During the 1920s and early 1930s in the Soviet Union, a great number of children’s picture books were printed. A distinct genre within this picture book world was the art and craft book. Both educational and enjoyable, these books provided imaginative and resourceful ways for children to create various objects. There were masks to cut out, colouring in books and instructions for how to print your own stencilled posters. ‘Self-made toys’ also featured prominently and these included stand-up paper figures, shadow puppet shows and potato men assembled from root vegetables and discarded household objects.
The self-made toy book held its worth in more ways than one. Any Soviet pedagogue would have been satisfied by the way it encouraged children to develop their construction skills, with practical abilities being a key attribute of the future Soviet worker. For children and families, self-made toys might have helped fill a childhood void in a country beset by material shortage, where consumer goods such as toys were hard to come by.
Bringing these long-lost ideas to life offers an irresistible challenge for the twenty-first century art and craft enthusiast. Soviet art and craft books are well represented in the Cotsen Collection and one of the most ambitious is Shimpanze i martyshka (Chimpanzee and Marmoset), published in 1930 by the Soviet state publishing house. It is a small book at only twelve pages long and just larger than a postcard. Inside it contains pattern pieces, instructions and diagrams for how to stitch the two cheerful creatures. I decided to make a marmoset and followed the instructions step-by step, which gave me some insight into the skills expected of Soviet youngsters and how feasible such a project really was.
At first glance the directions seemed quite straightforward but rather brief. They assumed some knowledge of sewing technique and a fairly high level of manual dexterity, so the first conclusion I drew was that this book was not intended for very small children. The monkey was to be made by building a wire skeleton, wrapping it in strips of newspaper and then enclosing the whole thing in fabric shapes before adding the features. The little monkeys jumping round the instruction pages were very endearing but they did not compensate for the fact that some of the required materials were missing from the list given at the beginning. I had to go off in search of glass beads, pieces of leather and something that would serve as red silk thread.
In slight defiance of the order of events given in the instructions, I decided to cut the pattern pieces for the monkey’s body before creating the skeleton. The instructions suggested that if I were to make the whole figure twice the size of the given templates, then it would be more comfortable to work with. I decided that this would be a good idea, as the pieces were very small. No instructions were given for enlarging the shapes and as I wanted to be authentic and not use a modern photocopier, I enlarged the pieces using a hand drawn grid. This took an hour and a half.
Next I cut out the pieces. The instructions specified rags of brown flannel. These are not as easy to find now as in 1930, so I chose felt instead. After this I needed to make the skeleton and wrap it in strips of newspaper, tied down with thread. Working with the newspaper proved to be very time consuming, required a lot of patience and left me with very black hands. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any tiny monkeys like the ones shown in the illustration to help me. The trickiest part of this stage was figuring out how much newspaper to apply to the frame. Luckily, as I had cheated and already cut out the fabric body pieces, I was able to keep trying these against the figure to see if it was fat enough.
Finally, I added the features and after about five and half hours of work, the marmoset was finished. He looked almost exactly like the one in the illustration, turned out to be fully poseable without falling apart and was much more attractive than I had anticipated. He did however smell quite strongly of newspaper and I had doubts as to how long he would survive if handled excessively by a small child.
Learn more about activity books at our virtual exhibition about Pere Castor
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an absolutely fascinating project that produced beautiful results.