By the early 2000’s, bear artists were making their marks in Australia and America, teddy bear fairs and craft shows were big in England – and Eunice Beaton, the doyenne of bear making in Durban, had set up shop at the bottom of Florida Road.
The little house that is home to Teddytech and bears of all shapes sizes, colours and textures is fittingly quaint. Opposite Ike’s Books, it is well positioned in what is fast becoming a vintage enclave.
It is Durban’s only specialist bear shop and one of few in the country.
Beaton, who runs Teddytech with her daughter, Dianne Sturgess, has been in the teddy bear retail business for over 30 years. Although many would expect this gentle woman to have retired years ago, she is often found selecting fabrics and pairing up designs that are despatched with plenty of guidance and advice to would-be bear creators. As she explains, running her shop is “far more exciting than sitting at home”.
Yet, Beaton says she never really planned to go into the bear business. She inherited a love of embroidery and sewing from her mother and grandmother. Patchwork and quilting grew her fascination with working with different colours, shapes and textures. When she found a teddy bear pattern in a magazine, she decided to make one. She ended up creating a whole bear family, improving on her designs and techniques as she went.
Her bears – each with moveable joints and appealing expressions – became popular with family and friends. She started taking orders and teaching bear making. As word spread, demand grew for another service which she continues today – restoring and repairing old teddy bears.
For both Beaton and Sturgess, the essence of their business is the strong emotional connection that people have with teddy bears. Many people either want to pass on a perennial symbol of their childhood to future generations or preserve their own special memories.
Although it is unlikely that the new techno age of gadgets and online games will replace the magic of the age old teddy bear, Beaton has moved with the times. She had graduated from mail order to on line sales which have allowed her to sell to other regions in South Africa as well as overseas.
Although she has moved from olde worlde bears to more contemporary and even new age versions, her designs remain steeped in traditions that Beaton has researched extensively over the years. When she first began delving into the history of teddy bears, she says she found that each country had its own “national” bear – except South Africa.
However, during her restorations, she noticed that a certain bear design with a long forehead, short nose and pointed toes turned up quite often. During visits to shops and bear fairs in the UK, Beaton tried to discover the origin of these bears. However, it was only whilst chatting to one of her clients who had bought in a beloved bear for a makeover that she discovered that they had been made in a local factory in Seaview during the fifties and sixties. When she tracked down the family that owned this company, she found that they were known as Ark Bears – because the name could be spelt the same way in both English and Afrikaans.
That was the beginning. “One day I woke up and said to myself – all I want to do is make bears,” Beaton remembers. She decided to start making kits containing fabric as well as other bits and pieces needed to make a bear. These could be sold via mail order.
Even though it was the nineties, bear necessities were hard to come by. The discs needed to “joint” the bears were not available in South Africa, so Beaton’s late husband Claude – who was affectionately known as Papa bear for his dedication to his wife’s business – carefully cut out and made these. The couple also set up a screen printing workshop in the back garden to print the pattern pieces on to the back of the fabric.
However, Beaton’s greatest concern was that there was no suitable fabric. Her son, who was studying textile design at the time, suggested a cotton rich velour which was an upholstery fabric. “We located a manufacturer in Cape Town. But we could only buy a minimum of 500 metres. I decided to go for it. I was sure we would do something with it,” she recalls.
However, shortly afterwards, she realised that she needed to begin using more traditional fluffy fabrics. South Africa is one of the world’s largest suppliers of mohair and she began looking for a supplier. After contacting the CSIR, she began collaborating and communicating with a textile technologist who painstakingly created samples for her.
In addition to encouraging and teaching South African bear makers to use it, Beaton travelled to the USA to promote this unique South African Karoo mohair, exhibiting and selling her bears at the Linda Mullins Teddy Bear and Toy Fair in San Diego and at a Bear Fair in Colorado in 1995. She subsequently exported this mohair fabric to Canada, England and Europe. However, this was short lived as, soon afterwards, she was told that no more fabric was available.
She had no choice but to begin buying in fabrics from English and German mills which produced a wide range of textures and colours. These are still available from Teddytech, carefully pegged up for slection.
Beaton started with a roll of mohair from well known German Mohair manufacturer, Reinhard Schulte – and Simon Sailor, her first mohair bear in kit form was born.
“A lot of people cut their bear making teeth on Simon. We still sell the kit today,” she says. Simon is just one of 170 different bear patterns that Beaton has created along the way.