We always look forwards to a Hugglets festival, but last September was particularly exciting because we were about to meet Train Engine Driver Bear for the first time. You see, last year my mum asked Whittle Le Woods to do a commission for her; a bear in a 1950s/60s style train engine uniform, to represent her father. The artists, Irene and Mike Whittle were very happy to do so, and over the following six months were in frequent correspondence with us, providing fabric samples, along with prop and design suggestions. Although we had seen pictures of the bear in progress, we were finally going to be able to see our engine driver in his finished state. And we couldn't have been happier. He was exquisitely made, from his mohair fur right down to the little smudge stains on his uniform.
While Mum was smitten with her 'daddy bear', I admired all the other bears Irene and Mike had made. I immediately fell for Rusty, who wore a rusty coloured duffle coat. Unfortunately they were unable to make as many as usual because just a couple of months before, they had been a car accident that left them suffering from severe whiplash. Their injuries left them unable to produce as much work. I can only hope that they have made a full recovery for this year's Winter Bear Fest, which takes place at Kensington Town Hall on the 25th February between 10:30am - 4pm. Anyone who arrives early to queue, will receive complimentary chocolates. Entry is £4 for adults and for the first time, entry is free for under 16s. You can, however, get in free, by simply registering to the Hugglets website.
This year's Winter Bear Fest marks a day of change, as September's event saw the retirement of the founders, Irene and Glenn Jackman from the main scene. They will still be in the background in an advisory capacity and launching a new website called 'Teddypedia', but the festival itself will now be run and organised by Sebastian Marquardt and Tom Wellhausen, whose Germany company runs the world's largest teddy bear fair, TeddyBär Total and the Golden George bear artist competition. If this new partnership will bring any changes to the format of Hugglets, I do not know, but it will be interesting to see how things develop from now on.
Mum and I usually arrive at 11am, and bang on schedule, we walked through the doors into the foyer, where Dot Bird was back in her rightful place. Last February she had to cancel her appearance, but it was good to see her back again. Dot performs marvellous sympathetic restorations of pre-1960s bears, and there was a queue of collectors waiting to book an appointment at her teddy bear hospital.
After we picked up our much-loved Train Engine Driver Bear, we began our formal roam of the halls, of which there are four, spread across three floors. We first stopped off at The Old Bear Company, and were very taken with a Steiff polar bear from 1901. It had an elegant long neck and narrow head, but being over a hundred years old meant it also came with a £1000 price tag, and thus went back on the shelf. Not long afterwards I saw the same style polar bear at Antique Toy Box. This bear was from 1912 and over £2000. I hate to think how much the life size teddy bear next to him cost, but it was within someone's budget, as it had a 'sold' tag around its neck.
From antiques on to brand new, Bisson Bears had an incredible giant white rabbit. Not only did it look beautiful, but artist, Gail Thornton, is excellent at the structural engineering of her designs. Although very heavy, and in a magnificent back bend pose, the rabbit was completely stable on its feet. There was no hint that is might fall over, because the weight distribution was perfect. £875 may sound expensive, but given the hard graft, hours, and quality materials that went into its creation, the price is completely understandable.
My next purchase, however, was much humbler in the form of a pair of teddy shoes. The stall holder had an eclectic range of items, including clothing, props, and bears. Some sellers, on the other hand, specialise in just one area. There were several who had entire tables dedicated to teddy clothing. The most common designs are knitted jumpers, scarves, and hats, but there is a hug variety. I found an adorable bumble bee waist coat from newcomers Pauline and Steven Collison, who founded, Xipi Totec. The quirky stall holder - who was dressed like a circus ring master - said that although this was their first time exhibiting at Hugglets, the couple had in fact been applying for a table since 2005. I'm very glad that they finally managed to get a place, because I found their creations both fun and unique. The couple has a very helpful categorising system for their waist coats, which comes in several different sizes. Each size is coded with a guideline as to what size bear it would fit. Xipi Totec also make flamboyant ties and handmade wooden furniture. Mum and I bought two benches, the smaller of which opened up like a toy box, so you can keep things in there for storage, or have the bears climbing out.
Every event I have always been tempted to by miniature furniture, but never ended up doing so. For the last festival, however, I made up for lost time, and got three. The third of which, was made by Christopher's Bear Chairs. He makes high quality seating for bears of all shapes and sizes. I chose a high chair with green leather embellishments and studding. The chair's height means that it can be put on the floor rather than having to be displayed on a table.
Last year I was disappointed by the display for Frank Webster Originals because their table was mostly take up by figurines rather than their own handmade bears. In September, those figurines were still there, but fortunately, they had brought back their usual collection of bears. There is always one bear in particular that stands out to me by Frank Webster, and on this occasion it was Giles, who had such a sweet expression.
