The Perfect Portable Project: Fabric Yo-Yos

IMG_6268My ancestors came to America as Protestant religious dissenters, with strict standards about productivity and frugality.

It may be this Puritan heritage or my own nagging sense that one’s time in life is not unlimited, but I really like to be productive and to have something to show for my time.

I am a firm proponent of the philosophy that idle hands are the devil’s playground.

Having said that, recently I was stuck for TEN HOURS in an airline terminal, completely unprepared and completely unproductive. I just sat and read a free mystery novel on my tiny little phone screen and didn’t get anything done. At all.

That was ten hours of my life that I’m never going to have back again! It made me crazy and completely determined to never be stuck in that position again.

I don’t think I’m alone in this desire to get things done–I think a lot of you are right here with me. I read about your projects and hear about your creations. You’re not sitting around, twiddling your thumbs.

When we’re home, you and I can choose among many different activities to engage our hands and our minds. We can sit at the sewing machine or quilting frame. We can stand over our stoves or toddle out to the jewelry studio or the garden.

But when we’re away from home or just want to work outside and enjoy the weather outside (and all the weeding is done), we need a portable project.

And I have the perfect portable project for you!

Perfect portable projects should meet certain requirements—they need to be small so as to be, you know, portable. They need to require very few tools or supplies; none of the tools should be the kind of thing to be confiscated in an airport screening. They need to be easy to pick up and put down at a moment’s notice, just in case they ever make the announcement that your flight is boarding.

Right before my most recent trip, with my new-found determination to be better prepared for delays and downtime, I made a fortuitous discovery at a big-box craft store. It was a gizmo called the Clover Quick Yo Yo Maker. It’s designed to facilitate the making of little fabric “yo-yos.”

I’ve always thought yo-yo quilts were absolutely charming. They evoke the 1930s and 1940s, and vintage ones are usually made of bright and cheery fabrics, with small, quirky prints.

Yo-yo quilts are not really quilts at all—they aren’t layered with batting and backing and there is no actually quilting on them. They are made from small scraps of fabric (the Puritan in me LOVES using small scraps of fabric!), cut in circles. The edges of the fabric are folded over, stitched around with a running stitch, and then, when the two ends of thread meet, they are pulled to pleat the fabric together to form a smaller, double-layered circle that looks like a yo-yo.

All the little yo-yos get stitched together to make a coverlet or throw.

Like I said, I’ve always thought them charming but hadn’t ever tried to make one. Something about handling the fabric rounds and trying to press the edges under and hold it all together while I stitched just made me feel all angsty.

But the gizmo solved all that.

The gizmo consists of two pieces of plastic, a rimmed circle with a notched circle that fits inside.

IMG_6011These come in five different sizes to produce round yo-yos anywhere from ¾ inch (about 2 centimeters) to 3 ½ inches in diameter (about 9 cm). You can also buy similar gizmos to make other shapes—like hearts and butterflies—but, as a staunch traditionalist and Puritan, I don’t approve of those!

I like the little yo-yos.

So, I bought a yo-yo maker (for a Puritan-acceptable $6). And I found that, with minimal prep time before I left home, I had the perfect portable project. I want you to have it, too.

To prepare for your project, you’ll want to cut your fabric at home. I bought the yo-yo maker labeled “large,” which makes an end product that is about 1¾ inches across (about 4.5 cm; not really very large—we’re going to need a lot of them!)

I started by using my rotary cutter and mat to make 4-inch (10.25 cm) squares of scrap fabric. You don’t have to be too precise about the measuring because the corners are going to be cut off anyway. The directions that come with the yo-yo maker suggest you should make the squares bigger but 4 inches works just fine. Puritans don’t waste fabric unnecessarily!

IMG_6005After I had a nice pile of squares, I put two or three at a time in the Clover gizmo and roughly cut off the corners to make circles. Again, you don’t have to be overly careful about this. IMG_6018Instructions for making the actual yo-yos

We’re going to talk about the two pieces of the gizmo this way:

The piece with the rim is the exterior piece.

IMG_6274The piece with the notches all around the edge is the interior piece—it fits into the exterior piece (how about that?!)

IMG_6275Put a fabric circle over the exterior piece of the gizmo. You want the RIGHT side of the fabric facing down.

Snap the interior piece of the gizmo into the exterior piece, paying attention to two details. One, you want the fabric centered so you have a small, even rim of fabric all around. Second, make sure one of the radiating lines on the interior piece is aligned with one of the little knobs on the rim of the exterior piece.

IMG_6190Once you get your fabric piece situated, you’re going to turn the whole thing over and look at the exterior piece as you stitch.

Thread your needle with a rather long piece of thread—I use about a yard to start and can do a few yo-yos with that length. Don’t knot the end of the thread.

Keep the EXTERIOR piece facing you (look for the hole in the middle) and notice the little crescent moon-shaped openings. Your stitches are going to come up on one side of the opening and down on the other.

IMG_6192As you take the first few stitches, just hold the tail of the thread down with your middle finger on the back of the interior piece. With your index finger hold the edge of the fabric folded over the back, so you stitch through it (am I making any sense at all?)

IMG_6282Make stitches in every opening, all the way around. When I reach the starting point, I make one more tiny up-and-down stitch right next to where my first stitch began—this seems to make it easier to pull the threads in the next step.

Pop the two pieces of the gizmo apart. Carefully remove your fabric piece from the interior piece.

