Photos courtesy of Thea de Bruin
Don’t you love seeing the world? Especially when you don’t have to leave your front porch or find short-term parking at the airport! The fantastic thing about travelogues is that they let us combine the beauty of sightseeing with the ease of catalogue shopping! That’s what is so fun about this series of global jaunts. We just have to click on the link and — alliteration alert — we’re getting great glimpses at sensational, soulful studios. This week’s stop is the workshop of Dutch artist Thea de Bruin. She’s the amazing artist who creates critters for Milly Me Designs. So, get out your cyber Plush Passport and let’s get it stamped once more: the Netherlands, here we go!
Thea made her first bear during a two-day class in the spring of 2008. For three years — from 2018 to 2011, she experimented with how she could perfect her craftsmanship: “What type of mohair do I like to work with? How do I design a bear and its proportions? I literally tried several techniques and I spent hours upon hours trying to find out what kind of style I want to design and make. By far, I think this is the most important aspect in teddy bear making, if you want to make creations with a distinctive character!”
Before immersing herself in the ursine universe, Thea had achieved great success in the doll world. She was well-known in the reborn baby-doll movement. “I designed handmade reborn baby outfits and sold them through my website. It was while visiting the doll and teddy bear shows in Holland that I fell in love with teddy bear’s faces. More and more I was drawn toward bear making. Many of my skills were obtained and developed in my childhood, and now they all came together. Whether it is about sewing, embroidering, knitting, crocheting, working with metal and wood, I use it all.”
As a young child, Thea had an enormous attraction to the world of fantasy creatures and enchanting storybooks. She longed to be a part of that make-believe realm. “As a young child, I lived in my own fairyland. I played endlessly with my dolls and bears, and they seemed real to me. I grew up with a needle in my hand, thanks to my mother who was a wonderful seamstress. A great part of my childhood was spent sitting cross-legged on the floor, cutting and stitching tiny clothes for my dolls and bears. Nowadays, I still work like this — it’s as if nothing has changed. Even until today, I still live in a kind of fairy-tale land, creating teddy bears and friends.“
The allure of being inventive, imaginative, and innovative has always been a magnet for Thea. She is a true visionary so the bear world lets her imagination run free: “One of my challenges is to think like an adult but to act like a kid. Adults who are trying to be creative face a lot of creative roadblocks along the way. There are rules about what is and what isn’t allowed, how we’re supposed to behave and not. Those rules are there for a reason ( I don’t say that they are bad), but they can inhibit your creativity.”
Thea’s work routine blends the agility of a circus tightrope walker with a vaudeville juggler. She’s able to balance the requirements of adult responsibilty with childhood joyfulness: “I try to use as much of my natural intelligence as an adult as possible, and sometimes I really try to act like a kid. To maintain the wonder that I had when I was a young child who could play with her dolls and bears is endlessly facinating. It may be hard to encapsulate in words, but when a bear or rabbit touches a heart, it can be magical.”
With a heart filled with pride and gratitude, Thea continues her costume dreaming and designing. She fashions all her bears, bunnies and their pals from hand. “I make them with endless love and care. And I try to have a great eye for detail definition. I enjoy this so much,” Thea writes to me. “I take a lot of pride in my work, and I spend hours upon hours to give each of my creations their own personality and lovely designed clothes.”
When Thea first began to make her bears, they had a modern and contemporary flair. Over time, she found her preferred style: a more nostalgic and vintage flavor. “I love antique toys. I’m always looking for antique supplies and I collect vintage laces and ribbons. I have boxes full and I’m never satisfied. They are treasures from the past,” Thea reveals. “I really enjoy opening the boxes and looking for that particular piece of lace that suits the bear the best. Believe me, this can take ages. Having lots of lace and ribbons doesn’t make it any easier. But I really love to look into boxes, pick a nice range of ribbons and lace, and try to fiddle out which one I will use for my newest piece.”
Her creations have been acquired by bear enthusiasts around the globe — “My pieces have found homes in the United States, Australia, England, Germany, everywhere around the world” — and her collectors liken their orders to “Christmas morning every day! When collectors have bought several pieces, they feel like little children on Christmas Eve when their parcels arrive. They tell me that they like to tear it apart to get at their new bear! Sometimes it takes my collectors forever to do this. I am famous for my packing!”
Thea admits that she sometimes finds it difficult to pack up her creations and send them on their way. She has grown attached to them while they’ve shared her studio space, her mind-set, and her soul.
“Sometimes I find it very hard to say good-bye to a piece that took me a lot of time to complete. If you work on a piece for a long time, it creates a kind of chemistry between me and the piece that I bring to life,” Thea wrote to me. “I feel very proud when I receive feedback from the collector to let me know how happy she or he is with the new addition to their collection. I hope that every single bear or rabbit I have made will bring hugs and smiles to the new owner for many years to come. That is my sincere wish!”
If Thea de Bruin had to sum up her career and her mission, how would she boil it down to a few sentences? “The basic techniques to make a teddy bear are not difficult. But I love to challenge myself to try not to make the same design over and over again. I always ask myself this question: ‘Do you want to make an original design or one of the many?’ It is very easy to follow the crowd, but in my case I want to challenge myself with new designs and techniques. I’m a big fan of anyone who dares to be different.”