Becky Dickinson meets the sisters who saved the UK’s last remaining teddy bear factory, Merrythought
Amid the sea of all-singing, all-dancing toys this Christmas, there is one gift that has remained unchanged for decades. Cuddly, charming and oh-so British, the traditional teddy bear has been a feature of nurseries and bedrooms for generations, with a timeless appeal that bridges childhood and nostalgia.
Yet despite the flurry of cuddly toys that adorn shelves at this time of year, there is only one remaining teddy bear factory in the UK.
Merrythought was established in Ironbridge, Shropshire, in 1930, and grew into a thriving business specialising in beautiful handmade teddies. But in the 1970s fortunes changed, when competition from China and the Far East saw the soft toy market flooded with cheap imports. Other traditional British toy makers folded, but Merrythought fought to stay afloat by refocusing solely on high-end products, made from the finest materials.
Yet the factory faced further uncertainty in 2011, following the sudden death of Oliver Holmes – the third generation of the family to run the business. Fortunately, his daughters stepped in – almost overnight – to take the helm. Today the company is run by Sarah and Hannah Holmes. Sarah was living in London when her father passed away, but gave up a career in marketing to step in, as there was literally no one else to open the factory gates.
She admits it was a baptism of fire and there have been some challenging times. But it’s a testament to the sisters that Merrythought is once again a unique and thriving business.
Hannah is currently on maternity leave, having recently given birth to her first child, Oscar. And Sarah and Hannah’s younger sister, Sophie, helps out with the social media.
Sarah attributes Merrythought’s success and survival to the fact the company has never compromised on quality. The teddy-making process has remained almost unchanged for 87 years.
Each iconic bear is handmade from scratch, using natural mohair (from the Angora goat) or sometimes alpaca plush, too. First, the pieces are cut out, before being sewn together inside out. Next the eyes are added, and the limbs stuffed and jointed. The limbs are then attached to the body, which is stuffed and sewn up at the back. It’s a delicate, labour-intensive process. Each stage is carried out by a highly-skilled specialist and there is a sense of magic as each creation takes shape, especially during the festive build up.
“No two teddy bears are identical,” says Sarah. “The nose and the smile are hand-embroidered on at the end, and it’s this that really brings the bear to life. He is then brushed, combed and trimmed, before a ribbon or accessory is added to finish.”
All this doesn’t come cheap. Prices start from around £60 for a classic 10-inch bear, rising into the hundreds, even thousands, for a giant display teddy. But these bears are built to last – a toy and heirloom combined.
“We appreciate a Merrythought bear is an investment,” says Sarah. “But we think they are rather special. They have a place in both childhood and English heritage.”
Sarah also believes parents are increasingly turning away from mass-produced toys in search of those from a more upstanding background, offering substance and longevity.
Merrythought branded bears are sold in Harrods, Fortnum & Mason and other high-end stores, and the company supplies bespoke bears for luxury brands like the The Dorchester, too. Sarah says they were also thrilled to be asked to make the official teddy bear for the 2012 London Olympic Games.
Unsurprisingly, the bears have long been a favourite with the royal family – the Queen was presented with a Merrythought corgi in the 1950s, and more recently there have been specially produced commemorative bears to celebrate the births of Prince George and Princess Charlotte.
Merrythought bears have also made silent appearances in television dramas, including Peaky Blinders and Downton Abbey. Look closely, and you may notice Sybbie Branson, daughter of Tom Branson and Lady Sybil, is never far from her beloved stuffed toy rabbit which is, of course, a Merrythought.
As well as producing high-quality toys which meet CE safety standards, Merrythought also makes collectors’ bears. These are produced in limited editions to guarantee their rarity and are especially popular in Japan.
For the first time in 30 years, the firm has expanded its range of animals to include a vintage-style dog and cat, known as Digby Dog and Coco Cat. There has also been a recent growth in demand for personalised bears. In response, Merrythought now offers custom-made bears with an embroidered name on the paw and a choice of ribbon or accessory, for that perfect new-baby gift or treasured Christmas present.
A soft touch, a nose for business, and an unflinching devotion to quality have helped Merrythought overcome some tough times and competition. It seems the hard work has paid off; the last teddy bear manufacturer in England looks set to stay, and Sarah has her sights firmly set on the future, with plans for more exports in 2018.
With a team of elves behind her, she says the final reward is seeing the happiness these bears bring to their owners. “The feedback we get from customers is fantastic,” she says. They may cost a little more than your average soft toy, but then a Merrythought teddy is a bear for life, not just for Christmas.