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Forget Build-A-Bear, Meet Polka Dot Club

Written by James Kicinski-McCoy

Photography by Photos Courtesy of Jen Murphy

Over the whole Build-A-Bear thing? We feel you. With that in mind, meet The Polka Dot Club, a completely cooler bear-making brand. Already sounds like a group you’d want to be a member of, right? We thought so. Here, we go in depth with the founder of the PDC, the mega-talented mama of two and second-generation bear maker Jen Murphy, in this Mother Q&A.

What is The Polka Dot Club and what does it mean?
“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. The mohair I use is woven on one of only a few looms left in the world. The fibers 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 and begs to be passed on from one generation to the next. Our Classic Bears are also disk jointed, allowing the head and limbs to turn freely. I hand embroider each nose one at a time. Every step, process, material, and fiber is chosen specifically with play in mind. It’s not easy or fast, but every PDC bear is made with intention and love.”

Where did the name come from?
“I wanted something that felt contemporary but pointed to the past. I loved the idea of clubs and membership and got really into vintage ephemera from brands, shows, toys, etc. where people sent away for membership cards, secret decoder rings, and coloring books. I’ve always been a lover of polka dots (is there anything more timeless than a good dot?) and somehow the Polka Dot Club came to me. I liked that it could be either the bears were the club or the kids were—somehow it just seemed right. Of course, membership is free and open to all!”

How did you get into (stuffed) toy making?
“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, but I’ve taken the title on with pride after all this time. 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 they were selling for thousands of dollars, so being forever resourceful, artistic, and able to make anything she set her mind to, she decided to try making them herself. The only place we could find the mohair fur that was similar to these old toys was in the lining of vintage jackets. So, 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 in a few years she had quit her 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 teddy bear shows popping up all over the world. Convention centers 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 made my first teddy bear when I was 11 using the small scraps my mother was throwing away. In time, 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 selling collectable pieces.

Slowly my ‘side-job’ became my focus and my passion and I built a life making and sewing collectable teddy bears and animals under my name, Jennifer Murphy Bears. A few years ago, I began feeling like I wanted to switch things up a bit and reconnect with my original inspiration and make toys. I knew I was bringing joy to people who collected and loved what I did, but I really wanted to make heirloom-worthy teddy bears that kids would actually play with. I loved the idea that toys are not trashed when a child out grows them and I wanted to contribute to that idea.”

What inspires you and your work?
“I’ve answered this question so many times and each time I come up with something new. There are a million visual things that inspire and excite me, but lately I’ve been thinking so much about being a mom and a maker of things. My grandmother, my mother, and so many of my friends are makers. There is something in the activity of making functional objects, food, and toys for my family that is deeply satisfying. I make things now because I want my children to see that everything in our home is made, it doesn’t just appear on a shelf ready for us. It came from someplace and someone. I like to illuminate that we can be the makers of our things, it takes time and care, but I hope that knowledge imbues everything around them with new value.”

What’s the difference between Polka Dot Club and J Murphy Bears?
“When I began making bears it was because I wanted to play with them. As time went on, I was very interested in the very act of making things. I began making one-of-a-kind and later limited-edition pieces under my name. Most were stuffed with excelsior (wood shavings), had glass eyes, jointed limbs, and were made from mohair and 100% wool felt. These pieces are made so carefully and while totally durable, they’re not all made with children in mind. Glass eyes and a 3-year-old can be a dangerous proposition. The Polka Dot Club came into being because I couldn’t think of anything better than reviving the techniques and materiality of vintage toy making, but with an eye for design today.

Obviously the PDC currently has far less designs than the bears I’ve made under my name, but each piece is made with the same quality fabrics. These bears all have safety eyes and are stuffed with 100% cotton stuffing for children and discerning adults. I’ve used this stuffing for years in all my smaller bears, but stuffing the PDC designs with it means they are softer to the touch than those stuffed with excelsior, but hold their shape far better than the usual stuffed toys you see in stores today. I’ve spent lots of time working on safety concerns and have had all pieces tested by a lab for age-appropriate safety. This part was all new, but making toys in the U.S. and labeling them as such requires doing that extra step. It was important to me, and something I couldn’t do with my other work.”

What does a typical day look like for you?
“Every day is different. I’m so lucky to have a partner who’s also an artist who makes a living in his studio. We both make our schedules and this gives us total flexibility within our family to make sure everyone has what they need on any given day. Neither my son or daughter are school-age yet, so I’m still in the throws of raising young children. Things are loose right now. I’ve tried buildpartner a little differently than I did when I was 20 with JMurphyBears. I can’t work 10 hour days, 7 days a week anymore. Priorities have shifted, but I still love my work and fight to make it part of each day, too.”

Any future plans for yourself and/or Polka Dot Club?
“The thing I’m most excited about that’s currently in the works is collaborations with other artists and makers. When I set out to create the PDC, I was mindful that the creative freedom I’d had making pieces under my name was being distilled to only a handful of designs for the PDC and I ran the risk of getting creatively bored. I like that within the structure of these few designs anything can be tweaked, dressed, altered and made special with another creative person. I think I’ll be announcing a few collaborations this fall and I’m really excited about how it’s shaping up thus far.”

To purchase Jen’s incredible work, vist polkadotclub.com jmurphybears.com, and a handful of stores. In the meantime, whet your appetite by clicking through the photos below.

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