I had aged out of Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books by the time they were published in the 1970’s, so they were a delightful new discovery when my husband and I came across them during our daughters’ early childhood at the beginning of the 1990’s. I remember we even had a VHS tape of the stories, which transfixed all of us in mesmerized sedation, with Lobel’s simple sentences, illustrations drawn in a unified neutral palette, and sweet tales of friendship between anthropomorphized amphibians. Our now-grown daughter relives this happy childhood experience with her own children. Knitted toys are not my thing, but Kristina Ingrid McGowan wrote a detailed pattern for Frog and Toad that completely captured the look and personalities of the characters, and, in an out-of-body experience because it’s so very not what I do, I got the pattern and began to study it.
I told myself, no pressure, no promises, I can ditch the project any time I want to, I don’t even have to make it, but I had just finished one project and was waiting for the yarn to arrive for my next project. So Melissa, who owns my local yarn store Lovelyarns, took four skeins off the shelf to match the colors Kristina recommended. She handed me a skein of white, a froggy green, a heathered gray, and a heathered ochre brown in Brown Sheep Prairie Spun DK. I didn’t have anything else to do at the moment, so I found the U.S. size 1 double-pointed needles that I had learned to tolerate while making my January 2021 Swatchathon gloves, and cast on. It wasn’t comfortable knitting, because DK yarn wants to be knitted on much larger needles, but it needed to be a tight fabric because Frog and Toad would be stuffed like pincushions, and I liked the idea of Kristina’s suggestion, ground walnut shells mixed with dried lavender buds, so crunchy-granola organic!
Basically Frog’s and Toad’s bodies are toe-up socks gone mad. I knitted a few rows a day as a secondary project, and I didn’t exactly enjoy the knitting, because knitting DK yarn on tiny DPNs while executing lots and lots of exacting directional increases and decreases wore out my hands in a hurry. But the pattern was written with such perfect precision that I kept going as a tribute to the designer, how she made the legs turn outward and then turned them back inward with short-rowed kneecaps, and the tiny ankles and webbed feet, on three needles with a couple of stitches each, and the tiny eyeballs fitted into the head at precisely positioned cuts into the fabric a couple of rows from the cast-on. It was fiddly knitting all right, but there was a good reason for every stitch of it. I respect that kind of pattern-writing.
I took my time knitting Frog, bit by bit, no pressure, and eventually I had a completed empty Frog-bag. I closed up the crotch and the tiny openings at the wrist and ankles and reinforced the loose stitches at the increases and decreases, as per instructions.
Now I could put some flesh underneath his skin, and I was excited! I got the lavender-scented ground walnut shell filling that Kristina recommended and started cramming it into the limbs and body through the head opening. But uh-oh! The ground walnut shell was leaking through the stitches of the fabric. I duplicate-stitched the worst of the loose places and used matching sewing thread to sew the stitches closer together, but tiny pieces of shell were seeping through anyway. Even though it felt like I was turning the wool to diamonds knitting so tightly on such small needles, it wasn’t tight enough. I emailed Kristina to ask her advice, and she got back to me right away. She was chagrined to learn that her recommended filling wasn’t working for everyone as it had worked for her. She had never heard of any such instance before, although I’ve seen project notes on Ravelry that mentioned this. Pity I didn’t see these warnings until after I’d had this experience because I’m a loose knitter, and if it’s going to happen to anyone, it will happen to me. My advice: unless you’re the kind of knitter who knits everything at an airless gauge, use a filling like the arborio rice Kristina recommended to me instead of the ground walnut filling. I mixed in lavender buds because they smell nice, and also they might deter vermin from munching on Frog’s and Toad’s guts.
