Honor your genealogy with a family heirloom bear from Bracken Bears.
It was love at first sight—there for the world to see, blatantly in a centerfold spread, begging to be mine. How could I resist those cheeky brown eyes peeking through spiky, blond hair? Could this aristocratic beast want to be mine? Would he be interested in me? The answers were just a phone call away. After the first ring, a cheerful voice answered: “Hello, Susan here! How can I help you?”
“I’d like to buy one of your family heirloom bears,” I said. “I read all about him in a magazine.” The next part of the conversation was a blur. In an uncharacteristic impulse, I’d given Susan everything required to order a family heirloom bear but had to wait four weeks because she had three orders ahead of mine. But the day finally arrived to pick up my bear.
On the coastline of northeast England, in a town called Redcar, there’s a red brick century-old house wherein lives Susan Chester, a multitalented bear artist with an unusual idea. When I knocked on the door of her home, Susan—friendly, with brown, curly hair and sparkling blue-gray eyes—greeted me warmly.
“Come in,” she said, leading me through her home, jammed with teddies of every shape and color, artfully arranged on chairs, shelves and tables, and stuffed into every nook and cranny imaginable. “Tea? Coffee?” she asked. “Coffee,” I answered.
As we sat in her country kitchen, warming our hands on cups of steaming coffee, I was anxious to learn about Susan’s novel enterprise, Bracken Bears, and to ask her questions that like-minded teddy designers and collectors may be interested in. This energetic entrepreneur was eager to share her bear-creating experiences with others, to describe how it seeded and sprouted, and her future plans.
How long have you been collecting teddy bears?
About 25 years. My first teddy arrived on my third birthday from my grandmother. He was called “Bracken Bear.” We were inseparable until a neighbor’s dog savagely shredded him—so I named my bear-making company in his memory.
Later in life I owned my own shop and I ordered in some really cute bears. There was one in particular that I couldn’t part with. It reminded me of my first Bracken Bear. When people came into my shop wanting to buy him, I found all kinds of excuses not to sell him. He initiated my present teddy bear collection of over 200 bears.
What triggered the change in direction from collecting bears to creating them?
I was at a family gathering one day, looking at old photographs of ancestors going as far back as the great, great grandparents. We pored over our old family bible where births, marriages and deaths had been recorded for over 200 years. I was very moved by this experience—the thought of our ancestors touching these items touched me deeply.
Later on, as I reflected on that family reunion, I looked around at my teddy collection and thought, “What do I have to pass along to my children and grandchildren? Why am I buying all these bears when I could make them myself?”
Did that inspire you to create your own heirloom bear?
Yes. The idea of making an heirloom bear to be passed along from one generation to the next, like the old photograph albums and the family bible, excited and inspired me. A traditional bear was forming in my mind, with golden, slightly worn fur. The concept of a bear with the owner’s name and family crest on the footpads came to me in those revealing moments! The family heirloom bear idea was born. My passion for drawing, sewing, genealogy research and bear collecting tied the whole idea up into one neat, fluffy package.
It’s obvious you have a passion for making bears. What is the most interesting part of the bear-creation process?
Putting his head and face together, because for me that’s when he comes to life. Each face ends up with its own unique character, although I’m not exactly sure how it happens.
When making your bears, what gives you that “rush”: the journey itself or the finished product?
I enjoy the flow of ideas and actions that work toward creating my bears. As I’m working on a particular bear, my mind explores other bear creations and their possibilities. The whole thing is very exciting!
Was it difficult to find the materials you needed to create your bears?
Nothing is ever plain sailing for me. I found the basic supplies in England, but the most important thing—the fur—was a huge problem. Although I found mohair samples locally, none matched the picture in my imagination. I described to my local supplier what I wanted, the gold color from one sample and the texture of “sparse” mohair from another. He queried the German manufacturers, who agreed to combine the attributes of both samples, providing I purchased a full roll. I’m not prone to buying something as expensive as this, sight unseen, but the gamble paid off because it was the exact color and texture I’d envisioned.
I’m sure most readers will be interested about the production process.
The territory was a little unfamiliar at first, so there was some guesswork involved, but with a drafting and dressmaking background and some natural artistic flair, I had the basic skills set needed. Creating the initial pattern was quite simple. I tried it in cotton first to make sure everything fit together properly and was pleasing to the eye. Then after applying the fitting adjustments I made the master pattern.
The pattern pieces for the head, body and limbs are cut out of mohair and the footpads and paws out of suede. I make the head first, along with his safety-button eyes. The body is assembled next, complete with my logo and contents tag. Then I do the arms and legs.
Before final assembly, my logo, the owner’s family name and crest are applied to the footpads. Once the joints are in place and he’s completely stuffed, he becomes a real teddy bear who can sit, stand and lay down, just like a teddy should. After the bow is tied around his neck, he’s ready to be packed into his own special box, snuggled in acid-free tissue paper, [along with] a simulated parchment document and his record book.
What sets your family heirloom teddy apart from others?
Mine are unique. They are the only bears embellished with the customer’s surname and her coat of arms. Every one of my bears has his own record book (copyrighted idea), similar to the logbook that accompanies every car in England that records all the owners, past and present, of that particular vehicle.
I’d love to think my family heirloom bears will be loved by each owner and passed down through the generations. Every owner will have her name printed in the bear’s record book, and on the first page the owner inserts a photograph of herself. On the second page she enters her name, date and address. There are lines underneath for future owners as it’s passed from one generation to the next.
I understand you used to draw people’s pets. Did this help you to design your bears?
Probably. Drawing animals as a professional artist helped me visualize the bear’s form, which assisted with the pattern-making process.
If you had a crystal ball, what would you like to see happen in your future?
For my family heirloom bears to make people happy. I hope the owners of my bears will recommend them to their friends so that I can continue producing them for a very long time. Looking way into the future, I dream of future generations taking their family heirloom bears to the Antiques Roadshow.
Do you have plans for another original bear?
Yes, I do. A curly, girly granny bear has crossed my mind, wearing an apron with a family tree on it. I haven’t figured out the details yet, but I’m working on them.
A Bear Bequest
As I thanked Susan for her hospitality, she placed my family heirloom bear into my arms. He was so beautiful I wanted to touch him and cuddle him, but it was time for me to go. She nestled him into his tissue-lined box, complete with his documentation. Smiling, she handed the box to me.
I hesitated before waving goodbye. I thought about buying bears for my grandchildren, but common sense prevailed—not for long, though. Before the door had closed, the words spilled out uncontrollably: “How long will it take you to make four more bears?”
Susan Chester’s heirloom bears have a $50 nonrefundable deposit, with the balance to be paid before delivery. Contact the artist at 6 Hill St., Redcar, Yorkshire, TS10 1BU, England or 441-642-493370.