Every year in high school I competed in Tournament of Minds, a team problem-solving challenge. You might think that for someone who’s made a career of words, I’d have entered the English or social sciences section but in fact I joined the maths and engineering stream every time. You’re given a puzzle, a set list of materials and a strict budget and your team has to create a contraption that solves the puzzle while telling a story through a play about how it came to be. One year we had to build something largely out of cardboard and masking tape that you put a marble in the top of and it wouldn’t come out the bottom until a set amount of time (60 seconds, I think). All of which is a fairly long-winded way of saying I’ve long enjoyed the challenge of having an idea and trying to work out the engineering to make it happen.
So naturally when I got inspired to make a baby play mat, it was never going to be the basic one pictured in the Made For Baby book a friend gave me a couple of years ago. For starters, I decided that one (at 64cm diameter) was going to be too small. The petal shape pattern had to be photocopied at 200 per cent anyway, so I did that than enlarged it another 130 per cent to get an overall centre size of 84cm diameter. Then I decided it really needed to have hoops over the top for hanging toys and things from. I had a look at a friend’s play mat and some in shops to see how they were attached and then pretty much made it up from there.
Inside the hoops is soft, flexible clear plastic hose from the hardware shop. The hose is about 25mm diameter and the plastic itself is about 3mm thick. I picked it because it felt soft enough that it wouldn’t hurt too much if the whole thing came crashing down in case of some vigorous baby chin-ups or something (babies totally do chin-ups, right?). It’s encased in simple fabric tubes with 6cm tabs on each end that attached with velcro onto matching tabs sewn into the mat. I had hoped the tabs might end up between the petals so they were a bit more hidden, or on the underside, but the maths of one at each quarter circle and 14 petals (not divisible by four) obviously didn’t work out that way.
The hoops were dangerously skewiff initially so my dad suggested attaching a brace to hold them together. This is just a square of fabric (well, two squares sewn together inside out then turned, so the edges are strong and neat) that I sewed to the middle of one of the fabric tubes and attached by press studs to the other, as you can see above. This way the hoops still separate from each other for easy storing but they seem to be much more sturdy when standing up.
Of course, any self-respecting play mat makes noises. All I could find at Spotlight were regular squeakers which are okay but they all make the same noise. Then I remembered there’s a build-a-bear shop nearby so I went and explained what I wanted and the woman said, “Oh, you mean Sounds!” They’ve got a whole range of animal noises plus various song snippets (I was seriously tempted by the Imperial March but thought it might drive us crazy pretty quickly) for about $5-6 each. The dog certainly thinks they’re interesting sounds… I also got a piece of florist’s cellophane to make the crinkle noise in one petal, in the hope it won’t dissolve in the wash.
Speaking of washability, in the interests of making the sounds last as long as possible (I forgot to ask if they’re washable but suspect not because they’re electronic) I made a bamboo terry-backed false top to attach to one side of the mat. It attaches with press studs in between every second petal, with a double snap at one point because my circle isn’t exactly symmetrical and I could foresee some rather frustrating future times trying to reattach the blanket the right way round. (Have I mentioned my new favourite sewing gadget, the press stud machine, yet? It seriously has me wondering how many things I can add press studs to now!)
The fabrics are mostly cotton duck (with some scraps of blue neoprene), with synthetic toy stuffing and some bits of poly-wool quilt batting scraps in the petals. I read somewhere that babies like high-contrast patterns, hence the crazy fabric selection (though there has been some suggestion it may just be headache or hallucination inducing…). My niece gave the whole, possibly over-engineered shebang a trial run the other week (above) so it’s already baby-approved!
The other spot of engineering that’s happened on the sewing table in recent months is this rabbit, made for my niece. It’s a pattern from a Burda magazine (can’t find it online) that’s about 50cm tall. All made from stash scraps (wool from a bag, corduroy from a Red Riding Hood cape and some heavy duty floral Ikea cotton that was meant to be a dress before I worked out the weight was all wrong) and miraculously semi-pattern matched although I didn’t think about it too hard. The instructions on this need a serious overhaul, however – it kept having you stuff parts then unstuff them to attach limbs and there seemed to be a lot of unnecessary double-handling of seams. Plus I initially sewed the facial features onto the back of the head… The next attempt will involved very little instruction following, methinks.