Making Burra Bears – an interview with Wendy Inkster
One of Shetland’s loveliest exports is the Burra Bear which are beautiful hand-crafted teddy bears, typically seen wearing Fair Isle designs!
“We have quite a few bears over in New Zealand – I suppose that’s maybe with all the Shetland connections over there. Some bears have gone to Tokyo, some have gone to South Africa. They are well travelled!”
These are created by Wendy Inkster and we were pleased to catch up with her to find out more!
Q. Can you tell us a bit about yourself Wendy? What did you do before you started making Burra Bears?
A. I left school when I was sixteen and went to work in the local library. I really enjoyed it and worked my way up to senior library assistant, but left when I was twenty three to have my daughter. When my daughter was three, my sister opened a soft furnishings shop, so I went to help her out part time. About the same time, Body Shop Direct came to Shetland and I was the coordinator in Shetland for a few years.
The bears just started accidentally, back in 1997. The first two bears were made as a gift for my sister. I saw a TV program where they’d used Arran jumpers to make cushion covers. My sister happened to have a Fair Isle jumper that she had shrunk by accident. I thought it might be a nice idea to make two teddy bears out of the jumper for her first wedding anniversary!
I gave them to her and never really thought anything of it until a friend of hers saw them and asked if she could have one. It gradually started from there; we just made one or two every now and again; we never planned to sell them at all. However, a Body Shop colleague and her husband had a gift shop just outside Aberdeen and they asked if they could sell them. It grew from there – I had to give up working with my sister and the Body Shop as the bears got busier!
Nowadays, folk get in touch online, through our website but mostly through social media – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and places like that. Most orders for bears come from the local shops and the ferries.
However, folk coming here with jumpers to get made up into bears is still a big part of what we do and that goes back to how we first started with recycling old knitwear. People come with jumpers they no longer wear or maybe something that belongs to someone who is no longer here. It’s a way to keep a memory alive by making the bear out of something that they wore.
Q. So cushions made from Arran jumpers were the inspiration, but how did you decide to make bears – were they something you knew how to make before?
A. No, I had always been someone who liked to make things but I never made soft toys before, I just thought bears would appeal to all ages.
Q. Are all the bears made from old Fair Isle jumpers?
A. In the beginning we bought old jumpers from charity shops. Going back 19 years, which is how long we have been doing it, you could find jumpers pretty much everywhere as they had fallen out of fashion.
However they have now come back into fashion so it’s really difficult to find old jumpers! With us getting busier and there being less jumpers available we knew we needed a more constant supply so we bought waste from the Fair Isle knitwear factory – cuts that hadn’t made it into the final jumper.
We still do that today but we also get Fair Isle fabric knitted up at the local textile college in Lerwick – using Shetland wool and based on old patterns. The fabric is knitted off in a big sheet and we get that whenever we need it. So it’s a combination of the three – recycling old knitwear, using the factory waste and getting new material knitted as well.
Q. Have the bears retained the same shape as the original one?
A. Yes – we pin the same pattern on the jumper and then we cut it out. The main difference is that over the years the bears have grown as there is more stuffing inside them now. In the beginning I hadn’t made toys before so I wasn’t used to shaping them. If you were to compare the very first bears to the bears we make now they are about double the size! It’s purely in the stuffing – which is made up of all the wool and all the scraps that are left over from when we cut out the bear. It all goes into a basket and gets recycled.
Q. Have you had any unusual bear requests?
A. We have had a few unusual requests over the years. One young man wanted to make one out of his wife’s wedding dress for their first anniversary. I suggested that since they had only been married a year, she may not be keen to cut it up! However it wasn’t the actual dress but some of the material that was left over when it was made. It had a floral pattern with a lace overlay and sequins. That was quite an unusual bear to make. I went through a few sewing machine needles creating that one!
There have been a few unusual requests over the years; some folk have even asked us to make noisy bears with things inside them, there’s a nautical bear that we made for the Sumburgh Lighthouse Visitor’s Centre and there’s a bear with Shetland dialect words knitted into the fabric.
My daughter works with me and she can create designs on the computer which can then be sent to the college and a sample is knitted up reasonably quickly. There are infinite possibilities to what you can do!
I must admit however that I tend to prefer the traditional Fair Isle Patterned bear to anything more different. The Fair Isle bear is the most popular one by far, but we make plain ones and bears made out of Shetland knitted lace as well.
Q. So your daughter works with you too?
A. Yes – she finished her textile degree just last year and she wasn’t sure what she was going to do. She’s really good at what she does and she’s worked with me before. She is also incredibly organised unlike me so it’s been great!
Q. Is there a bear that you’ve created that you’re particularly proud of?
A. I’m not sure because I’m proud of all the bears that I make! If I had to choose, I’m particularly proud of the Shetland lace bear. To be able to make bears from a hand-knitted lace shawl is really special because of the time that’s gone into creating such lovely material.
Q. Where’s your workshop based and can I visit?
A. We are based at East Burra on the east side. East Burra is connected to the mainland by two small bridges but it’s only 20 minutes from Lerwick. For anybody coming up to Shetland it’s fairly easy to visit. We are open most days from 10 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon.
Q. How can I buy a Burra Bear after I leave the island?
A. We can send bears worldwide and customers can contact us through email, Facebook or other social media channels. Folk can choose between the fabrics that we have here or we often have visitors who go home and look out a jumper and send it on. We quite often get parcels coming from all over the world containing various knitted garments – you never know what’s going to arrive with the postman! Buying a bear from outside Shetland is very easy to do and the postal service is really very good!
Q. Where’s the furthest one of your bears have travelled?
A. We have got bears in many countries and many of the folk that have bought bears keep in touch and let us know where the bears have gone to live! We have quite a few bears over in New Zealand – I suppose that’s maybe with all the Shetland connections over there. Some bears have gone to Tokyo, some have gone to South Africa, and one went over to Columbia with one of the tall ships a few years ago when they were here. They are well travelled!
Q. I noticed all the bears have fantastic names – how do you come up with them?
A. We have a book with Christian names and a book with place names and we just tie the two together. In the old Shetland tradition, if you were a known character from a certain area you would be known as Bertie o’ Burra or something like that. The Shetland place names book is well used in my house! Now, when folk are having bears made from their own garments they often choose the name themselves to make it more personal. It’s a nice touch.
Q. What’s the nicest story you’ve heard linked to a Burra Bear?
A. As folk keep in touch with us after they’ve bought a bear, we get a lot of lovely stories. However, one that particularly stuck in my mind was when we made a bear for a lass out of her late Grandad’s jumper.
She wanted to give the bear to her Granny but she wasn’t sure how it would be received because it hadn’t been long since her Grandad had passed. The customer asked me to make it anyway while she decided whether she was going to give it to her Granny or not.
In the end she did give the bear to her Granny who said, “Oh I really do like my bear but he sits with his head on one side.” The lass said to her Granny that I would fix it for her if she wasn’t happy, but her Granny said “No – it’s good in a way because it’s exactly the same way your Grandad used to sit!”
That story made me smile and hopefully the bear gave her Granny some comfort even though she had lost her husband – that story always sticks with me.
Wendy welcomes visitors to her workshop on East Burra, which is open most days from 1000 to 1600. For more information please visit or https://www.facebook.com/burrabears or http://www.burrabears.co.uk/
Orkney and Shetland enthusiast, family man, loves walks, likes animals, terrible at sports, dire taste in music, adores audiobooks and films, eats a little too much for his own good.