Emma Johnson heads to Shropshire to make some furry friends.
The British teddy bear industry has always been strong, but as traditional skills are replaced by modern production methods, there is one brand determined to keep the focus on its classic roots. Emma johnson heads to Shropshire to make some furry friends.
CREATED IN BOTH GERMANY and the US at the start of the 20th century, and named after President Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt, the teddy bear’s journey to Britain came shortly after, when brands such as Farnell, W J Terry, Chad Valley and Harwin & Co started manufacturing bears for the British public. Early teddy bears were very realistic, with a focus on replicating the look of a real bear and they can still be identified by their longer snouts, small, dark eyes, more rigid feel and often coarse hair. As time moved on their features changed to accentuate ‘cuter’ looks – bigger eyes, softer paws, shorter noses and a variety of textiles becoming commonplace. Sadly, nearly all these early brands have now stopped producing bears and most of the production of British brands happens overseas, but the British fascination with teddy bears continues. The world’s first teddy bear museum was opened in Hampshire in 1984, while another in Ripon, North Yorkshire contains over 100 bears and is the place to see the likes of Sooty and the original Paddington Bear! While increasing demand has meant traditional skills have had to make way for modernity for many of the sought-after brands, one British teddy bear brand has stayed true to its heritage roots, still producing bears in the original factory it began trading in from 1930. Gordon Holmes, owner of a mohair spinning mill in Yorkshire, recognised an opportunity to make soft toys from the special Angora fleece he was producing – and his vision started with big aspirations. He wanted to make the very finest bears that would be cherished by children and adults for generations to come.
Holmes discovered a beautiful brick foundry building in the heart of Shropshire, and, with the help of a small team of highly skilled local seamstresses, Merrythought was born. This original workshop remains the brand’s home to this day, an enchanting place where each soft toy is expertly brought to life using luxury materials and traditional craftsmanship, handed down through the four generations of the small family business. “We are extremely proud of our British heritage,” explains Sarah Holmes, the greatgranddaughter of the founder. “It is not only central to our brand, but important to our customers. We are the only company still manufacturing the classic English teddy bear in the UK, something that means a lot to us and our customers.” Only soft toys of the highest quality are allowed to carry the trusted Merrythought label, and the process of producing each one to timeless specifications is intricate and requires highly skilled craftsmen. Each piece of a bear (around 20pcs) is carefully cut out, then sewn together inside out to give two arms, two legs, a head and body. The safety eyes are added, and each part of the bear is then ‘turned’ the right way around, so they are ready for stuffing. The limbs and head are filled to just the right density, but the tummy is left empty to allow the arms, legs and head to have joints added, after which they are attached securely to the empty body. This ‘floppy’ bear then goes through a second stuffing phase, at which point a bean-bag and/or ‘growl’ box may also be added. Now fully assembled, the bear will have his back neatly sewn closed and his nose and smile hand-embroidered onto his muzzle – a process which has ensured that no two Merrythought bears are the same, each one taking on their own personality, depending on the expression they are given. The bear is then thoroughly combed, brushed and trimmed, before the final finishing touch of a silky satin ribbon tied neatly around his neck.
BEST OF BRITISH
We pride ourselves on using only the very best quality materials, and try to source from within the UK wherever possible,” explains Holmes. Staying true to making its teddy bears the traditional way, the brand still uses pure mohair from the Angora goats as
the main outer material, something which really sets a Merrythought teddy bear apart from more mass-produced teddy bears, which are generally made from synthetic plush such as polyester and acrylic. Each bear is named after an old British town or city - ‘London Gold’, its most iconic teddy bear, has been a flagship character in the collection for several decades, while ‘Shrewsbury’, with his sweet smile, truly timeless design and British racing green ribbon, has recently overtaken London Gold as the most popular design, in terms of sales. Limited editions are also a regular feature, and there have been plenty of opportunities over the years for creative diversions. The brand was not only Fortnum & Mason’s ‘Supplier of the Year’ in 2011, but at the same time won the contract to make the official range of London 2012 Olympic teddy bears, and just a year later were commissioned by The Royal Collection to make a limited-edition teddy bear to celebrate the arrival of Prince George – they gave No. 1 of the limited-edition bear to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Despite the significant changes in the technology and design of other toys, Merrythought count themselves lucky that the classic teddy bear has always had its place in the hearts of the British public. In recent years, Holmes explains, there has started to be a bit of a revival for traditional toys in general, with old-fashioned wooden toys and games also returning to the high street. “I think this is in part due to the oversupply of cheap, ‘throw away’ toys,” she says, which have perhaps encouraged some parents to look for toys with more substance and longevity. “A Merrythought teddy bear, for instance, is an investment and a companion for life, and its real charm is in the timeless nature of its design and how it has been made. It is an exquisite piece of British heritage to cherish and pass on to the next generation.”