Thanks to Christine Smith for this piece on how the Mill worker bears became a very exclusive souvenir in our gift shop.
What makes a good souvenir? That was the problem faced by volunteers trying to raise money for Belper's North Mill. A group visit to Statford-on-Avon gave the answer: everybody loves a bear! However, our souvenir bears had to be something special.
Our museum, Strutt’s North Mill Museum, is housed in the first fireproof cotton mill in the world. It is part of the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site in Belper, UK. It tells the story of the Strutt family and how their enterprise and vision changed the town and the lives of their mill workers. It was this proud tradition that we wanted to celebrate and promote.
The first task was to find suitable bears to use, so the project leader, Christine Smith, set about careful research. The bears would have to look traditional, be a sensible size and price and most importantly, look attractive. Then we had to decide on the costumes. Each male bear would have an open-necked shirt, scarf or neckerchief, waistcoat and butcherboy cap. Each female would have a skirt, apron, shawl and cap. Most importantly, they would have names and personalities. Christine researched the local census records from the 1840s to 1860s and found the names and ages of real people who had lived in Belper and worked in the Mill. These were the people who were to be remembered.
Our main costume specialist was Jean Bellaby, who had made theatrical outfits for many productions in the town over the years. Other needlewomen pressed into service were Dorothy Griffin, who produced costumes by the score on her sewing machine, Liz Bolton and Ann Martin who made dozens of shawls and scarves, Pam Lloyd who worked on aprons, and many other volunteers who searched out materials. Christine assembled the items and created labels, as well as sewing many shirts, skirts and aprons.
We made a point of using recycled fabric such as old shirts and cut off pieces from other craft projects. Cotton was of course our material of choice. We looked for small checks and floral patterns, thick cotton Oxford for shirts, and even silk from old ties to form neckerchiefs. Many local people gave generously from their patch bags to help us get started. We took personalisation seriously: bears representing older widows might have a black button to secure their shawl, following the Victorian tradition of mourning jewellery. Bears which represented teenage girls might have a jaunty bow in their cap. Small children were commemorated with shorter skirts or outsize caps.
As the project developed a new link to past skills was included. To recognise the craft of chevening, or embroidery on stockings, which had been a cottage industry in the town, many of the female bears had an embroidered motif in one corner of the apron, usually with a floral or leaf theme. This allowed many of us to revive our old skills and use some artistic freedom.
At last the bears were ready to go, to be launched at a winter craft fair. They sold well, with some being sent off to friends and family as Christmas gifts. We know some bears have ‘emigrated’ as far as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada.
The bears are on sale in the gift shop all year round, and will also be available at local craft fairs this Christmas.