Bear artists are experimenting with a wide variety of fabrics and furs, to the delight of collectors everywhere.
While there are benefits to following tradition, sometimes it’s good to break away from the norm. Whether you are a bear collector or a soft-sculpture artist, trying something new can be exciting! With the multitude of unique bear-making fabrics available, diversifying one’s collection is easier than ever before. You may have to step out of your comfort zone, but you will surely be glad you did. And, let’s face it, as long as Teddy is with you, aren’t you always in your “comfort zone”?
Ever since Richard Steiff fashioned the first jointed teddy bear from mohair more than a century ago, bear makers have continued to create teddies from this traditional fabric. New colors and styles of mohair have expanded artists’ options, but many bear makers are now experimenting with other materials. Mohair bears will always have a special place in collectors’ and artists’ hearts, but bears and soft-sculpture animals made of everything from denim to faux fur, synthetic plush to Japanese silk, are a great complement to these traditional teddies—and a fun challenge for artists.
Art Rogers of Chatham Village Bears in St. Louis is one artist who isn’t afraid to stretch his imagination by trying new fabrics. He constructs his unique teds not only from mohair (because it is a “versatile and sturdy fabric available in a great variety of colors, textures and lengths”), but also from various types of synthetic plush, as well as rayon, Ultrasuede, upholstery fabric, velvet and an assortment of other recycled furs and fabrics (typically from coats and blankets). He even created a series of bears made of Ultrasuede that he gilded with 22-karat gold leaf.
“I am always looking for a new fabric,” he says. “To be really creative I need to have a wide range of fabrics and materials in stock. I never know where a design might lead, and if I am well stocked I am sure to be able to find the right fabric for my design. I would not be happy making the same design repeatedly with the same fabric. There is nothing creative about that. My collectors are always looking for something new to add to their collections.”
Bear artist Karin Jehle of Lovable Fellows in Stuttgart, Germany, agrees with Rogers. “I think collectors are attracted by new and rare styles and materials. It is a challenge to see whether I can create a bear with character made from unusual materials.”
Jehle crafts the majority of her bears from mohair, but collectors will also find her teddies fashioned from alternative fabrics such as denim, alpaca, vintage rayon and antique silk/rayon velvet. She sometimes uses wool to make felted faces and paw pads, and she has used Fimo clay to mold bear faces.
Rogers, too, enjoys using nontraditional materials for his animals’ ears, noses, paw pads and such. He also adds detail to the face or paw pads by incorporating needle felting into his designs. He especially likes mixing mohair with non-mohair fabrics on the same bear or animal. “Using a variety of fabrics in one design can give it more interest and character,” he says.
When Rogers first started making bears in 1997, mohair was the fabric for making bears. “Synthetic was a bad word, maybe because there were very few great synthetics available at that time,” he says. Over the years, quality synthetic fabrics have become more available and are now offered in innumerable colors and patterns. “Mohair is still the choice fabric today, but artists are more open to experimenting with a variety of fabrics than ever before. Synthetic plush is widely used these days, and some artists prefer it.”
Jehle has also noticed that the selection of unique materials has grown. “When I began making bears in 1994 in Germany, it was more difficult to get high-quality fabrics than today,” she says. “In the middle ’90s a typical fabric-sample book contained about ten different fabrics; today there are about 300. There are also many more shops and suppliers today.”
Miniature-bear artist Berta Hesen-Minten of ThreadTeds in the Netherlands concurs. “There are more synthetic fabrics available, for mini and big bears. Being synthetic does not mean it is not as good as mohair. Many synthetic fabrics are even higher quality,” she opines. “Artists are always looking for what is new and different. There are plenty of choices for all kinds of bears and animals. Needle felting and crochet are also totally accepted as a part of bear making and collecting.”
Due to her diminutive designing, Hesen-Minten rarely works with mohair. She is always on the lookout for new and unusual materials to create her tiny teds. She recently discovered a nylon extra-long-pile miniature-bear fabric and loves the results. In addition to microfiber, vintage rayon and Japanese silk, she uses various yarns and wools for crocheting and needle felting her bears. When she finds a fabric she is particularly fond of, she makes sure to stock up on it, and often shares her finds with other mini-bear artists so they, too, can enjoy the new material.
“My love for bear making, and trying new things, will always have me seeking new materials, mediums and techniques—no matter if it is with crochet, needle felting or making bears in fabric,” Hesen-Minten says. “I love to try every fiber that is new and different, and as long I do it with enthusiasm, it will always result in new, unique and loved teddy bears.”
As the variety and quality of non-mohair materials continues to grow, it is exciting to imagine just what teddy artists will use in their future creations.