Another artist I look forward to seeing is Lanie Edwards Murphy, who always brings something unexpected. I wasn't expected to fall in love with a giraffe, but I did. I told myself that if it was still there by the time I came back, I would buy it, but unfortunately it sold very quickly, and I'm not surprised.
If you are the creative type, and like making things, then you might fancy trying your hand at sewing your very own teddy. For that, you need look no further than Mohair Bear Making Supplies, which has everything you need to get started, including fabrics, fillings, and patterns. Sewing isn't the only way to make a teddy, of course. Su Quinn is an award-winning artist and author of several crafting books, including how to make felt animals. So if you are totally new to the craft, then it might be worth buying a book that provides a step by step guide using whichever material you prefer to work with.
Sometimes it can be quite intimidating to see all these highly-priced bears, but there are also a lot of good deals to be had too. The Bear Shop stocks one of the largest selections of teddy bears in Britain, and offer at 10% on everything as part of a trade show special. Many exhibitors have a 'bargain box' under the table. I saw one selling Charlie Bears Baby Boutique range for £7.50 each, down from £22. These were brand new, high quality, and even though for babies, are highly collectible. Another lady had a large 1960s bear priced at £25. She said I could have it for £20. I was very tempted because I loved looking at it. In the end I decided against, because when holding it, I could feel all the hard inner structural workings and joints, which meant it wasn't really fit for cuddles anymore.
Arctophiles collect bears for different reasons. While some like bears that they can cuddle, others just like them for display purposes. There are also those who like playing with their bears by creating scenes. Shoebutton Bears falls into the latter two categories. At a mere inch high, these little characters are impossible to hug, but make fantastic woodland scenes when you buy the props to go with them.
A previous regular, Bear Bits, made their final appearance last September. The company was downsizing and moving to a different location. I thought I was going to miss seeing their realistic looking twelve-jointed bears, but it looks like they have someone new to take their place. Monton Bears is a new very new company. It was founded by Karen White, who bought her first teddy bear sewing kit in 2014 so as to make a keepsake for her daughter. Her daughter loved the bear to bits, but Karen could see all the imperfections. As a perfectionist, she decided to do more research and take a course. What was once a hobby has now bloomed into a business. Like Bear Bits, Karen makes designs realistic, poseable bears, one of which grabbed Mum's heart and insisted he came home with her.
Bears are special because they make us happy and can make us feel better when we are blue. They are therapeutic healers. But some bears go that extra mile, such as Dave. Dave is a limited edition Merrythought Bear, who is helping to raise money for the Royal Marsden Cancer Charity, thanks to Hayley Kenward, fundraiser and founder of A Touch of Hope. Another charity-based project at the festival was Loved Before. Loved Before is a scheme designed by Charlotte Liebling for the Toy Project, a registered charity that recycles toys and passes them on to children who need them. Before the event, they gave a shout out for people to bring their pre-loved bears, so they could go to a good new home. Every bear comes with its own certificate filled out by the last owner. It states the bear's name, age, and any other interesting facts. The bears are then either donated a child or sold to raise funds for the project.
Perhaps you need healing in another way. Anyone who has ever lost a pet will know not only the grief one can feel, but also the empty gap left in one's life. Teddies can often help during that time, especially if they remind you of all the good times you had with your pet. Jacqui Wickenden is the artist behind JCW Bears & Furry Friends, and takes commissions for pet memorial tributes. Her speciality is dogs, which she recreates with such life-like accuracy.
One thing I like about Hugglets is that I am always learning something new. On my last visit I learnt about an artist I had never heard of before. My eyes were immediately drawn to two amazing Beatrix Potter characters. My heart sank when I saw that they were £495 each, and I was even more disappointed when I went on to see a classic E.H. Shepard designed Tigger. I didn't think I had a chance of affording it but, to my pleasant surprise, it was only £30.
The seller then told me all about the person who made these fantastic characters. R. John Wright is an American artist, who established his business in 1976. He specialises in trademark characters such as Paddington Bear, Bonzo, Curious George, etc. John's milestone years was in 1985, when he started making characters from the Winnie-the-Pooh series. Among them was the Tigger character on display. The exhibitor told me that Tigger had originally been £100, but that he'd been trying to sell the character for at least a decade. Apparently, no one has been interested because the style is different from what John Wright moved onto in later years. As a result, the price was now significantly reduced. All the better for me. I am really looking forward to meeting R. John Wright, who will be making an appearance at February's Teddies Winter Fest for the first time.