Kristina’s best advice to me was better than what I eventually did. She told me to undo the Kitchener stitching at the top of Frog’s head and dump out the ground walnut shell filling and replace it with arborio rice. She was skeptical of what I wanted to try, which was to see if I could felt Frog’s skin closed by dampening a small scrub brush and rubbing it all over his body so lift up the fibers and make them mesh together, but she said it might work. It reduced the leaking but didn’t stop it completely. Recently I borrowed Melissa’s hand carder tool, and it did a better job than my scrub brush. But then I undid the good the carder had done by sticking the wires of a doll stand into Frog’s body to hold him upright for the photographs, and the wires opened up some holes. I’ll have to card Frog’s little body again before I send him off in the mail. I took Kristina’s advice about arborio rice to stuff Toad, and his stuffing is staying where it’s supposed to be, inside his body. I will mention that knitting Toad was as slow and tedious as knitting Frog was, but Kristina’s instructions are perfection.
I didn’t notice when I fell down the rabbit hole at the time, but retracing my steps forensically, it was while I was knitting Frog’s and Toad’s bodies last spring when I encountered photos of crochet flowers, clouds, teacups, and everyday scenes created by Finnish textile designer Tuija Heikkinen. These items were charming and inspiring, but I can’t copy someone else’s work if I’m going to be inspired. I have to forget the exact appearance of the original sources and let my subconscious reinterpret them. So I thought, wouldn’t it be nice to be inspired by this someday, while a different part of my brain started thinking of other characters in Frog and Toad World, a snake, dragonflies, and the weather and plants, not realizing that the two thoughts were connected. Down the rabbit hole I tumbled.
I began to envision needle-felted dragonflies. I have a large cone of unprocessed, undyed wool yarn that I bought some years back for a felted machine knitting project that never materialized because my knitting machine doesn’t really like the size and consistency of the yarn. But I knitted it up anyway into a large rectangle, regardless of the imperfect fabric that resulted, and ran it through the washer and drier to felt it. This yarn didn’t immediately shrink up and felt at the first contact of heat, water, and friction, so I kept throwing it into the laundry time and time again until I got the felting I wanted, maybe about five washer-drier iterations. Then I let the undyed, felted rectangle sit around for a few months while I thought of other things, like the mental puzzle of how to machine-knit a two dimensional piece of fabric so that it turned into a three dimensional undulating tube, that is, a snake for Frog and Toad World. I had leftovers of a black and olive multi yarn that looked very snakelike, so I spent a couple of afternoons at the knitting machine trying out configurations of short rows that could be seamed together to form a tube with a consistent circumference that curved off in one direction for a while, then off in the other direction for a while, several times. My first attempt rolled up into a straight tube. My second attempt produced a piece of knitting that was wide in one direction, then narrow, then wide in the other direction, then narrow. No feats of topological wizardry were emerging from my knitting machine. I retreated to let the idea marinate in my subconscious while I worked on what I knew how to do.
Besides instructions for Frog and Toad themselves, Kristina’s pattern includes instructions for Toad’s ludicrous swimming costume, which everyone in Frog and Toad World laughed at, including, traitorously, Frog himself. There are also instructions for trousers and a jacket for Frog. These clothing items are knitted in the same DK weight yarn as Frog and Toad on the same U.S. size 1 needles, so as before, it’s cramped and exacting knitting made bearable by the precision of Kristina’s instructions and the verisimilitude to the book’s illustrations. It wasn’t my idea of fun knitting, and there were long stretches when I neglected the project, but I set a goal on the Weekly Goals thread of my Ravelry group and eventually powered through the knitting. Every week I put my goals on the Weekly Goals thread as an obligation to do things that don’t make a difference to anyone but me, and I fulfill my goals. I finished the items in the pattern while I was on vacation in Michigan.
After a month or two simmering gently on the back burner of my brain, I began to visualize how to make the three-dimensional undulating tube for the snake’s body shape. My solution was not so brilliant, in fact it was obvious and a bit of a cop-out: a hand-knitted tube on double-pointed needles with short-row heel shapes, one set of short rows at one side of the tube and the next set of short rows at the opposite side of the tube, alternating this process until the snake is long and slithery enough. I was sad to give up the idea of conjuring up a two-dimensional shape on the knitting machine that magically turns into a three-dimensional undulating tube just by joining the two sides together, but I did want this snake to finally get made. Now that I know how to hand-knit this shape, I understand how to transpose the idea to the knitting machine, but I am in no hurry to make another snake.
