Monster Squad: DIY Poppets
Tonight we’re going to be making DIY poppets. As a bit of quick background, poppets are little dolls said to be used in witchcraft to either aid people or curse them. They are European in origin, but, somehow along the way, Hollywood decided to blame them on voodoo. This is incorrect. What pop culture calls “voodoo dolls” are the fault of white Europeans.
Rather than real people, we’re going to make poppets of a few classic monsters, for a few reasons:
- Making a poppet of my neighbor who plays a panpipe at weird hours wouldn’t really resonate with a wider audience;
- We aren’t going to let Hollywood get away with their voodoo lies that easily;
- The classic monsters are totally adorable.
We are going to be treading an interesting line during this project; we want our poppets to be wonky and definitely hand-made looking, since that will add rugged charm, but we also want to include oddly specific, careful details.
Typically with these DIYs I give you a lot of specific instructions. Not so with poppets. The cutest poppets are the ones that are thrown together using (mostly) stuff you have on hand, with a hefty dollop of improvisation. If you have a sewing box, dig through and see what you can finagle into a neck bolt or a medallion! This DIY is less a set of rigid instructions and more like a series of suggestions.
With that in mind, let’s begin.
Materials and Tools
- Half a yard of muslin (and some green material for Frank)
- Thin poster paper or brown paper and a pencil
- A sewing machine
- Scissors (both paper and fabric)
- Buttons for eyes
- Embroidery floss
- Stiff Aida for the Bride’s hair
- Clear-drying glue and/or scenic spray glue that dries clear
Ok, here’s where we start to freewheel. For this project the only thing I purchased in preparation was some extra black floss. I raided my bags of fabric scraps and my sewing box and used what I could find. Assuming you don’t have a hoard of scraps at your disposal, take a tour of the remnants section of your local fabric store and decide what speaks to you! Will this weird, kinda burlapy linen stuff make a good mummy bandage? What would make an elegant cape?
The Basic Pattern
Usually with these things I give you a bunch of numbers and encourage you to use a ruler. As we discussed, this project is different. I free-handed a gingerbread fellow using the button eyes as a guide for size. This is because, again, I want the poppet to be a little wonky and off-kilter. The arms are slightly different lengths and the body has kind of a jaunty lean to it. If you aren’t confident in your gingerbread drawing skills, feel free to trace mine, but, hey, give it a try! If you’re really fretting, try using a compass to draw a head and go from there.
This pattern is going to work for most of our poppets, but we are going to have to go a different route for Frankenstein’s monster (who is a big fellow and noticeably square in the head).
Once you have two gingerbread fellow pieces cut out of fabric (a front and a back), stitch around the edges using a machine. The pattern I’m using has only one quarter inch seam allowance, because these poppets are tiny. Leave one side of the torso open for stuffing.
Flip the empty doll so that it is no longer inside out. Once any required hair plugs are in (which will be discussed later) stuff the doll and slip-stitch the hole. Then add your button eyes and you’re ready to get dressed.
Difficulty Level: Simple
Time Required: The Mummy (1932)
There are incredibly few tricks with The Mummy. If you’ve ever wrapped a friend or family member in toilet paper you have a handle on the basic technique. I used a very rough linen cut into strips roughly half an inch wide. Tuck in the ends or discreetly tack them using light thread. (Ideally, do both.) Do the extremities first, then the torso, and try to alternate directions as you wrap.
I tacked down some bandage bits along the top seam of the head to round the shape a bit. I also tucked the bandages behind his eyes to achieve maximum goggle-face.
Difficulty Level: Reasonable
Time Required: Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Now we move on to a character with conventional clothing.
I did short black hair plugs for him. For hair plugs, thread your needle with embroidery floss and knot it. Then pull the floss through the top of his head and snip off at the desired length. Knot your thread and do it again. The closer together your hair plugs are, the fuller the head of hair will be. Afterwards, once he’s been stuffed, you can style his hair using clear-drying glue. Regular glue will act like hair gel. Scenic spray glue will work more like hair spray.
I also gave him a little embroidered forehead scar using running stitches. For his bolts I tacked little grommets to his neck, and I added a little safety pin to his forehead in lieu of one of those giant surgical staples.
Ok, here’s our clothing tutorial. Rather than our usual drafting, we’re going to use a technique called draping. Draping is basically sculpting an outfit on a form using fabric. Each chunk of fabric I used for this started out as a rectangle pinned to the poppet, then I cut away excess fabric bit by bit to get the shape I wanted.
