In the late 1980s – that sounds so long ago and I suppose it is - and being unable to afford to buy a fully jointed,
traditional mohair teddy for my sister, I decided to try and make one as a present for her! In those days it was easy
to find the craft plush with knitted back but there was very little mohair fabric around and no internet! Eventually
I found out about Oakley Fabrics in Luton and made my first one. Dissatisfied with the patterns available I began
altering and adapting them. Soon there were ‘bits’ of bears all over the house – and yes, that’s where our business
name came from - ‘Bear Bits’. It was not carefully chosen with a view to this hobby becoming a source of income; just
a name that made Bill smile and something we could use for the sewn-in labels needed for the very first craft fairs in
1992! Bunbury - left is the first 24in teddy that I designed and he is the bear in our logo
- Gruff (right) was made 25 years later!
April 2017 and twenty five years later we could be found sitting on a table at the Golden George Awards Dinner in Munster.
We were there to spend a final evening with some of the wonderful international friends that we have made as a result of
selling our bears at great fairs such as Teddy Bear Total. Some of these friends had been nominated for a Golden George.
We were totally relaxed about the whole affair because we hadn’t entered; we were just there to enjoy the company, to clap
and cheer as necessary etc so imagine our surprise when, Sebastian began to announce the first award of the evening – the
2017 Lifetime Achievement Award and this year it was going to . . . . . . . . Jean and Bill Ashburner! Once we had got over
the shock, we’ve both felt very humbled by this amazing recognition. Over the years we have made hundreds of bears; our
designs and style have evolved to where they are now; we’ve chatted to thousands of collectors; enjoyed encouraging and
introducing new skills to the many course members that we’ve had the pleasure to teach; travelled in Europe and the USA and
made many, many new friends all with a passion for bears! What more could one want – there’s been a lot of fun on the way,
but not always. The Lifetime Award has made us realise that there is a legacy. It all began for us when teddy bears were
‘kings’ – the prime object of desire – gradually, with our love for the real ones and the need to develop something unique
to attract collectors; we have helped to put natural looking, but definitely huggable, ones into the spotlight. Maybe, given
the love and care that we both put into making our bears, some of them will still be around decades later?
We have gone from making a maximum of 300-400 bears a year (depending on size and detail) when our son was at University
and we really were living from bear to mouth (it had become a bit like the Bear Bits sweat shop) to cutting back to about 100
a year more recently and from now on maybe 30, or even fewer? Some of the bears we have made now appear on the secondary
market – sometimes on eBay, more usually through Vectis Auctions, and occasionally early ones have been found in charity
shops. It is possible to bag a bargain.
How can you identify a Bear Bits bear or get an idea of its age? Check the labels first.
1992 -1994 Satin printed labels
Just like so many other hobbyists I began by making traditional teddy bears and, having made the first one but not being
completely happy with the result – I wanted his head to be smaller, his arms to be less hooked, his legs to be longer
. . . . . what followed was quite a lot of experimenting. Bill suggested that if I wanted to buy more mohair, maybe it would
be a good idea to sell some of these early efforts. The first teddy bears made under the Bear Bits name have satin ribbon
sewn-in labels, with our postcode printed on them in order to comply with the law at the time.
During 1994, and when Bear Bits was definitely established, we switched to using the more
professional double labels – a black one with Bear Bits in yellow and a yellow one that gives the name
of the bear and edition number in black. Additionally there is always a card label/certificate that has our logo on the front
and inside details of the edition number; whether OOAK and whether the bear was made exclusively for a particular shop. Back
in 1994 we were asked if we could make an Easter Bunny as a shop exclusive. The Bear Bits Rarebits
were born and had their own sewn in Rarebits labels - black and grey!
All our bears have been sold with a card label/certificate as well. Up to 1998 the card label had
our Essex address on the back; from 1998 to date the address is our Lincolnshire one.
Since 2013, when we celebrated 20 years of making bears, the logo on the front of this card has been in
colour. Ideally, for full confirmation of a Bear Bits bear there should be both the sewn-in labels and the card one, plus of
course our classic features in the bear.
Ideally for confirmation of provenance both the sewn-in labels and the card one should be present.
Some of our very early teds can be seen on the archive page of our website –
in date order. However, digital cameras were
still something for the future so at the time you didn’t know until your film had been developed whether you’d got a good photo
or not, sometimes it was the latter! You will also notice gaps in the archive because when we first had a website, the amount
of space available was related to the cost of hosting. When we added the archive we ran out of space (but couldn’t afford anymore)!
We bought our first digital camera in 2002; prior to that all photos had to be scanned to create a digital image so some of the gap
is also down to not having enough time to scan and upload images – a job for the future! These days we can simply transfer the
details from the product page straight into the archive when an edition is complete or a special bear is sold.
