Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Sewing with Magnets: Matching Game Experiment

Back at Easter one of my new-mother cousins asked me if I could make a soft toy rattle. She showed me one somebody gave her. It's the Leka Rattle from IKEA and you get 2 for $2.99. I really can't compete with that in a handmade item. It's a little cat with a face embroidered on both sides. The simple cat shape is sewn with right sides together. Then it is turned and stuffed with polyester filling and a rattle insert. It gave me the idea to buy fabric printed with animals that I could sew back-to-back in a similar way.

This turns out to be harder than it sounds. I showed some of my early prototypes to my aunt who is a retired kindergarten teacher. She suggested I use the big piece of printed fabric and the individual toys together as a learning tool. Make a mat with velcro dots to stick the matching animals in place. Interesting. I kept thinking about that while I waited for rattle inserts and a new sewing machine foot pedal to come in the mail.

Finding 1: A rare earth magnet will hold up a toy by the steel balls in a high quality rattle insert.

I ordered 10 rattle inserts from CRS Crafts to play with them. (They are very good. Much louder than the tiny rattles I got in a pack of 50 for $6 from Amazon. They aren't even worth a link.) When they got here I noticed how heavy they were from the steel balls inside. I tested what happened if I put them next to a magnet. It had incredible holding power. The magnet would stick through several layers of fabric. This made me go looking through my magnet stash. I had a package of 12 small rare earth magnets with a hole in them. Perfect for sewing. It could eliminate the velcro that would ruin the look of the face of the thing.

This is not working
Finally I felt like trying the whole idea. I put it off for a long time because I knew it was going to be hard to precisely cut out and sew those complex shapes when the fabric is printed with the animals practically overlapping. It doesn't give enough extra fabric to work with.

Finally I realized I can just make a rectangle and have parts of animals at the edges. I think I have a mental disability where I am bothered by representational art that is partially obscured in presentation. Apparently normal people don't care even a little bit!

Still thinking of the original rattle idea I carefully cut out, matched, and sewed some lizards face to face, turned them and stuffed them with little rattles. I just don't like the imprecise nature of this process. There's no quality control. I'm not interested in manufacturing this. I don't know how IKEA does that Leka rattle, but I'd be interested to find out. I think if you were decorating with a fabric like this and had some left over you should definitely use any extra fabric for this kind of thing in a one-off project. I'm giving this idea away for free! But be sure the finished item isn't a choking hazard. If it will fit in a toilet paper roll don't give it to an infant. My lizard experiment fails this test.

These are just OK.
But I still wanted to try my idea of putting magnets in a sewn fabric configuration to match the picture. I hit on the idea of ironing the lizards onto freezer paper to just cut them out and leave them unfinished. This turns out to work really well. Far, FAR easier than sewing them and turning them to eliminate the raw edge. I could proceed with the project.
Prepare the quilt sandwich

I cut out a long rectangle of the lizard fabric and sewed the ends together to make a tube. I rolled it around until I found a group of lizards I liked for the front. This made my seam on one side in the back. Then I got a piece of quilt batting and cut it to fit inside the tube so the top and bottom could be sewn in. The sides are just loose inside the tube. I sewed the top together on the sewing machine and turned it right side out.

Finding 2: You can sew a rare earth ring magnet with a nickel and steel needle.

I was originally worried that it would be frustrating to sew a rare earth magnet with a nickel and steel needle. The needle did pop over to the magnet but it was no problem to push it along through the fabric. This is good data.

I sewed the magnets to the BACK of the batting. The batting and fabric between the magnet and the matching lizard reduces the pull force enough to not be frightening or dangerous. Also my idea was that this whole thing could stick to a steel thing like a file cabinet or refrigerator and stay put even while somebody was messing around with the removable parts.

My method was to hold the fabric sandwich flat and lined up first. Then I stuck a needle through the place on the lizard I wanted a magnet and through the batting. Then I pulled the thread all the way through the fabric and moved it out of the way and sewed the magnet only to the batting. I tied the tail of the thread to the working thread on the inside.
Magnet sewn to the BACK of the batting, the side against the seam.
After I got all the magnets sewn on I put two more in the top corners so it would look nice stuck on the refrigerator.

(Note on the magnets I used: I got these from Harbor Freight over a year ago. They're only about 1/4" diameter. They don't have the ones with holes on the website currently. Home Depot has some 3/8" ones that are slightly bigger than this that would work. It might be good to have the extra holding power if you add layers by laminating the cards. But I expect the bigger the magnet the more difficult they will be to sew.)

After all the magnets were sewn inside I turned the raw edges along the bottom into the sandwich and sewed the bottom closed.

Next I prepared all the lizards for matching. I found two sheets of freezer paper ironed on made them nice and stiff. I cut them out after the paper was on. Then I held them over the correct lizard on the finished mat with a zinc coated washer between a third piece of freezer paper and the lizard to line it up right. Then I ironed it together.

This is probably not really durable but it worked for the experiment. I tried packing tape first but ironing freezer paper was easier. This is just a proof of concept, for a real working version safe for children the small lizard cards would need to be laminated. The minimum safe size for coins for infants is 1 3/4" diameter. So don't do this if you have a baby that can get hold of any of these parts.
Freezer paper ironed onto fabric helps raw edges not fray
I could have stopped there but I was unsure if the magnets would stay lined up under the right lizard. I decided to sew around all the lizards that had magnets sewn behind them. This is the first time I've ever done machine quilting. I used a long stitch length and pulled the thread to the back and knotted it wherever I started and stopped. 

Finding 3: You can machine sew a fabric sandwich with magnets inside on an enameled steel sewing machine.

I was curious if the magnets would make it stick to the sewing machine so hard it would be impossible to guide the project. It took a little extra tugging to get it to feed properly. But with my new electronic foot pedal with an actual slow speed it was a lot easier than I thought it would be. Also the little outline around the lizards that are part of the game is a helpful clue that there are a few whole lizards out of bounds. (I didn't have enough magnets to do all the repeats.)
Here it is on my storage cabinet (neƩ refrigerator) in my lab
Match the lizards!
I've only had one chance to user test this invention. My mother stopped by. I pulled off all the lizards and asked her to put them back. After she left I found she'd put two in the wrong place. I'm not sure if this means it is an actual challenge or if it is just not that interesting. More user testing is required.

My questions about sewing with magnets have been answered though. I'm going back to knitting. Perhaps my experience will serve as a starting point for somebody to make something better. For a decoration for grown-up geeks with the right fabric this could be a good little project. For something for kids it needs a lot of changes. I like the matte fabric finish of it the way it is now.