I've had my eye on Jennifer Murphy's beautiful handmade bears for a while and have been thinking of making Eli, a tiny stuffed elephant from one of her downloadable patterns. I contacted Jennifer to ask a few questions about her work and to find out more about the POLKA DOT CLUB.
How did you start making bears and soft toys?
My mom has always been a collector of things and in the 1980's she was especially drawn to old mohair teddy bears. At the time selling, they were selling for thousands of dollars, so she decided to try making them herself. The only place we could find the mohair fur that was similar to the old toys was in lining of vintage jackets. We would drive all over southern michigan to every thrift store gathering old jackets and ripping them up. This all started when I was 7 years old, and by the time I was 11 she had quit her conventional hospital job and was traveling all over the country selling her amazing teddy bears to collectors. An artist teddy bear movement was happening and there were huge shows popping up all over the world. Convention centres were filled with people making and buying teddy bears. It was a strange and amazing way to grow up. My mom built a business and made it work. I was inspired.
I started out making bears from the scraps she couldn't use when I was 11. I would put a few of my bears out on her table at shows and began to draw collectors of my own. I put myself through college, making and selling bears, and in 2001 I launched my website www.jmurphybears.com. I've been making mohair and wool toys for what feels like my whole life. It's a strange and amazing thing to be a second generation teddy bear maker.
What is the POLKA DOT CLUB?
The POLKA DOT CLUB
is a collection of heritage
toys. Each bear is made by hand in Minneapolis, using the same materials and techniques employed by the finest toy makers over 100 years ago.
The first teddy bears were designed and made out of mohair and it’s still the best fabric available today. Our mohair is woven on one of only a few looms left in the world. The mohair fibers (sheared from the mohair goat) are looped onto cotton backing, creating a 100% natural fur that’s durable, beautiful, and totally unique but because of its expense and rarity almost no toy makers use it today. Mohair ages very differently than the contemporary alternative - synthetic plush. It ages with dignity, showing it’s years gracefully and begs to be passed on from one generation to the next. Inside all PDC bears is 100% cotton stuffing and the Classic Bears are disk jointed allowing the head and limbs to turn freely. I hand embroider each nose one at a time with love and care. Every step, process, material, and fiber is chosen specifically with your child in mind - It's not easy or fast but every PDC bear is made with intention and love.
What is the difference between the POLKA DOT CLUB and your own Jennifer Murphy Bears?
I started making and selling my bears when I was so young, it was a business that slowly turned into a living before my eyes. I sold one-of-a-kind mohair pieces that looked like toys but were made for adult collectors to plop on a shelf and admire. I was basically making toys that weren't meant for kids, which just seemed wrong given my inspiration was old toys that were played with to the point of becoming hairless and deformed with love. No one was making mohair toys for kids today. Even Steiff, the first and finest maker of teddy bears and animals was making stuffed animals "not intended as a toys". I wanted kids besides my own, to have these objects, and have the pleasure of passing them on to their children. It has so much to do with those bears my mother and I admired when we began this whole thing in the 80's. Bears that were over 100 years old, and played with for generations. I wanted to start that again.
How do your kits work? I'd love to make one - are they difficult?
I'm really connected to the materials I use - mohair specifically is just so beautiful. I want everyone to be converted to it's magic so I've made patterns and supplies available on my website. While none of the patterns are easy, the instructions are incredibly detailed. There are videos and so many photos, in the 5 years they've been available, I think I had one person have an question about how to do something. That feels like a victory.
Basically, there are the patterns and then there are the supplies needed to make those patterns. You can buy one or both. I think it's easier to make the project with the materials it was drafted for, but wool felt or even cotton would work too. Skip the synthetic fur though, the backings are just too thick for these patterns. I think it would just be an exercise in frustration.
Where can people buy your bears?
Both of my websites have online shops. In the JMurphyBears shop, there are patterns, supplies, and occasionally I update it with one of a kind and limited edition teddy bears and animals for collectors. I announce the date and time for the updates on my social media feeds and my mailing list.
As for the POLKA DOT CLUB, there are a handful of pieces I make available all the time like the PDC Classic Bear, but I'm always working on new things. For instance this spring I made a Rolypoly linen Rabbit which was only available for a short time. I like to switch things up in the studio, it keeps the whole process fresh for me while bringing new designs in to the mix.
What are your plans for the future?
There are so many challenges in starting this new business. The POLKA DOT CLUB is now only a year old, though it took about 4 years to nail down all the details and legal issues not to mention the millions of little details I couldn't ignore before I was ready to launch it out into the world last summer. I feel like I'm just beginning to get my footing, but I have plans for new designs and pairing with other designers and artists for collaborations. Most importantly, I plan to spend this summer with my two little kids, the oldest of which heads to kindergarten this fall. How time flies.
Thank you Jennifer! Please visit www.polkadotclub.com to find out more.