I’ve forgotten now exactly how I made the snake, but I think I put 24 stitches on three DPN’s and placed stitch markers 12 stitches apart, then knitted to two stitches after the stitch marker, wrapped and turned, purled to two stitches after the marker, W&T, knitted to the wrapped stitch, picked up the wrap and knitted it together with the stitch, W&T the next stitch, and so forth I think about six times. Enough so that there were several stitches on either side of the snake that never got short-rowed, which, on examining the finished snake, seems to be six short-rowed stitches on either side of center. Then I did a few rows of plain knitting around the tube and did another set of short rows over the same stitches, then a few plain rows, and repeated the process around the stitch marker on the other side. Repeat to exhaustion. When I was sufficiently exhausted, I increased about four stitches to make the head a little larger than the body, knitted a few plain rows, then decreased four stitches every other row as if I were knitting a cuff-down sock toe. There were a lot of holes at the short rows that needed to be reinforced before I could stuff the snake-bag with arborio rice and lavender buds, but it once it was stuffed, it felt like something I would never want to put down if I were a small child. I embroidered eyes and a laughing mouth after closing the head.
Then I ran across a crocheted turtle on Ravelry based on the African Flower pattern that I have crocheted intermittently for the last five years, and have recently crocheted quite a lot. The flower pattern was fresh in my mind, so I whipped up a couple of motifs in Frog and Toad colors for the shell and the underside of the body and loosely followed the instructions for the head and legs. The edging around the shell was a stitch pattern I’ve done before but forgot, and now I will never forget it again because it looks great and complicated but is really fun and easy. The crocheting was too holey to stuff with arborio rice, but I had undyed brown roving that blended perfectly with the Frog and Toad colors, and it filled the various turtle pieces nicely. I put a pinch of lavender buds into the roving, so it smells as nice as it feels in the hand. My embroidery skills are pretty hit-or-miss, and on Turtle’s face I definitely missed, but his lopsided smirk fits his role as one of the creatures laughing at Toad’s ridiculous swimming costume.
I consider myself much more a hand-knitter than a crocheter, but in this project I enjoyed the crocheting much more than the knitting. The reward for grimly soldiering through the knitting of Frog and Toad and their clothing was crocheting fun little items for the weather in Frog and Toad World. Somewhere along my descent through the rabbit hole I had begun seeing them in overcoats, scarves, and hats for the sledding adventure that Frog dragged Toad out of bed to join him on. That meant that snowflakes were required. I had some very thin white cotton yarn inherited from a former weaver that would make lovely delicate snowflakes. Melissa had a tiny size 10 crochet hook lying around, because people give her their mothers’ old crafting tools when they’re cleaning out their houses and moving them into assisted living. So this pairing of items inherited from past generations came together to make crocheted snowflakes for Frog and Toad World. Of all the many components of Frog and Toad World, the snowflakes were the most enjoyable part. I had never crocheted such fine yarn on such a tiny hook, but the focus required to aim the hook into tiny holes and pull the tiny yarn through the tiny holes transported me to a transcendent state of consciousness. Even the simple and basic snowflake patterns I used looked etherial in this thread-like yarn. Then I stumbled over a free pattern by Svetlana Rogatykh that made my jaw drop.