The early years
As the business became more established I developed a range of teddies in various sizes and there was the occasional beautiful
female bear as well. In 1993/4 there were a couple of teddy bears with slightly more natural heads but my first more natural designs
were Beorn and Portli 1994/5. We; Bill joined me in 1996; made editions rather than 1/1s as this was the best way to make use of the
plain pile fabric available but that meant that design changes could only be brought in when introducing a new edition. Although I may
have had a new idea it had to wait; our bear design “evolved” gradually.
Beörn (94/5) – 9” long – the very first bear on all fours designed by Jean. He would also sit on his
hind legs with his front feet tucked in between his back feet.
Portia, Dimitri and Jolyon (96) – Jolyon is a 10” traditional teddy bear, Portia was the second Panda
edition (she had white tops to her hind legs) and Dimitri is a new design for a slightly more natural looking bear. The design
for Dimitri was based on a sculpture that we own.
In 1996 we incorporated the styles and features that we has developed so far in a tableaux entry - A Week
of Bears - for the British Bear Artist Awards and won our class. You can see traditional teds, a female bear (Monday’s bear is fair of
face), a panda (Thursday’s bear has far to go), a natural bear (Wednesday’s bear need fear no foe), and experimentation with bent legs
- suggesting more movement - together with joint position for the arm of the ballet dancer (Tuesday’s bear is full of grace)
1997 saw the development of my first really natural looking nose, but on a big bear where the complex embroidery
was less difficult. The very first of our bears to have such a nose was Stuff, part of our nominated entry in the 1997 British Bear
Artist Awards. Stuff was accompanied by Nonsense – an extreme version of my design for a more feminine teddy bear! Gradually the
more naturally shaped nose was used on smaller and smaller bears, each time using a finer thread, but initially not in quite so much detail.
If you come across a firmly stuffed bear on all fours with a rather primitive double neck joint and pads drawn on with what was supposed
to be a light proof and water proof pen, then this will have been made around 1998 when I revisited my very naive
design for Beörn and attempted some improvements. The design includes a very hesitant, double neck joint and better proportions. A variation
of this design was made - a grizzly bear with a shaggy coat called Wenoba as a small edition.
1999 Othello and Ho Ping (99) are from the winning 6-16” group class, BBAA that consisted of 4 bears - a
polar, brown bear, black bear and a panda. The more naturally shaped, embroidered nose is now on a much smaller bear – but it doesn’t close.
As a panda, Ho Ping has a more triangular shaped nose and the ears are more on the top of the head - our trademark is an embroidered nose bit
it can vary in shape.
The 4 competition bears not only had double neck joints but also an asymmetric joint at each ankle allowing them to
stand, lie, sit and kneel. The extra joints in the ankles were good in that they meant that the bears could adopt a variety of poses but
also meant that they were expensive to make in terms of time. Each limb was in 3 pieces, meaning that we had to be extremely careful to
ensure that they all ended up the same length when making them! We did make editions of each of the four bears but no more! The asymmetric
wrist/ankle joints were an interesting innovation but not commercially viable. Bears with this feature are from 1999/2000.
2000 Drop paws are the answer - It had become very clear that if we were to make bears that could adopt realistic
poses, we needed to come up with something different. Vladi & Vostok (2000) are two of the earliest designs
with the drop paw front limb (with a proper sewn in pad) which, when combined with the double neck joint allowed these bears to sit,
stand and lie in very natural positions.
These have since become a signature feature of most Bear Bits bears.
2000/2001 the introduction of the 3D polymer pads on ultrasuede
Polaris (01) was the first of our bears to have the 3D paw pads and a more intricately shaped embroidered realistic nose. Later
bears have variations of this 3D pad design; the paw pad now has a more natural shape and after 2010 it has been enhanced by quilting
between the toe pads. Gradually from 2002, wrist joints were included in the designs for most of our bears.
I developed a more complex nose and further adjusted the relative proportions of the head and body so that they were closer to those
of a natural bear – teddy bears tend to be very ‘toddler’ shaped – their head is relatively large.
We refined these designs and our reputation for being able to make more natural looking; very posable bears with beautiful faces began
to be internationally recognised. In 2002 we won the BBAA individual class over 17” with our entry, the Caramel Bear
– the very first time that a bear with more natural features had succeeded over a traditional teddy bear! (These days there tend to be classes
for ‘Nature or Realistic Bears’).
The Caramel Bear has all the features previously introduced and this time I dyed the backing of the
caramel fabric so that the dye bled through and up the base of the pile. This only became apparent where I have trimmed the pile away on the
head and ears, producing very subtle shading. This technique has been used since 2002, but only on special bears.
Before the millennium Bear Bits made a range of teddy bears and a few with more natural features, but after 2000 the majority were of the
more realistic kind. In 2001 there were still traditional gems such as Timothy and Cousin Ted, but it was designs such as Heracles, pictured
with his tiny teddy friend that were bringing us to national attention.
