felt with the heart

A small cocoa coloured mohair bear sits holding a pink handknitted woollen heart.

“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart.

Helen Keller

I came across this quote by Helen Keller one blazing hot day at the end of summer. It was during a moment when I was really struggling to know which direction to take for my wool work, and even more struggling to find the courage to pursue it. That day, these words resonated deeply with me and helped me overcome some of the creative & personal obstacles that were blocking my path.

I want to begin the month of October by reminding myself of these words, because they sum up so much of how I feel about the creative work I am slowly endeavouring to pursue here. And also because I am hoping they will help me muster up the courage to take the plunge in a couple of short weeks time and to share my work with the world again, when I open the doors of my little shop.

a small, quiet companion

A row of tiny mohair bears on a velvet armchair. They range from cocoa brown to russet red.

“In a world where everyone seems to be larger and louder than yourself, it is very comforting to have a small, quiet companion.” Peter Gray .

I have a particular fondness for making traditional style teddy bears, the smaller the better. Their fur is made from mohair fibres woven onto a cotton backing. It is produced in Germany and has been used in toy making for over a century. I design and make every single bear myself, sewing mostly by hand but also occasionally on my vintage Singer sewing machine. Just before a bear is finished, I given them a “woollen heart”, carefully filling their head, limbs and finally tummy with local-to-me French wool. From soft to coarse, lofty to curly, crunchy to smooth, crimped, short or long, the wools of French native breed sheep are as varied as the landscapes in which they are raised.

My bears may be small side, but with their woollen hearts they embody for me a sense of unwavering inner strength. Small enough to fit into the palm of a hand, they can sit happily on a bedside table, be slipped into a handbag or project bag. A small, but reassuring companion, always by your side and forever ready for whatever encouragement you need. Making these small bears helps me to pursue my life with greater courage and hope. It is forever my hope that every time I send a new little bear out into the world that they will become a dearly loved companion for whoever needs a little more quiet strength in their life.

beginnings

A woman in a blue linen dress holds a basket containing elements from bear making.
Just as I cannot remember a time when knitting has not been a part of my life (according to my Mum, I first learnt around the age of five…) so too, I cannot remember a time when I have not made play things. Among my earliest memories of craft are of making little folk and animals from scraps of acrylic yarn, fabric and cardboard boxes found around our family home. Mostly bears, but also woodland animals, rag dolls and 1/12th scale miniatures for the doll’s house my Pa built for me.

Around the age of twelve, I started becoming desperately poorly with the first infections that would eventually leave me chronically ill and disabled with the condition Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME). As my health began to falter and my world shrank to the four walls of my bedroom, knitting and making toys took on a new significance. At my worst, I was so poorly, I could no longer go to school, no longer see my friends, no longer leave the house or even walk to the bathroom unaided. But for small pockets of time in the afternoon, I was well enough to sit up in bed and slowly work on a few rows of knitting. It quickly became a therapy for me, not least because it was the only part of my life and myself that continued to exist from before the illness.

The days were often long and lonely, shared between my bed and sometimes the sofa, often in semi darkness. I was kept company by a handful of dearly loved childhood friends – including Edward my teddy bear, pictured above. My mum, my principal carer, would often go to the public library and bring back audio books on cassette to keep me company. And also books from the craft section, as it was easier for me to concentrate on a small passages of information than keep a story in my head. On my worst days I would simply look at the pictures. One day she must have picked out a toy making book which, unbeknownst to her, included a pattern for a jointed teddy bear…

making as storytelling

A white woman in a lavendar coloured linen dress sits at a desk writing a letter. Her hair is in a side plait.

I am increasingly finding myself drawn to the conclusion that the act of making is also an act of storytelling. A quiet and considered conversation held between material & maker, as an idea slowly comes into being. Once that idea has become material, that conversation then continues to flow, beyond the maker & the walls of the studio, out into the world.

In the past four or so years that I’ve been publicly sharing my bear making work online, I’ve experimented with various forms of storytelling, on various platforms. Starting by working through a variety of blogs, as I’ve struggled to settle on a name that sufficiently expresses all I want my work to encompass. And also experimenting with photography & video.

These past years, I have truly enjoyed experimenting with all these paths to self expression, most especially on Instagram. In that particular space, I have found both my self-confidence & my expertise slowly build and grow, nourished by an incredibly supportive community of folks spread across the world. I truly value the connections I’ve woven there, the friends I have made, the opportunities that have sprung forth from those little squares.

But increasingly, I’ve also been feeling a growing niggle with the place itself. Whilst I find the excitement & buzz of that particular online gathering spaces to be a source of stimulation & inspiration, since falling pregnant again, I find myself becoming once again particularly fond of those smaller and quieter places of conversation, connection and sharing that can still be found in blogs. Over there it often feels like being at a very crowded, very noisy party, albeit one filled with very kind & lovely folk. There is an energy and a creativity to be found there in the thronging crowd, but recently, I’ve been finding it once again overwhelming and exhausting.

I remember with great fondness to a few years back when I first discovered the online crafting world. And how visiting a favourite blog felt more like being invited round a dear friend’s house for a cup or tea and a knit. A moment to share some meaningful conversations about life & knitting whilst we quietly work on our respective projects. Just as my own blog currently reminds me of an abandoned house, all dusty and untidy having been so long neglected, so sadly many of the online journals of friends & favourites have also been left to languish. And yet.

Despite the dust, I am feeling a deep urge to return to this space, draw back the curtains, fling wide the shutters and let some fresh air back in. My intention, is to come and make this space feel like a home again. And once the cobwebs have been banished, the grate swept and a fresh fire lit in the grate, to start telling some of the stories of making once again.

The tales of what I make, but also how that making enables me to enter into conversations with the world around me, weaving connections with the land base I currently find myself in and the people & animals that populate it.

As a toymaker, there is also an inevitable biographical aspect to my work, as I cannot help but reach deep inside myself finding inspiration in memories & lived experiences. And so over time, I’m sure there will also be stories told about those parts of me that inevitably get woven into my making too.

Within these pages (and also my monthly letters) you will find honest words written from the heart. My thoughts on intentionally slow & sustainable making, my passion for natural fibres (especially wool) and the gentle rhythm that brings the light & shade to our days, shaped by the seasons and guided by a desire to do more with less.

It is my sincere hope that this place will also allow for conversations to open up between me & you. It has been many, many months since I last had the desire, time or energy to regularly sit down and write. But I am so excited to finally settle back in here and begin finding a rhythm that suits.

I’m looking forward to coming here again soon,

Fran x

the gift of toymaking

A brown rectangular basket on a wooden background, filled with toffee coloured mohair pieces, a reel of quilting cotton and two sewn and stuffed legs. Just visible are the white plastic safety joints poking out of the mohair. The pieces will become a OOAK artist mohair bear.

There is some magic in handmade. And that magic seems to only increase when it comes to making a plaything for a beloved little person. Perhaps it is the thought behind it, or the hours of love stitched into every seam, but it is quite simply magic. The magic works both ways, to both the recipient and the giver, as making a handmade gift always feels seems to be a gift for me too.