Emily Wittstadt, Dorchester’s ‘Bear Lady’

Every year, the National Outdoor Show in Golden Hill has a live auction to help fund the event, and each year the signature item in the auction is a handmade muskrat fur teddy bear. If you’ve never been, it’s easy to make jokes about a muskrat fur plush toy, but when you get up close and personal, the Outdoor Show bear is just plain lovely. The fur is soft and luxurious, the arms and legs are articulated, the expression on the face is engaging. Clearly, it took time and much experience to sew the little critter.

Oh, and this year, the bear fetched over $2,400 in the Outdoor Show auction. This is without a doubt not a kid’s toy.

We wondered after the show this year who might be behind the creation of such an attractive — and undoubtedly valuable — teddy bear. The question brought us to the creator, Emily Wittstadt of Cambridge.

When we met Emily, she had just finished a bear for another client, another charity. She told us before she began doing fur bears she had made loads of them from cloth — terrycloth or plush material, with help from her mother before her passing.

“A friend of mine asked me if I could make a fur bear for a lady because she had a cape and she wasn’t going to use it anymore,” Emily told us. “I think it was her grandmother’s or her mother-in-law’s, I don’t remember now. I said I’ve never done it, but there’s always a first time. I sat there and I looked at that cape and I looked at it and I looked at it, and I thought if I cut that thing up I can’t put it back together if I screw it up.”

It was a mink cape, and Emily couldn’t bear to cut it up, it was so beautiful. “My daughter looked at me and she said, ‘Mom, you’re sitting here looking at the thing for no reason.’ I thought okay … so she took the scissors and she cut it. I said, ‘Okay, I’m good from there.’”

Making plush bears for the benefit of Care Bears taught her how to build a teddy bear, but it couldn’t prepare Emily for the difference in making a bear out of fur. “Because with material you can turn a pattern piece either way you want to go. With fur you can’t, because fur goes all in one direction.”

That one simple fact is the reason why each muskrat teddy needs 14 hides for completion. Each arm, each leg, the body, the head, the ears, they all have to have the fur running in one direction, or … well, you’ll wind up with a weird-looking bear. “The ears are the hardest part,” says Emily, and she shows us a bear she just completed for the Fur Trappers Association. To us, the ears look good, but to her they’re a little wonky. “They all have a different personality,” she says.

Emily sews them all by hand, because the hides are all different thicknesses, and it would require a specialized sewing machine in order to be able to control the stitches. “It takes me about two weeks, so I usually work on it in the evening, like a couple or three hours, or sometime in the morning.”

She says they all have different personalities. “I’m working on two right now, and for some odd reason or another I can’t get the ears right. The ears don’t want to match the bear, and I’m like, ‘cut it out!’ I sit there and I talk to them.”

The other tricky part is trimming the hair off the face once the bear is completed. “I told you when you called I had this bear here, but he was out getting his hair cut,” Emily said with a laugh. Cutting the fur is the one thing Emily plain isn’t comfortable with, so she takes them to her beautician. A fur bear in a hairdresser’s chair? I guess I’ve heard of weirder things …

We ask if she enjoys the work, which is basically a retirement job. “I do, and that’s the reason why I do not want to make a business out of it.

It’s fun for me at this point. It’s something that I can do in my leisure time, and each one of them comes out totally different.” She says she especially enjoys creating bears for the Outdoor Show, “because I know all the auction proceeds go to the Outdoor Show, and they need the money.”

“Bearly” making it? When you see the enjoyment in Emily’s eyes, when she’s admiring a just-finished bear, you know she’s doing just fine. She plainly loves every bear she creates.

Paul Clipper is the editor of the Dorchester Banner. He can be reached at pclipper@newszap.com.

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