Camilla Hibbert

Meet the Maker: Canterbury Bears

by Camilla Hibbert Global Stories 22 Nov 20

The Canterbury Bears Workshop is nestled in the Kentish Countryside, a short distance from the Cathedral City of Canterbury and is rooted in its location and its history. Kerstin Blackburn is an impressive business woman, whose passion is apparent in every aspect of this artisanal company, from her designs to the relationships she nurtures with suppliers and partners.  A traditional brand, with traditional values and practices, run through with an authentic story that people understand and want to be part of. Sustainability has always been part of their business practice, stemming from a time when there was not an ‘eco’ business vocabulary, it was simply the way the family believed the bear-business should be run. The parallels with Caryn’s creation of Thyme are unmistakable and it felt like the perfect partnership to approach Kerstin herself to create sheep and lambs that would be an important part of our ‘Take a Little Thyme’ range. 

1. Can you sum up the Canterbury Bears’ story and why it is so special?

We have been making Bears here in our workshop since 1979, when my father, British painter John Blackburn was commissioned by a friend to design and make a “very traditional bear” for his Mother’s 80th Birthday, who had lost her childhood bear during the course of her life.  This is very much a family business and we are privileged to have a team of dedicated and experienced bear makers who share a place with us in the Canterbury Bear story. Many of our team have been with us from the start and between us we have over 200 years of bear making experience. From the outset the ethos of our family business is that we are always 100% designed and handmade in England. Whilst our bears and animals are made here in Kent we have had the privilege of making bears and animals for some very iconic brands and our bears may be found in homes across the world as well as our own the Royal Household, Presidential palaces, and Flagship stores around the world so it is was very exciting to be invited to design and make the beautiful sheep for Thyme.

"From our Family to Yours" 

We make our bears, sheep and other animals in small batches, individually cut, machined, filled, hand-stitched and finished, with each and every one finally hand checked by me or Mother before leaving our workshop ensures our commitment to the highest quality. Our Bears and animals are made to last a lifetime and beyond, leaving our workshop with the underlying belief that our products truly are ‘From our Family to Yours’. When you buy something made by us, we can guarantee you it has been made with love by an experienced and dedicated team here. As a small company with a large presence I like to think we have remained accessible and available and I am frequently in touch direct with our current, past and future bear owners, and prospective clients when we are creating new designs and ideas. This personal contact is one of the many things that I love about being at the head of the company and keeps me connected.

2. Like Thyme, Canterbury Bears is a family business – we love hearing about how other families manage the dynamics of working together. 

Like all families, the dynamics change over time and it is just as true with our family business as it has grown and developed across the decades. It’s hard to remember a time when Canterbury Bears, wasn’t right at the centre of our family and like all family businesses the boundaries between family life and work life can be a little blurred. As our family has grown, so has “The Bears” as we call our business at home, and many of our most treasured bears were designed by my father to mark the birth of each new child in our growing family.  I started working with my parents at the workshop in 1979 and since 2000 I have taken over the day to day running of the company as MD, with my Mother alongside me. Whilst the creative energy and dynamism of my parents, now in their eighties, never seems to diminish, my father stepped back from the company in 2001 in order to focus on his art. His studio is next door to our workshop and he is always on hand should we need his design input or advice.  At times its “all hands to the deck” – particularly this year - and other members of our family drafted in to help with brushing, bowing and dressing our bears, wrapping and boxing and sometimes hand delivering local orders.  Occasionally Mother and I do have different ideas about new designs and traditional ranges but we have been working together over so many years we have learned to trust each other's instincts and we do have our “extra family members” in our skilled bear making team who may be invited to give a view; our chief bear maker has been with us for nearly 40 years. Growing up in such a creative and artistic family has given me the skills to find sometimes creative solutions to the challenges of running a small artisan company making bears and animals for customers across the country and the globe. Prior to starting his own construction company, my brother worked closely with “the bears”. He is a dab hand with our cutting and sewing machines when they need a tweak, and I know I can always count on his support if the going gets tough. I’m also lucky to have a very supportive husband and children who understand the demands of the job, especially when the working days stretch well beyond the 9-5 and the Monday to Friday. It certainly is a family enterprise but one that we all love.

