. And for supplies, all you need is yarn (although I’ll get into the specifics on that later), a bit of stuffing, and some catnip. With that and a little time (it takes me maybe an hour for a long-tailed toy with a 60″ string on it), you can make some cats very happy.
What do you do with this stuff?
Take your napkin ring and wrap tape around it sticky side out, covering it completely.
Then you need your paperclips. These don’t need to be spaced with mathematical precision. Just get them as evenly around the edge as you can by eye. I find doing two, and adjusting them as necessary to get them as close to opposite as I can, and then adding the rest works best. The sticky surface of the tape holds them in place. You want a substantial amount of the paper clip to protrude upwards, since that’s what your yarn’s going to be wrapped around, but you don’t want extra bits that can snag the yarn. So I generally place them about like this, with the ends of the wire just about even with the top edge of the spool.
Now, take your tape and start wrapping, sticky side in this time, around the outside. I generally do several layers to make sure it’ll hold securely and be comfortable to hold. Try to be careful not to dislodge the paper clips.
You could start working with it right now, if you wanted to. This is where I use the round-nosed pliers, personally. I give each of the paper clips a very small curve outwards at the top, which helps keep the yarn on more securely while working.
And that’s it! That’s what I use to make the body of the toys. I find six works best – four is too spaced out, and eight is unnecessarily dense and takes longer to make.
These do wear out eventually, just from the strain of the yarn tugging on them and general wear and tear, but clip the tape off and you can just re-build it in a very few minutes. The tape doesn’t even stick to the napkin ring because the innermost layer is sticky side out, remember.
What I personally do with this is more or less standard spool knitting / corking / French knitting… there are lots of names. But how I start it off, in order to make sure that the base end is tight and that the ends are both secured by the time I’m finished, is a bit different, and so is what I do just as I’m casting off. That’ll actually be the bulk of the tutorial to come.
As for the other materials you need:
- Catnip to fill it with. Obviously!
- Stuffing. I use very little of this in each toy, more or less just enough to keep the catnip from falling out through the spaces in the yarn. It doesn’t have to be stuffed tight; in my experience, cats seem to be quite happy with a bit of looseness there. The stuffing I use is actually from an old pillow run through the wash to make sure it’s clean.
- Yarn. This, obviously, is the biggest thing.
- Weight: Most of the time I use two strands of worsted weight, also called 4. I don’t recommend using anything finer, or sharp little kitty teeth might sever strands and the whole thing could start to unravel. I do sometimes use heavier yarns, especially for mice, and sometimes use extremely bulky yarn to make mice quickly that I can donate to the local shelter as disposable toys for the cats in the back rooms.
- Material: I use basic acrylic (specifically, Red Heart Super Saver and Red Heart Classic, along with occasional cool finds at the thrift shop). Cats seem just fine with this. Do NOT use yarns with tinsel or sparkly bits, or pompoms, or anything like that. It would be much too easy for a cat to swallow things that they shouldn’t. Just straight plain old-fashioned yarn. If you want to use up odds and ends of wool or what-have-you, I doubt the cats will mind.
- Length: These are measured based on two strands of worsted weight yarn, at my own usual levels of tension, so your mileage may vary quite a lot. It takes me about 13′ (of each strand) to make a mouse with a generous tail. The body on the string toys generally takes me about 7-8′ of yarn, and the string part takes five times the final length: a string 3′ long takes 15′ of yarn, a string 5′ long takes 25′ of yarn. (These, by the way, are my standard lengths for string toys. Make them however long you like!) So for a 5′ string toy, I generally make sure I’ve got a minimum of 32′ available, preferably a bit more to allow some leeway. From a skein of yarn that can be hundreds of yards long, you can get a LOT of toys. And, obviously, this can be a great way to use up odds and ends left from other projects.
- Colour: This is actually important. Cats see better towards the violet end of the spectrum than they do towards the red end, but that doesn’t, as near as I can tell, mean that they ignore red. The biggest thing, especially with the long string toys, is contrast. Take a look at the pics of some of my finished toys, and you’ll see that they typically have one solid-coloured strand and one multi-coloured strand (although some of them are actually poor examples, since I was still working out the best way to do these, and they have low contrast or bland colours). My own research and experience suggest strongly that the multi-coloured strand enhances the impression of motion while the string is being dragged along the floor or otherwise moved, which helps catch and keep their attention. Don’t do subtle shadings of pastels. You need strong contrast and bold colours. Subtly shaded yarns can work in place of solids, but don’t use them as the multi-coloured strand. My colour combos vary over time as I find new ones that work well. Red Heart’s Mexicana, Cherry Chip, and the white-through-light-to-dark Purples, Blues, Berries, Shaded Greens, and Shaded Browns are ones I currently use as primaries; Bonbon Print and Camouflage work well as secondary colours in place of solids (along with the sadly discontinued Sunrise and a couple that I picked up over the years at thrift shops). Recently, I’ve added one called Rainbow Brights as a regular, and have been using the pink-and-blue Bonbon with the shaded Purples and doing combos of, say, shaded Greens and Berries. I used to try to match the solid to the multi, but at this point, I’m deliberately using colours that are very different: solid orange with the shaded Blues, for example. (One exception to this is combining the Camouflage with Shaded Browns, which if done right creates a weirdly snake-like pattern.) This is much less important with the little mouse toys, although I still try to choose two c0lours that contrast and possibly one with at least a low level of colour change. (With the bulky-yarn quickly made ones, I use whatever’s available – the shelter cats are going to be grateful anyway.) But, of course, if you’re using up leftovers, then it’s up to you!
That’s it for tools and supplies. Now, on to the next step: how to use the tools to turn the supplies into the toys that drive cats crazy!
Oh, just an afterthought: when I make these, I keep a bottle of hand sanitizer handy and use it every time I touch something other than my toy-making stuff. Just in case. The thought of anything on my hands from petting my own cats getting onto the toys and being transmitted elsewhere, especially to shelter cats who are under high stress and therefore have low immunity, isn’t one I like at all. I suppose the possibility of transmitting human illness exists as well. If you’re doing this for your own cats, then it’s pretty much irrelevant, but if you’re making them for others, or think you might eventually use the same tools to do so, you might think about this particular issue.