Cuddly idea leads to a plush life

A teddy bear dinner of sorts spurs Fallston man to launch a collection of hand-stitched toys

October 15, 2006|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to the sun

David Stollery recalls arriving for dinner at the house of an acquaintance. It was supposed to be a meal for two, but Stollery noticed eight place settings.

"One by one, he brought in six big, beautiful, teddy bears," Stollery said. "He introduced the bears to me by name, told me a story about each one and then sat them in a chair at the table."

After dinner, Stollery beat a hasty retreat.

"I remember driving home and thinking to myself that I had just met my first nut case," he said.

Stollery shrugged off the incident, but the image remained in his head. Three weeks later, Stollery bought his first stuffed bear.

That was 1978, in his native Thames, England, and since then Stollery has amassed a collection of thousands of bears. In 1994, he began making them, and today his creations sell for $195 to $500 and have been featured in an art journal dedicated to the craft. Next Sunday, an exhibit of Stollery's bears is scheduled to open at Liriodendron Mansion in Bel Air.

Over the past couple of decades, the teddy bear has made a comeback, taking a prominent place among collectibles, according to the Teddy Bear Museum in Warwickshire, England.

But Stollery, a 52-year-old Fallston resident, says he isn't in the business to gain prominence for his craftsmanship. Rather, he found he couldn't collect bears fast enough.

"I am a true arctophile. That's the name they made up for adults who like to buy teddy bears because it sounds better than adult nut case," he quipped. "I needed more to feed my addiction, so I began making bears."

Stollery also is encroaching upon a gender barrier of sorts.

"Men who make teddy bears are very, very rare," said Stephanie Finnegan, feature editor for Teddy Bear Review, a Wisconsin-based trade journal. "Being a man in a field that is saturated with women, you have to do something to stand out if you want to make a name for yourself."

Stollery's creations, called Thame Bears, are handmade and mostly hand-stitched. They come 16 or 22 inches tall and are constructed with dyed alpaca mohair, glass eyes made in Germany, a hand-embroidered cotton nose and Ultrasuede paws.

The bears contain an antique trinket, such as pins, smaller stuffed animals, wooden tops, toy trains or baskets. The also contain a "growler" box - a device placed inside the bear that growls when turned upside down.

"David's bears have a refined elegance," said Finnigan, whose publication has featured his work. "They have a nostalgic sense to them. If you consider the idealized version of a childhood nursery such as the one at the beginning of Peter Pan, where you see a pram umbrella and a teddy bear sitting on a shelf, David's bears would fit right into that room."

Stollery tells of a bear-making career that got off to an inauspicious start in England in the 1970s, when he sold the first few out of the trunk of his car. It wasn't until 1992 that Stollery began receiving formal instruction. Along the way, he received pointers from friends.

"A surgeon taught me to stitch the teddy bears' stomachs with the stitch he uses in surgery," said Stollery, a freelance illustrator for medical journals.

These days Stollery makes about 150 bears a year. When not making them, he's tending to his collection of more than 10,000 bears.

"I literally have no space for any new bears," he said. "Although I don't keep any of the bears I make, I will always be buying new bears so I am adding an annex to my house for them."

Recently, he opened the door to the basement room where he keeps most of his collection. It was packed floor to ceiling with bears that cost from $1.50 to $550. Highlights include a Rupert Bear (featured in the longest-running English comic strip); his childhood teddy; about a dozen original Paddington bears (based on the popular children's book character); and a rare Steiff bear made in 1910 valued at about $5,000.

Stollery said he found the Steiff bear at an auction in Pottstown, Pa.

"I looked at it and hidden in the ear was a small Steiff button," he said. "I got it for $210."

Stollery donates some of the bears he makes to Good Bears of the World, a nonprofit started in England in 1969 that provides bears to ill or underprivileged children.

He recalled a bear he gave to the great-granddaughter of Theodore Roosevelt, after whom teddy bears are named. She had never owned one before.

"I attended a Christmas party at her house and gave her one of my teddy bears," he said. "She sat it on the couch next to her as she stoked a fire. She said she loved it."

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