You can turn almost anything into a character just by adding eyes to it. I have done this using stickers and old magazine pictures. It’s not that much more difficult to make and attach 3D fabric eyes to all kinds of things. In this post I’ll show you how to make basic cartoon style eyeballs. In the next post, I’ll explain how to add eyelids and even eyelashes, to make more realistic looking eyes.
I use machine stitching and hand stitching to make these eyes. You don’t need a sewing machine. You could hand-sew everything instead.
- white non-stretchy fabric for eyeball base
- something to colour the iris and pupil of the eye – fabric scrap/markers/coloured thread
- paper for making the templates and patterns
- lightweight cardboard for patterns (optional)
- sharp scissors for cloth
- scissors for paper
- compass or other tool to draw circles
- something to draw with
- iron (if you are using fabric markers that need to be heat set)
- sewing machine (optional)
The first thing you will need to do is decide how big and how bulgy you want the eyes to be. This method works for little eyes, only 1.5 cm (.5″) across, right up to huge eyeballs 1m (1 yard) across or more. That’s why I haven’t said how much you need in the materials list.
I’m going to write instructions for 4 cm (1.5″) eyes, that are fairly bulgy. You can adjust the measurements to fit whatever size you want.
Make your pattern
On scrap paper, draw two circles the size you want your finished eyes to be. For this example, that’s 4 cm (1.5″) diameter. Draw the iris (the coloured part of the eye) and the pupil (black dot) on each eye circle. If you plan to add eyelids, the iris and pupil should be centered on the eye circle. Otherwise, you can put them where you want them.
Cut out the eye circles and try them out where you plan to use the eyes. Make adjustments as needed. When everything is the way you want it, you should have two matching copies of your eye template.
Measure the diameter of your template. For flat or slightly puffy eyes, draw a new circle that is twice as big. (For our example, that’s 8 cm (3″) diameter.) If you are making very large flat eyes, please read the note at the end of this section. For bulgy eyes, make it three times as big as the template.
Cut out the new circle, then fold it in half, and in half again to find the center. Mark the center with a pinhole or a small dot. This is the pattern for the eyeball.
Mark the center on both copies of the template. Take one template and cut out the iris. Match the center of the cut-out iris with the center of the eyeball pattern. Draw around the iris so that it is clearly marked on the eyeball pattern. The iris that you cut out from the template is now your iris pattern.
Using the other template, cut out the pupil. Match the centers to position it properly on the eyeball pattern, and then draw around it so that it is clearly marked on the eyeball pattern. The pupil that you cut out from the template is now your pupil pattern.
NOTE: For flat eyes larger than 12 cm (5″) in diameter, the eyeball pattern circle does not need to be twice as large as the template circle. Instead, add just 5 cm (2″) to the diameter of the template circle to draw the pattern circle, and then continue with the rest of the directions as given.
Cut out the pieces
Cut two circles out of your white fabric, using the eyeball pattern.
If you are using fabric scraps for the irises, cut out two of those pieces using the iris pattern.
Add irises and pupils
[If you are drawing or painting the irises and pupils on the eyeballs, do that now following any instructions for material preparation, heat fixing, etc. Then skip ahead to “Shaping the eyes”.]
Use the eyeball pattern to show where the iris pieces go. Stitch them in place by hand or machine, stitching all over the iris fabric with lots of tiny stitches. You can use matching thread for a subtle look or contrasting thread to add more visual texture to the iris.
You can stitch in spirals or back and forth like a spider web. There aren’t any rules, just make it up as you go. I prefer to do this on my machine using the free-motion presser foot so that I can doodle all over. You can do this with a regular presser foot. You just have to stop and start a lot more to do the back and forth sewing. If you are stitching by hand, you can use a basic running stitch or any kind of embroidery stitches you like.
(If you are afraid of the iris fabric fraying, then stitch over the edges a lot or pre-treat with a small amount of fabric glue or fray check liquid on the back before you start sewing. Test the glue first on a scrap to make sure it doesn’t show through or make the fabric too stiff or sticky to stitch.)
Change your thread to black to embroider the pupils. I like to thread my machine with iris coloured thread on the top and black thread on the bobbin. Then, all I have to do to change thread colours for the pupil, is turn the fabric over and stitch on the back with the black bobbin thread showing on the front.
Shaping the eyes
Thread a needle with a piece of strong thread, at least 5 cm (2″) longer than the circumference of the eyeball pattern. (Note: diameter is measured across a circle, circumference is measured around it.)
Starting on the front of the eyeball fabric, use large stitches to stitch right around the circle, about 1 cm (.5″) in from the edge. Stop stitching on the front of the eyeball fabric. Don’t tie a knot!
Pull both ends of the thread to start drawing the fabric circle up into a bowl shape. Don’t close it up completely. You need to get stuffing in there first.
Add stuffing in smooth layers until you are satisfied with the size and shape of the eyeball. A bulgy eyeball will need more firm stuffing than a flat one, and the middle of the eyeball will need more stuffing than the edges.
When you think you have enough stuffing in place, pull the gathering thread tighter. Hold on to the gathering thread (or tie it in a slip knot) and see how the eyeball looks in place.
If it’s too bulgy, you can remove some stuffing and/or loosen the gathering thread. If it’s too flat, then add more stuffing and/or tighten the gathering thread. If it’s too small around, then loosen the gathering thread and then adjust the stuffing to suit. Use your template as a guide for size. I prefer to work with both eyes at the same time for this stage because it is easier to get them to match.
Once you are satisfied with how they look, tie the gathering thread securely and tuck its ends into the opening in the back of the eyeball.
Your basic eyeballs are made. You can attach them to something right now or you can wait and add eyelids and lashes first. I prefer to add eyelids and lashes before I attach the eyes to their face but the lids and lashes can be added afterwards. So you can install them as is and change your mind later.
That’s it. You’re done. How to add eyelids and lashes will be in the next post, coming soon.