3. You are Canterbury Bears’ Managing Director, but you designed our sheep for us, do you spend a lot of time in the workshop making bears? 

Yes, I am in the workshop most days, not just in my office but I am often to be found at the production table, cutting and sewing bears or at the blow filler stuffing them. Much as being MD involves all aspects of running the company, I still love to get my hands on a bear, or a sheep, or even a hedgehog, and nothing quite beats the delight of seeing something I have designed come to life as we complete the final stages of production. It also gives me an opportunity to work alongside our team, which as a small family company is very important and some of our most creative designs have evolved as we work together on different stages of production.

4. What is the process of making one of our little lambs? 

There are three key aspects to any of our creations: the right design, the right materials and the right construction.  It all starts with the design and in the case of the Thyme lambs we were fortunate in having some of Caryn’s beautiful drawings to work from, so we could soon translate her vision to a design pattern which would work. Once we have developed the initial pattern outline Janice, our ‘head bearmaker,’ will make several prototypes so that we can adjust the size and positioning of the limbs and head and get the expressions and weight of filling just right. Whilst the design and construction are key, choosing the right fabric is essential to having the right look and feel of it, we know about fabrics and source our mohair from one of the best suppliers in the world, Reinhard Shulte in Germany. For the Thyme Lambs we tested the feel and textures of several mohair samples before selecting the right ones for these prototypes before we finally sent them off to Caryn for her approval. Once Caryn was happy and we got the go-ahead production began. The mohair fabrics will be cut by hand ensuring the consistent direction of the ‘nap’ (so important when stroking your lamb) before handing over to be machined. Once machined the lamb is turned inside out leaving a small opening. The safety locking eyes are then secured. We have a blow fill machine and this is used to fill each lamb to just the right weight and feel. The filled lamb is then brought back to the table where the small opening is hand stitched. Finally she (‘or is it he?) then has a woollen nose sewn on and is brushed and checked by me, tissue wrapped, ready for delivery.

5. Tell us about your commitment to sustainability when sourcing your fabrics and materials?

With our commitment to 100% designed and made in England, we source our materials as close to home as possible such as our English wood, wool, tweed and tartans from the mills of Yorkshire and Scotland but we also recognise the craft and skills of artists beyond our shores and source kimono silks from Japan, and mohair from Germany.  We make our joints here in our workshop on a traditional Victorian press using sustainable English wood, and we use English hand-blown glass eyes crafted in the Midlands. Our creations are filled with 100% pure recycled white polyester; 100% pure cotton fibre ; or uniquely can be filled with 100% wood wool. With a growing recognition of the need to repair, and recycle we also restore bears and animals to their former glory and make bespoke creations using treasured items of clothing or fabrics. Our products are packaged in acid free tissue, recycled paper and cardboard.

6. You have the Canterbury Coat of Arms as your logo, what’s the story behind this?

As a well established business based in Littlebourne just outside Canterbury, we were granted the privilege of using the City of Canterbury coat of arms as our logo in 1987. This ancient marque is registered by the Garter King of Arms and dates from the 11th Century.

7.  What has been your proudest moment in the journey of Canterbury bears?

In 2016 my father, John Blackburn, was awarded an MBE for services to manufacturing and export in The Queen’s New Year’s Honours List, which was a wonderful acknowledgement of his hard work and was indeed an honour. But in addition to that, knowing that we have created thousands of bears which have given joy and happiness to so many people around the world is a source of great pleasure.

8. What do you see in the future for the Canterbury Bears brand?

As I have said earlier, here at Canterbury Bears, we love what we do and plan to be doing what we love for many, many years to come. We believe our Bears and other animals have something very special about them. I am proud to have created our ‘Thank You Bear’ earlier in this very difficult year so that we could send our Bear hugs far and wide whilst raising funds for NHS Charities Together and we plan to continue to support this and two of our other Children’s Charities. The tradition of the Teddy Bear is well established and we will always be making our beautiful bears. However, all things must evolve and I am very excited to be creating new designs in contemporary fabrics and working with other creative people and companies who share our ethos of sustainable quality creativity. Just like my parents back in 1979, the excitement of a new commission and challenge sparks a renewed passion for creating wonderful new products and new partnerships and I am very excited to be part of the journey through and with Thyme.