Science and the Cartoon Cow

Someone recently told me that my skills as a knitted toy designer make me an artist. It was a lovely compliment, but I’m not sure I agree. I always think of myself as more of an engineer. There’s a lot of mathematics involved in all knitting design; ratios, measurements and a good understanding of long division will help you design a knitted cardigan or a knitted car. What’s different about toy making is the science, specifically physics and biology.

Toy design physics is mostly about gravity, or the question “Will it stand up?”. Toy designers throughout the ages have come up against this problem and deftly engineered their toys around it. Jointed teddy bears, don’t stand up, but they sit up very firmly. Floppy fuzzy toys offer no expectation of either standing or sitting, they are simply made to be cuddled.

My Natty Knits toy animals have always been able to stand alone and I want this cow to be the same. But the cow is not the same. Unlike round pig or round sheep, the cow doesn’t have a round body, this is simply because a sphere to match her elongated head would need to be enormous and would use a lot of yarn. I also think there’s a danger of her looking too cartoon like, although I may be wrong. Not having a round body leaves her open to centre of gravity problems, which I’m hoping I can remedy with some slightly shorter back legs or some balancing udders. One thing she certainly can’t have is a long neck.

The biology of toy design is surprisingly complex. I’ve always been fascinated by how young children understand symbols of animals, sometimes before they even see the animals in real life. Pigs have snouts and curly tails, giraffes have long necks, elephants have trunks. These are all simple constructs which must be built into a toy, in fact they should be exaggerated, in order to be recognised by a child’s amazing pattern finding brain.

I’ve been accused of realism in my patterns before, but if you look at any of the Natty Knits toys you’ll see that I haven’t put everything in. My Round Duck doesn’t have wings or feet. Even my shark is missing two lower pectoral fins and a second dorsal fin. There’s often a delicate balance between what to put in and what to leave out. I shied away from designing a cow for a long time, because of the udders. I think they should be included, although I wonder if it will be too much detail.

It’s lovely to be back designing again after my jacket knitting break. It’s nice to be thinking scientifically again.


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