Svetlana Rogatykh is one of the Russian crafters whose skills occupy the highest echelon of crochet, which is populated mostly by Russian crafters. She also creates stunningly detailed and intricate charts for patterned fabrics in machine knitting. My machine is capable of doing these patterns, but I’m not. I gaped at the acrobatics of this snowflake and wondered how it was done. So I downloaded the free pattern, gaped at the pattern, and wondered how it was done. It was charted, with few words in English, and colored arrows and spiraling lines climbing up and down the stacks of crochet symbols. I have used charted crochet patterns before, but I’d never seen anything like this. Someone on my Ravelry group explained that the arrows, lines, and colors illustrated how the snowflake spikes were built as a scaffolding crocheted back and forth, then crowned with several picots at the top, then the crocheting traveled back down the spike with ledges made at 90 degree angles from each other at the left, front, right, and back on each rung of the scaffolding. Charting this was really the only way to explain how to do it. I put the exploded parts of my brain back inside my head and began crocheting. It took a week, and every stitch felt like I was performing brain surgery, but eventually I made something pretty that looked something like the original version. It wasn’t perfect, so I did another one, and it wasn’t perfect either, but I did it faster and developed a muscle-memory understanding of its structure.
Having accomplished the snowy weather, next up was rainy weather. Melissa had given me an odd skein of gray worsted yarn with a silver lurex thread shot through it. I began seeing it as a raincloud. At first I thought about making a multilayered combination of shell-shaped textured crocheted bullions, but I couldn’t readily make it work and wasn’t committed enough to the idea to keep trying. There are much easier ways to get the idea across, and I found a free pattern for clouds and raindrops on the GoldenLucyCrafts.com website. I didn’t follow the instructions accurately but was satisfied with the asymmetric result since clouds are asymmetrical, and made another cloud that was asymmetric in a different way. Attached together, they represented a very plausible storm cloud. I puzzled a bit about whether I should make raindrops, because these little bits of unattached crocheting would be impossible to keep track of. Then I remembered that back in the spring, I had bought some blue-gray fingering weight yarn with a ply of shiny lurex because I’m planning another blizzard sweater. I decided to attach raindrops to the raincloud with that yarn in crocheted chains of different lengths, and the result looks pretty rainy.
Sun next. I had made a design decision to maintain the color palette of the book’s illustrations, sticking as close as possible to the white, green, dark ochre, and brown-gray yarn that I bought when I first began the pattern. But I didn’t see a way for a circle with little triangles around the circumference to represent as a sun in any of those colors, so I made an exception and used orange cotton that had been sitting around in my stash for the last 30 years. Here’s the pattern I used. It’s very basic but it got the job done. And that was the end of the weather, although I know there’s a white cloud, a gray cloud, and a weather app wind icon around the corner of the rabbit hole. But no, I’ve been in this rabbit hole for six months already and it’s time to get out of it.
I violated my Frog and Toad palette rule a second time when I needle-felted the dragonflies who joined the chorus of derision when Toad finally emerged dripping and shivering from the swimming hole in the ridiculous swimming costume that he didn’t want anyone to look at. I suppose I could have found wool that would have been consistent with the drab palette, but after a summer watching glittering blue and green dragonflies at the frog pond where we walked every day, I couldn’t make a drab dragonfly. I made a paper template and drew around it on the machine-knit fabric I had felted earlier and cut out my first dragonfly. I had two shades of blue roving for the body and wings, green roving for the head, and some hairy black yarn to bind around the body and to suggest the netting of the wings. I used my old-school single felting needles and foam pad, and stabbed and stabbed and stabbed, both sides of the cut-out shape. There’s some blood mixed in with the felted roving. Then I made the second dragonfly, same process, more blood. Later on I learned that there are much better tools on the market, made by Clover, one of which encloses three needles in a pen shape and another tool that encloses five needles in a retractable punch devise, as well as a mat that holds the fabric in place with brush bristles. Here’s the link if you’re curious about their products. I promise I’m not being paid to say nice things about them, but I tested them out on a lavender-filled sachet and now I can’t stop thinking about things I want to needle-felt.
