Agnes & Me Part 2

So Agnes and I grew up in the same small town by Göta Kanal in Sweden which I wrote about last month. But we also share an unusual pastime and profession. In another life, I didn’t get up at 4 am to write; I got up at 4 am to cut and stitch.

While planning Agnes Treading Water, I originally had Agnes being a reluctant lock master with a fear of water, but when it became obvious that the Swedish lock system is all high-tech these days, she became a teddy bear artist. I know, such a strange choice of profession for my protagonist. Agnes isn’t aware of this herself but she began making bears at a young age out of the need to beat her loneliness and find a connection to her parents.

But in general, how does one slip into bear artistry?

I’d say, it helps if you don’t have a job to go back to after all your children are finally at school. It’s equally beneficial if you’re not enrolled in a uni course or halfway towards a degree. And it’s particularly good if you’re procrastinating, keeping at arm’s length what you fear—your ultimate dream. In my case, writing.

There was a journey to be had with all kinds of handmade crafts before I took the plunge into fully jointed teddy bears in the tradition of Steiff bears. I won’t bore you with that prologue.

One day I was reading a bear magazine, admiring the extraordinary creative talent of Australian artists and when I got to the big advertisement at the back from a supplier of all that was needed to make a bear, I thought, why not place an order? I already had a registered business. To get the wholesale price I needed to buy five metres of fur, so I did, a wide selection of *mohair, discs and screws, and special thread and all kinds of special tools. A week later my box arrived with the excitement of learning something new. Tucked in between the furs, there was an invitation for a Sydney bear show. If you were an artist, you could book a table. I wasn’t one yet, but I gathered I would be by the time the show came around. Enthusiasm goes a long way

These bears are from years later towards the end of my bear artistry career. My 6-8 inch bears with less details and shorter limbs became my ‘bread and butter’ bears.

As a young woman wanting to be a fashion designer, I’d completed a 2-year college. Among other subjects, I learned to design and draft patterns—for clothes, not body parts. My first attempt produced a 5-inch stick-legged creature with the face of a serial killer. My second attempt was a lot taller and much friendlier, but still with rather stalky legs. I made two more and on my next craft fair, I took my three bears with me.

At that fair, a bear connoisseur noticed them and took a closer look. He commented on my poor back seams and dreadful noses. He was right on both accounts. Somehow I’d forgotten about ladder stitching and I’ve never enjoyed or mastered embroidery. It gave me an idea. I’d read in a book about teddy bears that some of the first ones were given so-called rosin (a kind of resin) noses that were stitched on. There were two big Teddy Bear Supply companies in Australia at the time—Beary Cheap and Gerry’s. The latter was at the craft market and I approached them and asked if they sold bear noses you could attach to the bear snouts. No. Did they know anyone who made and sold them? No. I was told that bear artists are secretive about their noses.

I went home and asked hubby if he could please sculpt noses for me, make moulds, pour some in resin, and attach hooks to them. Wayne’s a patient man with an eye for detail and he said he’d give it a go. He got busy designing noses in different sizes. I got busy making bears with proper back seams.

I made sixteen bears, two kangaroos, and one koala. On every one of their muzzles, I attached one of Wayne’s noses. Meanwhile, he organised an A4 display board with all his designs. We were ready for Sydney. Or so we thought. Or, he was. I wasn’t.

This is Arthur, a 14 inch bear. This became my style. Just like Agnes does in her story, I made them look tattered. That really was the fun part. 

I’d never been to a bear show. I’d never collected bears, or met other artists. I’d scrolled through a couple of bear mags and found two Australian artists who impressed me with their work: Deb Sargentson and Marnie Pantano. Apart from that, I knew nothing.

The show was set up on the top floor of the terminal at the Rocks in Sydney surrounding us by glass and the beautiful harbour. A few hundred artists from all over Australia and some from overseas were there with their best work. And how good was their best work? After I set up my table, I took a walk around the place. It didn’t take me long to work out that I was not ready to display, let alone sell, my bears. I was a novice, a neophyte (doesn’t that word nail it) among the crackerjacks of the teddy bear artistry. I’ve suffered many humbling experiences in my life. This topped, pretty much, all of them.

I wasn’t even going to include a photo of me on that dreadful weekend but decided to be brave. My presentation was atrocious. I should’ve left the calico dolls at home to begin with. So cringeworthy.

It’s embarrassing to admit, but I returned to my table with a hunched back and tears of shame.

The weekend dragged on with me trying to keep a happy face while Wayne walked around with his display board promoting this new side-business to anyone remotely interested. Every so often I’d go for a wander to admire others’ work and forget about my miserable critters.

Suddenly there was Deb Sargentson’s table and I was gobsmacked. We said hello to each other and I admired her creations—the ones still there. She’d sold most of hers already.

‘How long have you been making bears?’ I asked.

‘Ten years,’ she said. ‘And you?’

‘Ten months.’

We chatted for a bit. Then she said, ‘You’ve seen my bears, it’s only fair I see yours.’

I wanted to vanish, evaporate into thin air, run to the ladies, have the fire alarm suddenly go off, or faint to distract. On the way back to my corner I hoped to spot a display where the owner was missing so I could claim it for two minutes. No such luck.

I was mortified when we reached my sad lot. I’d sold one bear which was nothing short of a miracle. Deb picked up my bears and put them down, picked up and put them down. ‘You need to give them weight,’ she said. ‘Steelshots. Weight gives them a sense of value.’ I took note. ‘And who makes your noses? Your husband. Sorry, you’re gonna have to learn how to make your own.’ Apart from that she encouraged me, said they had what mattered in the end—personality.

Left: This is the first fully jointed kangaroo  I ever made and one of the creatures Deb held. He was softly stuffed, floppy, and light. Sold him at a later date.

Right: This kangaroo design I won an award with a few years later. The other creature is a wombat. These guys are much smaller, firmly stuffed, and heavy. 

Before we left on the Sunday, I went to say goodbye and thank her. ‘I won’t wish you luck,’ she said. ‘You don’t need it.’ I never saw Deb Sargentson again in all the bear shows I did, I think she faded out, but I’ve never forgotten her.

Marnie Pantano was also at that bear show. Her work was amazing. I don’t think we spoke but we became friends later on. She’s still making bears and they are out of this world. Marnie has certainly mastered embroidery and everything else. We even did a bear swap, once. I still have hers.

That first bear show was a tough lesson for me, but also a gift. I left Sydney with a newfound determination to learn and do better. Wayne left with an order for 600 noses.

*Mohair comes from goats that have been shaved. The hair is woven into a strong cotton weave. No animal suffering.

3 thoughts on “Agnes & Me Part 2”

  1. Anna-Karin Isberg

    What a remarkable story !
    You are so talented and if I could describe a better word is innovative a good one ☝️
    The best is yet to come !!
    Best wishes from


    1. charlottefrench_admin

      Thanks Anna-Karin. Funny though. You probably don’t remember but in school I only did sewing for a season because I had to. I chose woodwork instead where I felt bullied by the teacher. 🙄

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