In these pre-Christmas days, stitchers everywhere are hastily stuffing sewing boxes behind a sofa pillow whenever a family member makes an unexpected appearance.

It's the ideal time to begin work on Christmas gifts, and the ideal gifts for children -- that even children can make for their friends -- are fuzzy, cuddly creatures in latch-hook. There'll be no end to your inventiveness once you begin working these brightly-colored furred and feathered friends-an owl a worm, a ladybug, a mouse. And after you get the hang of latch-hooking, they can be turned out in Santa Claus-factory fashion, as though you had a team of gnomes at your disposal.

It's best to stick to simple shapes when latch-hooking, and in designing your animals you can't afford to experiment with canvas, since mistakes can prove rather costly. Instead, cut out a "pattern" first in newspaper, and tape it together to work out your sizing. For an owl, say, you could cut out two long U-shapes and an oval for the bottom. Tape them together with masking tape, stuff it with cotton batting, draw in eyes and beak, and there you are! When the latch-hooking is done, the animal will be at least one-fourth larger than the paper pattern because of the thickness of the tufted wool, so allow for this size increase when cutting the pattern.

You may have to cut, untape and trim a few times until you get the pattern right, but once you're satisfied, take it apart and trace around the piece on the canvas, as though you were making a dress pattern. Make sure you've placed the pattern stright on the canvas (the threads should run vertically and horizontally through each piece). Then, rather than cutting the pieces to shap beforehand, do the latch-hooking first.

You'll need to get hold of some pre-cut yarn and a latch-hook, which you can find in most needlework stores. I once made a baby owl nice and speckly by mixing white and beige and working them together on the latch-hook. If you're doing an owl as well, you work black and yellow eyes in big, exaggerated circles or ever add felt eyes afterwards.

If you haven't hooked before, hold the hook in one hand; in the other, hold a strand of yarn. Fold the yarn over the shaft of the latch-hook, making sure that the ends of the yarn are even. (Remberer that the latch of the hook is open.) Hold onto the yarn as you insert the head of the hook under the canvas thread and up into the hole immediately above. Then push the hook forward until the entire latch passes under the thread.

As you pull the hook back toward you, the latch will begin to close, allowing you to lay the ends of the yarn between the latch and the hook. Draw the hook toward you, and the latch will close around both ends of the yarn. Release the yarn, and continue to pull the latch through the canvas. What happens now is the secret: the cut ends of the yarn are pulled through the loop, forming a knot. All you have to do is give a gentle tug to the ends to secure them.

Always work with the knotted part toward you. If you make a mistake, just pull the thread firmly, and knot it in again. Then, when you've finished all the pattern pieces, cut them out with quarter-inch turnbacks, stitch them together, wrong sides facing, and turn right side out. Stuff, and sew up the one remaining seam.

If you're working a mouse, you could add huge cutout pink and gray felt ears and a braided tail. A ladybug could have black felt legs and antennae; a worm, long shaggy eyelashes, using sregular uncut yarn worked in longer loops than those of the pre-cut yarn. In fact, you could even buy rug wool and cut it yourself to vary your texture and "levels" of fur. You could do a marvelous old English sheepdog with lovely long hair flopping over his eyes and longer than that on his body -- true to the real thing!

Of course, no column on latch-hook would be complete without reminding you of that clever hint sent in by a reader. Rather than picking up each piece of pre-cut yarn and measuring each individually, take three strands at at time and wrap them around the shaft of the latch hook. Then, one by one, move the pieces of yarn to the left, over the latch, and pull them into the canvas. If you use this handy little trick, your latchhooking will go so fast that you'll have a whole family of animals when the time comes for them to perch under the Christmas tree.

Q: My daughter recently turned to needlepoint for relaxation. I felt she started with a difficult piece, however -- an intricate design in persian yarn. sAs she advanced down the canvas in one particular area, the strings of the canvas kept getting closer and closer together until she couldn't separate the persian yarn (three strands) into two strands for working. I can't see anything she did wrong. I tried doing it myself and it almost seems like the canvas squares are too small or the wool is incorrect. Can you give us any advice?

A: The general rule is that No. 14 canvas takes two threads, No. 12 take two or three, depending on how loosely you stitch, and No. 10 takes all three strands. Standard canvas sizes are almost as hard to grade as egg sizes, so the best way is to always work at least a square inch before you begin to see how many threads are ideal. Always use fewer rather than more -- if you have gaps you can always go back and add more, but if it's too thick there's nothing you can do.