Most of the 2000s were for us the time of the "Bear Bits Sweat Shop"!
Anyone who has had teenage children, Sixth Form, University etc. will know that it’s not a cheap stage. It’s often easy to think that
turning a hobby into a business must be idyllic because you’re doing something that you really love. That is very true but if both of you
are involved in that business there are also times when you’re working incredibly long hours, day after day to ensure that the mortgage is
paid and there is food on the table so these years are the ones of maximum production (about 400 bears a year, depending on size and complexity).
Fortunately the emotional boost that you get when a collector sees one of your bears and bonds is a great reward.
More suggestion of movement in the All 4s design
In 2003 I revisited the all 4’s design to try and incorporate some suggestion of movement. Malca, descendent
of the original Beörn and Wenoba, has different front legs - one with a distinct elbow and the other with a wrist joint. This little bear
looked as though he was walking!
Malca is the forerunner of the large bears in some of our winning entries for the competitions such as
the Excellence in Bear Artistry Awards such as Hanging On in 2013!
The fabulous ‘fusion bears’
There was a wealth of fabulous fabric available in the 2000s and it enabled us to make some rather wonderful,
but fanciful, very large bears; Bailey 06(far left) and Alex 04(left). OK, there are no real bears that actually look like this so we call
them our ‘fusion’ bears - all the Bear Bits characteristic features combined with an amazing fabric to produce something magical. We have
continued to do this each time some really lovely fabric has come my way and one of the most recent was Gorgeous George (right), created in
Mohair and alpaca are luxurious fibres and come with a price tag to match. Dense pile is just what it says - a lot of the fibre per
square centimetre and as we needed either very dense or long pile, and were including more and more detail in our bears, I worried that
the result was too expensive for some collectors.
2005 A more minimalist approach
During the first part of the 2000s we experimented with some simplified designs; definitely inspired by the little Beanie bears around at
the time. Our version, illustrated with Titch 05, only had a head/neck joint; they were made for a short while and were known as
‘Jean’s beanies’ but their best role was probably when put with other larger bears when they became the little cub!
Highlights and low lights
During the same period I was experimenting with air brushing and then refining my efforts so that less was definitely more! Airbrushing
did not feature in editions before 2005. One of the earliest examples is Smudge from that year.
Our cute, cuddly bunnies became very
popular for a while and were either made as OOAKs or very small editions e.g. Bibi L/E 4.
2007 Magnets and Wobbles
I had another go at designing a small, uncomplicated little bear for our range and this time we experimented with magnets as well as
wobbly joints. The result was Sasha and Pasha, made in the most beautifully soft alpaca from Japan so really cuddly little handfuls. Lots
of variations followed including Usha (polar cub), Asha (brown bear cub) and even Dan Dan a red panda in 2009! I went back to these small
patterns in 2015, remodelling them a little and adding the Bear Bits characteristic 3D pads. New versions included Duffi, Fuzzi and Binki
- a little bunny.
Can a Bear Bits bear actually do that?
The second half of the 2000s were the time when I really wanted to show the variety of poses that could be adopted by our bears. First
there was Kristy 2008 (right) and by under-filling the body he looked amazing when balancing on a branch. At around the same time I came
across a photo of a real bear balancing on the edge of a pontoon and reaching down into the water for a fish - I resolved that we ought to
be able to make a bear to do the same. Maia and her cub Paavali were the result and with the addition of tiny magnets what looked impossible
2009 Complex head patterns
Sometime in 2008 I was asked if it was possible for us to make a Spectacled bear; something I had avoided so
far because of the complexity of the head so I replied that it could be possible but it might take a little time! Fortunately, when
researching Spectacled bears I learned that head markings were somewhat individual and did vary so this made the challenge a bit easier.
In 2009 we made Chaparri, who was just black and white and shortly after there was Choco, made in the style
of the brown headed variant. We also made the even more complex Biru in 2013!
2010 The mouths have it!
Experimenting and innovation continued through the late 2000s and early 2010s. I have always believed that realistic bears have a
definite place in the world of teddy bears, but they should have soft, friendly faces that give the illusion of a natural bear but still
make them very lovely companions so for many years I had avoided including an open mouth - so often, and as a result of the techniques
necessary it is made too big, too open and definitely unnatural.
I spent hours trying different methods, evaluating and refining until
I was happy with the result. I named the very first bear that we sold with an open mouth as Yuri-ka - definitely a scientific pun! Yuri-Ka
was made in 2011 and sold at a fair in Germany. Initially I only made larger bears with an open mouth but gradually,
as I perfected my method, open mouths appeared on many of the smaller bears as well as the larger ones.
