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A Q&A With Merrythought's Sarah Holmes

Posted 15.12.16  - Culture

In an age where toddlers are more used to iPads than building-blocks, the one Christmas gift that has proven to have stood the test of time has been the humble teddy bear.

The cuddly creatures have played sidekick to children for centuries and a variety of iconic bears have littered fiction, both in books and on-screen, in the last string of decades: from Rupert (1920), Winnie (1921), Paddington (1958), Yogi (1958) and Fozzie (1976), to the most recent interpretation, the not-so-suitable for kids character, Ted (2012).

With this in mind it’s both surprising and sad to hear that there is only one single factory left in the UK that hand-makes traditional teddies - Shropshire-based Merrythought, who are also responsible for the newly released range of Turnbull Teddies. 2015's collection, made from patchwork off-cuts of tie silks, was made in a limited edition batch of 130 to celebrate T&A's 130th birthday, with no two bears looking the same. This season the bears have been re-released in a range of our bestselling exclusive shirt cottons, plus an additional silk option in our iconic Churchill Spot.

Established in 1930 by Gordon Holmes, Merrythought is now being run by the fourth generation of Holmes' - Sisters Sarah and Hannah took over after the sudden death of their father Oliver in 2011. Formerly a PR and recruitment consultant and chartered surveyor respectively, the young sisters had not anticipated swapping their city lives for the village of Ironbridge.

Like Turnbull & Asser, Merrythought is a company driven by heritage and a ‘made in England’ mantra: the company is still operating from the same building it first occupied 86 years ago and employs a small but strong work force of 25 people. Sarah acts as sales director and Hannah operations director while third and youngest sibling Sophie, also a director, works within the marketing and social media team on a part time basis, reinforcing the brand’s dedication to its family-run history.

The Merrythought factory in the 1930s

Their products might be stuffed, but their projects are by no means stuffy. Merrythought were give the responsibility of producing the official Olympic bear in 2012 – they were the smallest company to be involved with the London Games – and they were commissioned by The Royal Collection to create limited-edition bears marking the births of Prince George and Princess Charlotte.

To celebrate the ultimate children’s toy ahead of the festive season, Sarah Holmes took some time to tell us all about their company.

TA: ‘Merrythought’ is such a unique name. Given that the family name is Holmes, where did Merrythought come from?

SH: It’s the old English word for wishbone, which when broken between two people is said to bring good luck. Our strapline for many years was ‘Making Wishes Come True’, but it has evolved a lot in recent years; we’re currently reviewing it and we are likely to bring out a new one in 2017.

TA: For those not familiar with the art of bear-making please could you outline the process involved in producing a Merrythought teddy as well as explaining what they’re made from?

SH: For the outer material we use pure mohair plush (wool from the Angora goat) and sometimes alpaca plush too. We still use the same process as in 1930. First is the cutting stage, then pieces of mohair are sewn together inside out, the eyes are then attached, the limbs are stuffed before we hand-sew the joints to the limbs, then we attach the limbs to the main body piece. After that the body is stuffed and the back of the bear sewn up before we hand-embroider his nose and smile. He is then brushed, trimmed and put through quality checks, before a ribbon or accessory is added to finish.

The making of the Merrythought Shrewsbury Bear

TA: How many different types of bears do you make?

SH: Hundreds! Various sizes too. The largest weighs 60kg and is almost 5ft when sitting!

TA: Is there an iconic Merrythought bear? What is your favourite?

SH: The London Gold teddy bear is our most popular but personally I love the Shrewsbury Bear – it is truly timeless and is made from the softest golden mohair with pure woolen felt paws.

The London Gold Bear and the Shrewsbury Bear

TA: What other toys do you make?

SH: We’ve made many animals and other characters during our 87 years. Recently a Scotty Dog for the Buckingham Palace Shop/Royal Collection and a Herdy Sheep for The Herdy Company. Pandas are very popular too.

TA: Merrythought have designed the ‘Turnbull Teddy’ range, which look quite different to classic hairy, beige bears. Is the process of manufacturing them different to your traditional bears?

SH: No, we have kept them true to the Merrythought method and made them exactly the same way but using T&A shirt fabric as the outer material instead of our classic mohair.

2015's Turnbull Teddies made from tie silks

TA: Has anything notable changed in the last five years since you and your sisters took over?

SH: We now have better productivity and work with a wider variety of luxury brands and retailers, plus I’d like to think our designs have become even more appealing.

TA: What has been the biggest obstacle that you have come across with the brand within your time there?

SH: There hasn’t been one obstacle in particular but our biggest issue is probably the relentless ‘plate juggling’ that comes with being a small business that supplies a wide range of soft toys to discerning customers and brands who expect only the best service and quality. The countdown to Christmas is particularly stressful!

TA: You must be really proud to be Britain’s last remaining teddy bear factory – why do you think there is no longer a big network of teddy bear manufacturers? Is demand high?

SH: Cheap competition from the Far East from the 1970s onward rather wiped out the UK and European industry. As time went on the supply side was lost and skills were harder to come by, making it expensive to operate in isolation. Merrythought has survived by downsizing over the last 15 years and focusing purely on the top end of the market where value is attached to the fact that our teddy bears are British-made. We are specialists in making the quintessential English teddy bear.

The workers at the Merrythought factory in the 1930s

TA: Merrythought were the official bear-makers for the Olympics and the births of Prince George and Princess Charlotte – how did these projects come to be?

SH: We were approached to become licensees for London 2012 – probably the smallest company to be officially involved with the Games – and agreed to be supplier of the official range of teddy bears. Being made in the host country was very significant and so it was a supremely proud occasion. The Royal Collection commissioned us to produce the teddy bears for their official royal baby collection, a great honour and a wonderful organisation to work with.

TA: What’s next for Merrythought?

SH: Watch this space! We’d like to develop our export business further as we believe there is a huge amount of opportunity for the brand.

TA: Lastly, why do you think the teddy bear has become such a timeless toy icon?

SH: The teddy bear has very broad appeal – boys, girls, adults - and is totally timeless. It isn’t trend or fashion led. The Merrythought bear has long been the traditional toy given to a child; a companion through life to pass down to the next generation.

AW16's Turnbull Teddies, made from a variety of shirt cottons

You can purchase a Turnbull Teddy here.

Main image: Merrythought sisters Hannah (left) and Sarah Holmes (right)

Elle Jenkinson - T&A Editorial Team

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