Then it was time to make the plants of Frog and Toad World. The patterns for the flowers and leaves came from 100 Flowers to Knit & Crochet by Lesley Stanfield, a fine book that I recommend highly. I crocheted six flowers using several patterns from this book and six leaves, some knitted, some crocheted. I stuck to the colors of the Frog and Toad palette, although I subsequently dyed a couple of the flowers a pale yellow using a depleted onion skins dye bath.
At this point I had reached the point in the rabbit hole that I had been putting off carrying out, which was knitting additional clothing to outfit some of the adventures in the stories. First, Toad needed trousers, since all he had was his silly bathing costume. Toad is shorter and smaller around than Frog, so I scaled down the pattern’s instructions for Frog’s trousers. I wanted to maintain the palette in the book’s illustrations as closely as I could for the clothing, and according to the illustrations in the book, Toad’s pants were a pale neutral. I knitted the pants in that bright white because that was all I had, but a nice long soak in a bath of used teabags gave the pants a tan corduroy color.
Next was the lost-button jacket. At the beginning of my descent down the rabbit hole, I began thinking about making a button-festooned jacket to recreate the jacket with the missing button that caused Toad to pitch a fit when everyone in the forest began bringing him random buttons, none of which were the one from his jacket. Then he felt bad about his behavior and sewed all the buttons onto the jacket and gave it to Frog by way of apology. When the idea first struck me, I went through my bag of buttons and picked out a bunch of small nondescript buttons. They didn’t match the descriptions in the story, but verisimilitude has its limits. The illustrations of the jacket showed a green cloth with a checked texture, so I used the green yarn and a knit-purl texture pattern in an alternating sequence to suggest the texture of the illustrations. I based this jacket on the instructions and construction method that Kristina provided for Frog’s jacket and adapted the texture pattern to accommodate the numbers in her instructions. When the jacket was knitted I wanted to change the color so that it wasn’t the same as Frog’s skin, since he was going to be the recipient of the jacket. So I made a bath of walnuts in their hulls, which darkened the color to a deep forest green. I talked about how I used plant dyes to change the colors of the flowers, trousers, and jacket in my last post, A Bunch of Oranges.
Toad had trousers, but he had given his jacket to Frog, so I made him another jacket just like the one with the buttons, but this one stayed the original green. Now he could be decently garbed. I could have climbed out of the the rabbit hole then, but ever since I tumbled down it, I had felt a compulsion to outfit the two of them for their sledding adventure, when Frog dragged Toad out of bed one snowy morning, stuffed Toad into winter gear, and the two of them went flying downhill on a sled. The sled hit a bump and Frog fell off the sled, but Toad sailed on, blissfully unaware that Frog was no longer with him until a crow clued him in, which rattled Toad so much that he wiped out.
So Frog and Toad needed overcoats and scarves, and Toad needed a hat. They had boots in the illustrations, but I wasn’t going to try to devise footgear for tiny webbed flaps of fabric. Verisimilitude has its limits. I studied the illustrations closely to figure out how to represent the drawings as closely as possible in yarn. Toad’s coat looked like a light colored fabric with small green flecks. It would have been nice if I had had an oatmeal colored tweed with green bits, but I didn’t. I thought of some complicated ways to get that effect that probably wouldn’t have worked, then I thought of a simple way: marling the white yarn with some greenish-brownish plant-dyed lace-weight yarn. Two yarns held together and knitted on larger needles made my gauge larger, so I was able to use the jacket instructions as they were to make an overcoat that was roomy enough for Toad to wear his jacket underneath. The illustrations for Frog’s overcoat had a design of large squares that suggested quilting for a down coat. There are probably ways I could have replicated that in knitting, but I haven’t gotten that brainstorm. Instead I knitted a low contrast checkerboard in stranded knitting using the ochre-brown and gray-brown yarns of the basic Frog and Toad palette. I used larger needles to get a larger gauge so that I could base the size of the overcoat on the jacket instructions without having to recalculate the numbers.
