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.

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64.

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.

COL­LEC­TORS’ EDI­TION

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.”

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