IMG_6193Hold both pieces of thread between your fingers and pull the long piece* to begin to gather the fabric.

IMG_6195As you gather the fabric, the yo-yo might start to go inside out and the raw edge of the fabric may show. Just use your fingers to get everything going the direction it should and gently pull the threads some more. You’re aiming to pull hard enough to get everything gathered into a nice, small hole but not to pull so hard as to break the thread.

IMG_6198Tie the two ends of thread together in a sturdy knot. Clip the ends leaving a little extra and bury the short ends inside the yo-yo. If necessary, use your fingers to tweak the fabric yo-yo to make it symmetrical and perfect.

IMG_6276Isn’t it the cutest thing you ever saw?! But it’s lonely so you need to make more!

IMG_6203I assure you that, after you’ve done 4 or 5 of these, it will take much less time to make one than it did to read this post.

And you’re ready to hit the road with your perfect portable project! Put a stack of round fabric pieces and the gizmo into a zip-top plastic bag. Add a needle and a spool of thread. If you’re traveling by plane, put nail clippers in the bag; otherwise, take a small pair of scissors. I add my thimble because I can’t sew without a thimble! That’s it.

You’ll be pleasantly surprised, I think, by how fast these yo-yos pile up. I got about 75 done in a few days, while I was on my trip, just picking them up at random moments. I never did work on them in the airport—we had no flight delays—or on the plane. Just random moments when idle hands might have led me astray.

Are you wondering what to do with your darling little yo-yos?

I found that 36 of my yo-yos make a square of about 10 inches (about 25.5 cm). I’m in no hurry to finish anything—I have lots of scrap fabric and want to keep the portable project going. So I will probably just keep stitching away until I can make a traditional coverlet with mine.

IMG_6265In the meantime, I’ll just enjoy their pretty simplicity.

IMG_6293But there are almost innumerable other ways to enjoy your yo-yos!

As with most things, there are endless boards on Pinterest devoted to yo-yos, both in quilt or coverlet form and used in lots of other inventive ways. Here are a few, just to get you started. I searched on “yoyo quilts” and “yoyo crafts.”

Aren’t these fun ideas? Can’t you feel your fingers itching, eager to begin? What are you waiting for?

If I have completely confused you but you still want to give this a try, please let me know what questions you have!



* You can pull both ends but, as you’ll see, doing so wastes a lot of thread and Puritans don’t waste thread.

32 thoughts on “The Perfect Portable Project: Fabric Yo-Yos

  1. screaming mad!!!! Amazon US sells these gizmos ( desperately want some) for about $6…..but won’t send to Canada. Amazon Canada sells them for $29……..for heavens sake!!.
    finally ordered through etsy and chose the shop with the least postage.
    Anyway….thanks for the heads up.

    • OMG–I’m so sorry–didn’t mean to rub salt in the wound! I canNOT believe what highway robbery you’re dealing with! I’m glad you found a way to get the gizmos–I wish I’d known. It would’ve been so easy for me to send you one!

  2. I always have a portable project to keep me occupied.
    However, I don’t think reading is doing nothing, you are exercising your imagination, improving your vocabulary, using your brain, etc etc! My mother always used to say you’re never bored with a book. (In saying that, I couldn’t read for 10 hours straight).

  3. i love these sweet little yo-yos, so pretty in blue. I have made them in the past and can recall the immense satisfaction I felt EACH TIME I made one. It is as if every one has its own individual personality. Yes, they are cute too! If I made some more, I would make them in Liberty print, so that each one was full of miniature flowers.
    With this one perfect post, you will trigger yo-yo making which will spread like seeds from a dandelion clock!

    • They would be perfect in Liberty prints! I love watching them pile up, in little drifts of color. I guess I’m getting color from them, just the same way you’re getting color from cooking, until spring finally comes!

  4. You are a wealth of information! I had never heard of yoyo crafts before now…but I do lead a very sheltered life.

    • I think there must’ve been a yo-yo quilt in my childhood–I feel like I’ve known about them forever. I feel about these textile things the way you do about flatware and cutlery, I guess–can’t get enough!

  5. I always carry things with me to make a knotted bracelet, in case I get stuck somewhere 🙂 I like the photo where they’re displayed all together. They look like a work of art!

    • One of the things I like about them is that they can have a very modern look, as well as that real old-timey quaint look. People are doing very cool things with them!

    • Haha! I hope you can find the gizmo–I heard from a Canadian reader that she was going to be charged a fortune in Canada to get one! If you get serious and can’t find a gizmo, let me know–I can send you one!

  6. How lovely! I can’t wait to see what you make out of these cute little yoyos 🙂 Taking a small project like this in your bag for idle moments is such a good idea. I like to be productive even in my down time (sometimes to a fault) and so recently I always take my crochet with me on trains and trips, but these look much more portable! I loved scrolling through the pinterest boards to see what people have done with them xx

    • The Pinterest boards about the yo-yos fascinate me–people are SO creative! I think your crocheting is just as good an answer, unless the project gets really big. But, really, the project almost doesn’t matter–it’s the fun of having bust hands that makes me happy!

  7. The photo of your yo yo’s is stunning if that doesn’t inspire anyone I don’t know what will….another thing that’s just gone onto my to do list 😀

  8. I share that same feeling of needing to be productive! That’s why I find waiting in a doctor’s office so tedious. Yoyo making is fun! Although I make mine with home made templates 🙂

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