Teddy bear maker

 25 March 2011

Gregory Gyllenship gave up a successful career in the City of London to make and design teddy bears. He spoke about how he achieved international standing for his creative career.

Each bear takes about 30 hours to make.
Each bear takes about 30 hours to make.

Gregory worked his way up in the city from office junior to management accountant after leaving school with O levels. After about twenty years the culture started to change, and he was not enjoying the work as much. At the same time Gregory started exploring a more creative side of his personality. What started as a hobby eventually became his new career.

Starting out with teddy bears

Gregory’s mother loved to sew and knit, and regularly made beautiful soft toys and teddies for her children.

"This was just normal and was what we did in our family. I used to enjoy watching my Mum sew, and she taught me basic hand and machine-sewing skills. I also used to love artistic activities such as drawing and pottery, always preferring sculpted objects."

"Being a teddy bear artist is a job like any other – although there is immense satisfaction in the end product."

As an adult Gregory started buying collectible teddy bears and would visit Christie’s auctioneers to bid for early twentieth century vintage bears.

“The only bears I could afford were those needing repair, as these are a fraction of the cost of those in good condition. I started doing some simple repairs, putting my childhood sewing skills to good use. These included re-attaching eyes, ears and replacing felt paw pads.”

A chance find in a local junk shop also helped Gregory hone his teddy bear repair skills. He saw a big bear from the 1930s, and bought it for £50, despite it missing a foot.

“I managed to find proper mohair cloth from a specialist supplier – not an easy task before the internet. The fur had to be dyed to the right colour and I made the pattern for the foot. I am very fortunate in that I can visualise the correct two-dimensional pattern needed for the three-dimensional shape. I have never used a pre-purchased pattern in my life.”

Turning a hobby into a career

Whilst still working in an office during the day, Gregory increasingly spent his spare time designing and making his own bears. Compliments from work colleagues led to his first commissions.

Gregory started to discover real enjoyment and satisfaction from making old-fashioned bears from start to finish. He was enjoying his office job less and less.

“I started enquiring at specialist teddy bear shops to see if anyone wanted to sell them. At this stage my bears were not quite good enough for these shops, although someone put me in touch with ‘Hugglets’, who organise the premier British fairs for teddy bears. I was offered the corner of a fabric supplier’s table - they knew my bears and thought they were good.”

Gregory sold four bears at his first teddy bear fair. More importantly, he was also asked to go to America to give a talk at a teddy bear convention about photographing bears. Seventeen of Gregory’s bears were also sold at the fair.

“The idea of giving up my day-job seemed really dangerous at the time! However, all my friends and family encouraged me and with some savings as a safety net I handed in my notice. Working from a spare bedroom in my home I soon had a bulging order-book.”

Gregory invested a lot of energy into constantly improving his products. Getting the right body shape and facial expression is crucial.

“My bears elicit a response in customers which make them want take care of them. The elements of the face: the buttons, the nose and the smile are all-important.”

Running a successful creative business

“The idea of giving up my day-job seemed really dangerous! However, all my friends and family encouraged me and I handed in my notice."

Gregory can spend as long as twelve hours working in his studio on some days. Administrative work goes hand-in-hand with the practical aspects and includes financial management and marketing.

“Dealing with shops, show organisers and customers is all part of Gregory’s day. Jobs like packaging and posting the bears all takes time – I generally allow about half a day a week for these tasks. Although I often work at weekends and during the evenings, I also take time off during the week when other people are working. Creative block can sometimes happen – I usually find that taking a break helps cure this.”

Gregory has not really noticed the effects of the recession, although is always careful to watch competitor’s prices and make sure his bears are priced accordingly.

“Customers are much more selective at present, but still want to buy appealing high-quality products.”

Tips for aspiring teddy bear makers

  • Develop a style that is clearly identifiable as your own – the posture, shape and face are crucial. Visit teddy bear fairs and use the internet to examine different styles
  • You need to look at your own work critically in order to achieve the very highest standards
  • With each bear that you make, look at how you could have done things better
  • Always be thinking of new ideas and ways to move your designs forward – tinker with shapes and colours
  • Being a teddy bear artist is a job like any other – although there is immense satisfaction in the end product
  • Try to set aside a specific place in your home which is for work, ideally a room, or a corner of a room. This will help you to switch off when you need to
  • Making teddy bears takes its toll on your hands and fingers because of the constant sewing, pinching and pulling of fabric. Repetitive strain injury is common-place.

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