I approximated the illustrations as closely as I could for the scarves and Toad’s hat. I avoided the problem of dealing with ends for the color changes in Frog’s scarf by unraveling one of the unsuccessful snake attempts and reusing the black and olive multi yarn, which striped when knitted over 10 stitches. It wasn’t really the right colors, but what have I been saying about verisimilitude? Toad’s scarf was reasonably close to the illustrations, although I wish I had made it an inch or two longer. The hat posed a few problems. In the illustrations, the hat is perched on top of his head, just above his eyes. But in real life, Toad’s eyes are pretty much on top of his head and the back of his head is a vertical cliff down to his back. There isn’t anything much for a hat to sit on without covering most of his face. The answer to this and so many other questions was Velcro with an adhesive back. I knitted the hat in green and white yarn from side to side with short rows to give it its conical shape.
So finally I had completed the 40-something components of Frog and Toad World, but I still had an important mission to carry out before I could leave the rabbit hole: the photography. I had outfits, flora and fauna, and weather to depict a number of the stories, and now I needed props so that I could set up the scenes. In keeping with the color scheme, I decided I needed a backdrop of felt in a neutral color like a heather beige, something the dragonflies, flowers, leaves, clouds, sun, and snowflakes could stick to or be pinned to. To represent the snowy hill on which Frog and Toad wiped out, Melissa, my fairy godmother, lent me sparkly tulle left over from past Christmas window displays. Additionally, I needed doll stands to hold Frog and Toad upright, and I couldn’t find anything online that was Frog-and-Toad-sized, but I found something that was cheap and intended for “chubby dolls” and I hoped for the best. I also needed a miniature sled. I searched all over Amazon for a miniature sled Christmas decoration, and I couldn’t find anything that was the right size, a price I wanted to pay, and would get to me on time. My best hope was to glue together some popsicle sticks for a crude little sled that might hold up until I could get my photos, so I also needed popsicle sticks and glue. So I made a list of all the things I could get locally and carried out a surgical strike at Joann Fabric.
The heather beige felt and Melissa’s sparkly tulle were excellent backdrops. But the breakout star of my props was the frame and felt back of my wall art piece, Faces Come Out of the Rain. It’s a very meaningful piece for me, so it felt sacrilegious to turn the art toward the wall and wrap the wood frame in heather beige felt to serve as a stable vertical surface for flowers, clouds, sun, and snowflakes, and its own gray felt backing also served as a backdrop in a couple of the scenes. Sacrilegious, maybe, but it worked. Other props did not work as well. I had to outsmart the doll stands to get anything helpful from them. The sled I glued together wasn’t big enough to hold both Frog and Toad, so that was one more reason why the sledding scenes had to be photographed with Frog lying on his back in the sparkly fabric with Toad headed downhill as if he was fleeing a murder scene. My outtakes look like illustrations of dark unpublished stories, such as my first attempts to depict Frog’s reaction to Toad’s gift of the lost-button jacket. I sent Melissa the picture and asked, “Does Frog look like he’s jumping for joy or as if he’s been pinned to the wall and is dying of crucifixion while Toad gazes on in satisfaction?” The latter, she said. I repinned Frog and tried to smooth out the backdrop. When I stumbled into pictures where Frog looked more overjoyed than crucified, I released Frog and Toad from their torture devices. I did the best I could with what I had.
These are scene recreations that look something like the sweet happy published stories rather than dark murderous unpublished stories.
See? Toad didn’t murder Frog. Frog picks himself up out of the snow.
All is well! Actually, in the story, Toad stomps back to bed after wiping out, but these pictures show off the clothes, accessories, and scenery nicely, so I’m done with verisimilitude.
All the components of Frog and Toad World have been made. The scenes have been staged and the photographs have been taken. The blog post has been written. Now I just have to wrap the package and put it in the mail, which Melissa has offered to help me with before it goes into the mail because she wants to play with F&T World while it’s still here. So finally, I’m climbing out of the rabbit hole and feeling like an empty-nester. Whatever shall I do with my free time? Maybe I should take up a hobby…