2012 Hare today!
In 2012 and having been inspired the creations of the Rabbit Maker, Shelley Allison and some European artists,
I decided that my original pattern for the Bear Bits ‘Rare Bit’, which was definitely cute as opposed to a natural interpretation, should
be updated but I didn’t want to copy so aimed for a hare. We continued to make our bears in a variety of sizes and I introduced Suki as
a small version, without wrist joints but she does have the complex embroidered nose and a beautiful face!
Inner support for bears
The challenge of making a natural looking bear that could adopt more relaxed poses as well as sitting up and looking alert continued
to fascinate me. During 2012 we were experimenting with using a backbone (armature) that was attached to the
neck and divided to each hip. Using an armature meant that we could under-fill the body with polypellets so the body slumped forward and,
by pressing the spine from the back, the bear was then able to sit up straight. We first applied this new technique to Peter, our entry in
the 2012 Excellence of Bear Artistry Awards and, as well as the armature, Peter had eyelids, eyebrows, claws, quilted 3D pads, airbrushing
- basically we used all the skill and techniques that we had developed on this competition bear. The pretty Annuska was one of the first
edition bears to have an armature but at around the same time there was also Pedrek and Davin, both black bears and we’ve used the technique
2013 A 20th Anniversary for Bear Bits
2013 was a very special year for us as it was our 20th year as professional bear artists.
To celebrate the event we altered the
logo we displayed at fairs to include the fact that Bear Bits had been in business from 1993 to 2013; we ordered a coloured version of our swing
label and announced that during the year we would make 20 OOAK anniversary bears
that would each have a special anniversary certificate.
We also said that these special pieces would include some retro bears; even a teddy or two, and our 2013 competition entries (you can see
these if you look at 2013 in our website Archive e.g. Henry, Big Daddy, Silba and Cole, who were originally made separately but the entry
conditions said that 2 bears were allowed!
2014 Stand on your own two feet!
Someone once said that the difference between an ‘artist’ and a ‘crafter’ is that the artist has a consummate need to learn, to develop
and explore, to perfect, to excel and then attempt something new to improve further. I recognised myself because as soon as one development
is perfected I want to try and make it even better. But for me there has always been a limit because I have always believed that realistic
bears have a definite place in the world of teddy bears, but they should have soft, friendly faces that give the illusion of a natural bear
but still make them very lovely companions so I won’t give our open mouths that will accommodate teeth or large, out of proportion paws that
would make it easier to insert claws! In 2014 I couldn’t resist the challenge of making a natural looking bear of
competition standard that could stand on its hind legs unaided. This involved altering the bottom half of his body and carefully weighting
him so that when posed properly, his centre of balance was over his feet - but he still had to be able to adopt the other poses for which we
had become well known. The result was Piqa but we didn’t make many more bears capable of standing on their hind legs!
2015 Back to All Fours again
Another so far unachieved aim was to design a really natural looking bear that could stand on all fours but also be posed sitting and
lying but still looking very natural. I resisted using an armature throughout as I thought that this would take us too far from the original
teddy bear. I still wanted the bear to have traditional cotter pin joints at the shoulders and hips and a double neck joint so that the head
looked natural at a variety of angles.
I also wanted each leg to contain a special wired armature that would only bend at the
knee/elbow/ankle/wrist etc. Meet Tomas, an American black bear - the first edition bear to have the new combination of joints and armature
and introduced at the Winter BearFest 2015. Since then we have made a couple of polar editions including Eira
(left); some special OOAK larger bears and there’s a new black bear called Nori as well!
So that’s it really - from teddy to a natural looking bear with a lot of intricate detail, that can not only be posed on all fours but
in quite a few other natural positions and does not look fierce or out of proportion. I guess that it’s a good thing that we’re calling
a halt to development - although we will still make a few bears if they are commissioned or just to put on the website. Of course further
development is possible but I don’t want to get involved with wire frames or lose the traditional joints we use in our bears - that would
definitely be too far from the teddy bear and be more like a sculpture. Gruff, the wonderful bear at the beginning of this article
was actually made to be entered into the 2017 Golden George. I got as far as making tiny dentures for him - nothing too complicated, just
tiny incisors and a canine each side. I couldn’t bring myself to put them in so we didn’t enter and just sold him as a special bear at
the Winter BearFest 2017. Berend is in a similar pattern and was a 1/1 bear made to sell in Germany in 2017.
And as for the future?
Technically we’re now retired but I didn’t get rid of my entire hoard of lovely fabric because I just couldn’t imagine never making a
bear again - and I’m sure that sometimes a question would creep into my mind, “Could you make a bear like that . . . . . and I’d want
to start experimenting! We will still make a much reduced mixture of bears with our classic, drop paw design, or bears on all fours, or
the occasional large special one, plus the little magnet bears. There are a few editions on the website yet to be completed and we will
be accepting commissions, but PLEASE allow plenty of time.
Jean and Bill 2018