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How to Make a Dog Bed Even if You Barely Know How to Sew

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When my boyfriend Winfield (real first name) returned to New York after this past Christmas with his 9-year-old labrador Lee (real girl name) by his side, the shopping list of required supplies ran long: dog food, toe nail clippers, water bowl, tennis balls, poop bags, day care, a Bordetella shot, and a bed just to get started. Thing is, Lee's only in New York for a month-long visit-adventure before she returns to Nashville and her concrete-free, house-and-backyard life.

So was it really necessary to buy all new stuff? (Here's looking at you, ugly/expensive therapeutic dog bed selection...) I wanted her to have the memory foam of dog beds, something absurdly comfy, but it felt ridiculous to splurge on a fancy oversized pillow. I don't think anyone was surprised at all that I decided to make her one instead.

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Lee the labrador atop her homespun throne.
Lee the labrador atop her homespun throne. Photo by Rocky Luten

Winfield surfaced two overstuffed pillows from his closet that could stand in for (and be much comfier than batting or foam), and I scouted out a fabric store in my neighborhood. My mother once stitched up custom slipcovers for our dogs' beds at home, but I didn't inherit her skill with a sewing machine (YET). This project would be all needle and thread.

Turns out, a dog bed is just a giant rectangle! Fold your fabric in half (inside out) around a pair of pillows, sew along the two short sides, flip fabric right-side out, and attach a zipper to the remaining side if you're feeling ambitious (and if simple projects make you wish to complicate them).

Here's how I made the above dog bed—good for a medium-sized pup, a small pup who thinks she is large, or a large pup who sleeps curled up like a cat—step by step:

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Photo by Rocky Luten

What you'll need:

  • 2 big, squishy, Queen-sized pillows (same make and model unless you want a lopsided bed)
  • 2 yards of 60-inch-thick washable fabric (I used cotton upholstery fabric)
  • Long ruler or yardstick (optional, but helpful)
  • Straight pins
  • Hand-sewing thread, which is thicker than sewing machine thread
  • Needle
  • Scissors
  • Long zipper (the one I used was about 40 inches)
  • Seam-ripper (optional)

1. Choose your fabric.

The swirly-pattered brown fabric you see above was suggested by the owner of Gizmo Notion, a small East Village sewing shop near my home, who encouraged me to choose something thick, soft, durable, and washable: Upholstery fabric fit that bill. This design was far from my favorite, but out of his small selection it had a few distinct merits: a large scale pattern, which would make sewing straight lines easier and coloring that would disguise black dog hair.

You'll also want to look for fabric with a selvage, or finished edge (below, on the right side), which will make it easier to sew straight.

Yes, upholstery fabric is really fancy for your dog's bed, but at about $13 per yard of the 60-inch roll, I was happy to pay for two yards of it—and outside of Manhattan I bet you can find it for even less.

Trimming excess fabric makes hand sewing easier; just be sure not to trim away too much!
Trimming excess fabric makes hand sewing easier; just be sure not to trim away too much! Photo by Rocky Luten

2. Plan out, measure, and trim your fabric.

Clear a large work space and lay your fabric flat. Set the two pillows atop it, positioned so the two short ends are side by side along a cut edge of the fabric. Now, nudge them over so that the long edge of one is near the selvage edge, as in the fancy diagram below.

Fold the rest of the fabric in half over the pillows, encasing them. That fold is your first completed edge—congrats!

Now trim away excess fabric as indicated below, taking care to leave about 6 inches around every side of the pillows (which you can think of now as a unit). Discard (or find another use for!) the fabric scraps.

How to line up your pillows and trim your fabric.
How to line up your pillows and trim your fabric.

Do you like how this side of the fabric looks on the outside? Decide for sure now. To me, the lighter side of my fabric would be more versatile in a room, but consider the color of the dog hair you'll be dealing with and which side will mask it best.

2. Flip the fabric so it's folded inside-out around the pillows.

Flip the fabric so the side you like best is the one touching the pillows. You'll be sewing two of the seams this way before turning the case right-side out, which will render that stitching invisible. Just an everyday sewing miracle.

See below: That dark brown is the side I eventually want on the inside of the case.

3. Pin the fabric along the short sides of the bed.

With the fabric folded over the pillows, you're presented with three sides that need sewing: two short and another long (where the zipper will go).

Position yourself in front of one of the short sides, ideally the one that features that finished selvage edge, and pin the two pieces of fabric together right up against the edge of the pillow using straight pins. Be sure not to pin the pillow! This line of pins is where you'll sew.