Let’s begin with an easier one. Frank’s shirt only needs a front, since his jacket will cover the back. I put a rectangle of fabric over his chest and pinned down the corners over his shoulders and over where his kidneys would probably be. I rolled the top edge of the fabric down a bit to give him a clean collar, then I tacked down all of the corners.
For jacket sleeves I rolled tubes of fabric over the arms. Then I pinned a rectangle of fabric on each side of the front of Frank’s chest, and one big rectangle across his back. Once everything was pinned, I snipped it into the right shape, getting rid of excess fabric. Then I sloppily whip-stitched the seams and folded over the lapels. You may have to tack your lapels or try to iron them down. Mine bent as-is because the fabric I used was the consistency of tree bark.
Pants are virtually the same technique, just a little more involved. Use a rectangle for the front and a rectangle for the back. Pin around his legs. You’re going to have to snip the fabric between his legs so as to get two pant legs. Then trim down the edges so that his pants don’t look like hammer pants (unless that’s the look you’re going for) and whip stitch your seams.
Difficulty Level: Pretty Fussy
Time Required: Dracula (1931) and Drácula (1931) aka “Spanish Dracula”
Of all of the creatures we’re tackling with this project, Dracula has the most going on with his outfit, so there’s a lot of opportunity for detail. I went with Dracula’s staircase ensemble because I wanted to include that iconic medallion. Let’s make a list of items Dracula’s rocking when he greets Renfield:
- Tuxedo shirt
- Cutaway jacket
- A watch chain
- A pocket square
- The iconic Dracula medallion
- The cape he throws on to answer his front door because he is the epitome of class
Let’s rewind for a hot second here and discuss Dracula’s hair. Add hair plugs using black embroidery floss along the shape of a widow’s peak.
Using a tiny bit of clear-drying glue as hair gel, slick his hair back. You may also want to discreetly tack the ends of his hair to his head using dark thread, to really hold it in place.
Much like with Frank up above, we’re going to dress Dracula using mostly rectangles. Use the same technique for his shirt, but before you add a jacket, try a waistcoat. The waistcoat is just two triangles meeting over his belly. (I slip stitched the ends together at the center there, because Bela’s buttons in the center.)
I tackled the medallion by painting a button gold and tacking it down with red thread to make a ruby. For the bow tie I just went with white ribbon. (I chose to forego the watch chain and pocket square.)
Ok, as suggested in the above photo, there’s a bit of a trick to the cape. I didn’t trust my black velvet scraps to stand up to my liking, so (don’t laugh) I lined the cape with tinfoil. The Count is a little bit crunchy but, hey, that cape looks elegant, and it’s able to be posed. He can also stand with very little help, which adds a level of eeriness.
The Bride of Frankenstein
Difficulty Level: Borderline Hubris
Time Required: Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) (hell, they’re classics and worth a re-watch, right?)
Ok, so in the interest of avoiding a monster sausage-fest, we’re making the Bride. Her clothing is actually the easiest we’ve done; her “sleeves” are a repeat of the Mummy’s bandages (this time I went with white ribbon) and a big white tunic and her stitching details are the same as Frank’s. (I went with her triangular jaw stitches.) We’re in familiar territory!
And then we get to the hair.
I should clarify that the hair isn’t necessarily difficult; it’s more that it requires a lot of patience and trial and error. Let’s talk through it.
Allegedly the actual Bride hairstyle was achieved by teasing and shaping her hair around a frame. It makes sense and, hell, it looks great in the movie, so I’m using it as a launching point.
The closest thing I have to a frame is rigid Aida cloth. I’d strongly suggest you paint your Aida cloth black, if it isn’t black to begin with. What I ended up doing was put in a whole bunch of black (and white) hair plugs, then I thoroughly the hair down with a lot of that scenic glue. I cut a square of stiff Aida and tacked it to the back of the Bride’s head so that the hair can rest against it. Even though the glue is going to stiffen the floss, it isn’t going to be enough to keep it securely up, so you’re going to want to tack the floss to the Aida using thread. Snip away any excess Aida (just like we’ve been doing with our clothing) then, towards the top of her hair, fold your hair/Aida inwards to get more of a pointy shape.
I also painted some lipstick on her to give her a nice pop of color.
And there you go! With enough poppets you can re-enact all the horror classics of yesteryear. I’d watch that reboot.
All images via E.K. Leimkuhler