Teddy creator bearing on despite broken arm

TYRONE (AP) — Cheryl Snyder may have looked like she was living a childhood fantasy nestled on her couch last week, snuggling multiple teddy bears.

In reality, she was showcasing her craftsmanship.

Snyder, 62, has been hand sewing bears for more than 30 years, all the time using materials that have sentimental value to her customers.

“I like to make people happy,” Snyder said. “I like to give them the chance to make memories for their family.”

Snyder specializes in creations sewn from keepsakes like wedding gowns, military uniforms, cherished blankets and, mostly, old fur coats.

Bears made by Snyder can now be found as far away as Asia, Europe and South America, she said, but her love for sewing began long before she crafted her first teddy.

“I started sewing when I was probably 5 or 6. My grandmothers both sewed,” Snyder said. “I just started sewing when they did.”

It started with clothes for her Barbies, but Snyder said she eventually learned to sew many items including clothing for her relatives.

Roxan O’Dellick, Snyder’s sister, said those skills were often sought in their Blair County home.

“Especially by our mother. Our mother wasn’t handy like that,” O’Dellick said.

Snyder remembered admiring antique bears, some that can sell for thousands of dollars.

“I always liked them, but I couldn’t afford one,” she said.

Instead, Snyder developed her own pattern that she uses to create firm, poseable bears.

“It’s sort of an antique style, but it has a little bit of a twist of the modern,” she said.

Snyder displayed parts of an unfinished bear, pointing out the pieces intended to make it whole.

In addition to numerous fabric pieces — the head alone requires seven — the bears have handblown glass eyes, and heavy cardboard and hardware are used in their joints, Snyder said.

And her work has allowed her to become an expert at identifying fur coats whether they’re mink, seal, beaver or even fake fur — all items she’s worked with.

“I didn’t know seals had fur until I started this,” Snyder said with a laugh.

Bears were not the only animals Snyder displayed. She showed off a handmade rabbit and said she’s made other animals like cats and snakes.

“People want very odd things sometimes,” she said.

Her first commissioned bear was made for a family member. Snyder said an aunt approached her about transforming a fur stole.

“She didn’t wear it anymore, but she didn’t want to give it away,” Snyder said. “So she said, ‘Can you make me a bear out of my stole?’ That was the first.”

Since then, she’s received commissions from teddy enthusiasts across the United States, as well as overseas. Snyder estimated she crafts 350 bears per year, each taking about eight hours.

At that rate, factoring in the cost of supplies, Snyder said she makes about $1.50 per hour for the bears, which can sell for as little as $40.

“It doesn’t go down much from there because it’s hard to make the smaller ones,” Snyder said, explaining work on small bears is tedious.

Snyder said she sometimes uses fur she owns to make bears and that will increase their sale price. Also, complex bear designs will sometimes drive the cost, she said.

Recently, a customer presented Snyder with a fireman’s coat, and she used it to dress several bears, she said.

O’Dellick said her favorite set of bears made by her sister were a bride and groom.

“I thought that they were so cute for people who were getting married,” she said. “It’s always neat to see how they end up”

Though she rarely gets to meet the recipients of her bears, Snyder said her initial consults allow her to learn about her customers and their families.

Last week, Snyder told a story about a time she made a wedding gift for a young woman about to get married. The bear was made from a stole belonging to the woman’s recently deceased grandmother and was meant to be a surprise, Snyder said.

“It was the saddest story I’ve ever had,” she said.

Not all interactions are as moving, Snyder said, revealing she’s had several customers refuse to pay for her work. She remembered one woman’s refusal as especially shocking.

“She wrote it to me in a Christmas card,” Snyder said. “That was the worst experience I’ve had.”

Others have deconstructed her bears in an attempt to steal Snyder’s unique pattern, she said. One of those people was a friend, Snyder said.

“Many years we did a lot of things together. She deceived me that way,” Snyder said. “But I look at it this way. I should just let it go. It is what it is.”

Snyder said she doesn’t advertise, but word-of-mouth referrals have kept her busy. O’Dellick said it’s sometimes surprising.

“It’s astounding how many people from out of state get her name and number from someone,” O’Dellick said.

Snyder’s biggest order, she said, was for 27 bears made from four or five coats.

With as many bears as she’s made, Snyder said she rarely gets nervous. That being said, she remembered a time when a woman asked for a bear made from an expensive fur coat.

“She came in first to look at my stuff before she brought her coat in,” Snyder said of the stressful meeting. “It was sable. Sable is the cream of the crop.

“If you have a sable coat, you have a very, very expensive coat. That one did make me nervous.”

Regardless of their material, Snyder said she has an affinity for all of her bears and made sure to point out they’re keepsakes, not toys.

“It’s not meant to be played with,” she said, recalling a time a customer told her she was buying a bear for her dog. “I wish she wouldn’t have told me that.”

Snyder said she used to take her bears to area craft shows and stores.

Making bears isn’t Snyder’s only job. She works in accounts payable for a local construction company.

The demand to produce enough bears to fill a craft show table was daunting in addition to her job, she said, so, now she only makes bears for orders.

“I came home from work, and I jumped into it, and that’s all I did,” Snyder said. “After a while you say, ‘There is life after bearing.'”

Currently, however, Snyder is facing another setback. A few weeks ago, she fell while walking her dog and broke her arm.

“I laid there on the road. I just laid out there,” she said. “I came in, and I said to my husband, ‘I think you better take me to the ER.'”

The break came at a bad time because holidays, including Thanksgiving and Christmas, are typically busy seasons, with many bear requests.

Snyder said her broken arm has prevented her from working on the hand-sewn bears.

“This is driving me up the wall. A couple times I just wanted to cut it off,” Snyder said, laughing at the idea.

“I have three more weeks,” she continued. “As soon as this comes off, I have to go in full swing.”