Pin along one side of the pillows, mark on the opposite side how taut you want the fabric, then remove pillows and pin that side, too. Photos by Rocky Luten

If you keep the edges of the fabric lined up as you go and use its pattern as a guide, it's fairly easy to pin a straight line without measuring. And since this is a dog bed, it doesn't need to be precisely straight—just mostly.

Massage your pillows so they’re taut against the newly pinned line and there's no dip in the fabric between them—being down pillows, they'll squish when your pup sits on them, but you want the case relatively snug—then mark this most perfect plumpness with a single pin in the middle of the opposite side.

Remove the pillows, smooth the folded fabric flat, and complete the line of straight pins where you just marked one, using the pattern or a t-square ruler to keep it relatively straight (see above, right).

All together now:

4. Sew where your pins are.

Using a long sturdy needle and a running stitch, sew along each line of pins, one at a time (see below, left). Remove the pins as you get to them, and tie off the ends with knots.

5. Flip right-side out.

Be sure every last pin is removed, and flip your fabric right side out (see below, right). Voilà—three sides complete!

Sew along the two pinned sides, then flip inside out. Photos by Rocky Luten

Stuff the pillows back in and marvel at how far you've come (invite your dog over to test-drive the bed/nap with you before readying yourself to attach this zipper).

6. Attach the zipper.

Zippers comes with a piece of fabric attached to each side (the black parts of this zipper), which are normally hidden on the inside of the fabric. To keep things simple and to add a graphic punch to this slightly-granny fabric, I decided to affix the zipper by stitching it to the outside of the bed—that way, the black strips are fully visible.

Pin the zipper where you want it, then sew to the top piece of fabric first. Photos by Rocky Luten

Pin the zipper to the top piece of fabric (see above, left), taking care to consider where it should go to sit right on the side of the dog bed (though if it ends up slightly wonky your dog will not mind). As with before, this can be a little bit measured and a lot bit estimated.

Now, attach the zipper to the dog bed by stitching one side of its fabric right on top of the bed fabric (see above, right). You'll want to use a whip stitch—which means pushing the needle through both pieces of fabric in one direction, over and over, so the thread wraps around the zipper fabric at an angle on the seam.

Here is a fancy diagram of the whip stitch:

Whip it good.
Whip it good.

As evidenced above, your thread will show, but that’s fine because you got thread that's the color of your fabric, right? (If not, no matter, this is a dog bed and a few visible seams will look cool.)

When you've attached one entire size of the zipper to the top piece of fabric, knot and snip the end of your thread.

Remove the pillow—yes, again! You're almost there. Once the pillows are out, tuck in the edges of the fabric on this side so that the zipper reaches to the other piece, like so:

With one side of the zipper attached, flip the loose ends of fabric in and fold the zipper over them to secure it to the opposite side. Photos by Rocky Luten

Still with me? Now you're going to fold the zipper over that opening and pin it in place on the other side using straight pins (see below, left).

Once the zipper is securely pinned you can unzip it (see below, right), which feels very scary and exciting all at once! Flip the dog bed over so the pinned side is facing you, and sew it to the bed using the same whip stitch as before.

Attach the zipper to the far side with pins and unzip before sewing that side of it, too. Photos by Rocky Luten

Once both sizes of the zipper are sewed on, you're basically done. Take a minute to let your dog give you a few congratulatory licks in the face, then put the pillows back and zip it up—weeee!—to be sure everything's in place. On either end of the zipper, there might be some extra fabric, which you can either tuck inside the bed covertly or sew shut as you please.

Dog bed made of pillows with a very trendy exposed zipper.
Dog bed made of pillows with a very trendy exposed zipper. Photo by Rocky Luten

If you're happy with how it looks (or happy enough not to go back and start over on one of those seams), remove the pillows, flip it inside out, and trim all the excess fabric right up about 1/4 inch from the seams. If you're fabric threatens to fray at all, use a little glue on all these edges. (This is especially important on the edges near the zipper, as strayed fabric can impede the zipping process.)

To be completely transparent, I sewed Lee's bed over the course of 3 days by just putting in an hour or so every afternoon. If you never have intentions of washing the bed (but, but!) you could skip the zipper altogether—however I'd give it a go if you're at all averse to lingering dog-smell.

Lee loves hers, sleeping curled up on it like a cat, and I've actually come around to liking the fabric just because she enjoys it so much.

Photo by Rocky Luten

Tags: dogs, pets, sewing, stitching, weekend projects