Elephant Bell Totas and the Humbled Artist

Elephant string decoration India

I typed the words into Google image search and began studying pages featuring photos depicting the folk craft item like the one that had caught my attention at the Indian restaurant from which we had just returned.

This is how it starts. Something pretty or clever catches your eye and your mind forms the thought, “I could make that.” Then you spend over 40 hours researching, experimenting, perfecting, and completing a project that would have cost you $20 or less from most online stores. Reason means nothing when the artist’s ego is at stake.

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Internet research taught me that bell totas are an Indian folk craft featuring a string of multi-colored fabric animals (usually elephants or birds) with a bell at the end of the string which hangs near a door. This energy-efficient doorbell is guaranteed to work unlike my electric doorbell which seems to have good days and bad days. The ringing bell is said to wards off evil spirits. So it’s even better than my electric doorbell! You can read more about bell totas here.

I spent a significant amount of time unsuccessfully seeking a pattern or instructions on how to make one of these elephant bell totas. My lack of success here may have done me some good. I was forced to create my own elephant pattern. I had never before tried to sew such a complex three dimensional shape. There was some trial and error involved in this process.

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Mel: Well, I’m sure nobody makes a good elephant on their first try.

Kate: Damn. Up to just now I thought I did a good job.

Mel: (Raises one eyebrow and walks away)

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Mel: Your rhinoceros doesn’t look too bad.

Kate: (Doesn’t even bother stuffing elephant number two.)

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Third time’s a charm.

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I tend to work assembly line style.

Step 1: Cut all the pieces
Step 2: Sew all the cut pieces
Step 3: Stuff all the elephants
Step 4: Accessorize all the elephants
Step 5: String the elephants together

It sounds easy.

Cutting the pieces went fairly well.

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Sewing the elephants together proved to be a bit more of a challenge than I care to admit. I chose to use some free fabric scraps I obtained from the Missouri Botanical Garden’s 2015 Lantern Festival.

The women in my quilters group often avoided certain fabrics because such fabrics tended to ‘travel’ as one tries to sew them together. I always understood this to mean that the fabric moved about a bit making it difficult to sew. With this project, I understand the true meaning of ‘traveling’ fabric. This free lantern fabric not only moves about, it stretches, changes shape, and even unravels. I went near mad trying to sew tiny elephants. Furthermore, I did not really improve as I sewed one elephant after another. Some I messed up so bad, I had to cut more fabric pieces and try again. My assembly line plan fell apart on step two and I started to just work on whatever I felt like whenever I could.

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Because I always have this underlying goal of utilize free or toss away materials, I decided to use plastic grocery bags to fill tiny elephants. I cut the bags into tiny strips and then slowly stuff these strips into the open gut of the elephant using a knitting needle to push the material into the trunk, into the legs, or wherever elephant fattening was needed. Stuffing the elephants was not difficult, but incredibly time consuming. I busied myself with this activity as I binge watched an entire season of American Horror Story.

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Adding ears and accessorizing elephants was by far the easiest task associated with this project. I finished most of this task while my family and I enjoyed the unseasonably warm weather at January Wabash Park.

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Finally, I could string the elephants together.

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I have many unfinished projects sitting around my home. I work on things here and there; in no real hurry to finish them. Sometimes I loose interest in a line of work and I just give up on projects entirely. Why was it so important for me to finish this project which took up so much of my time and could be purchased so cheaply? I don’t know if I can really answer that. . . But this seemingly simple project has left me a much more humble artist.

My mom once told me a long time ago that elephant symbols with raised trunks showered luck upon people. It was indeed lucky that I actually finished this project.

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