8 years into bearmaking, I had a breakthrough...
...I realized that there's a trick to making open-mouthed bears!
I've tried for years to figure out the mechanics of constructing a nice open bear mouth, and consistently struggled with the execution of my pattern. Then, the other day I was packing up a bear to travel home to the USA, and the epiphany hit me right out of the blue.
The problem was not my pattern; the recurring issue was maneuvering the fabric from the rest of the head around to get a tight stitch in the mouth inset. Sculpting the inside of the mouth was a huge pain because I had to work around the bulk/fabric from the rest of the head. Before I break an arm patting my own back for reinventing the wheel, I should point out that there are other master bearcrafters who long ago (way before I entered the scene) perfected their own techniques. I've always admired the artists who manage to consistently create a gorgeous open-and-smiling bear mouth, without sacrificing the rest of the bear's expression for the sake of the open-mouth feature. With time and practice, I hope that my technique will eventually be just as polished. Anyone who can sew can create an open-mouthed bear-- but getting it just right is an art that I couldn't master for a very long time.
The solution to my difficulty: sew and construct the entire muzzle separately from the rest of the head, and THEN sew the already stuffed (shaded, and thread-sculpted) to the rest of the head. Basically, I needed to treat the muzzle like another inset. The center-head gusset can be one solid piece, still. Of all the times to discover the key to a technique, it had to be when I was packing up another bear to travel. Timing is such a strange thing-- especially because I've spent many hours at my desk, sketching out pattern changes, trying to work out the process-- but the solution never occurred to me when I was overthinking the issue.
I was so excited by the epiphany, I couldn't wait to put the idea into pattern form. I re-drew my modern version bear pattern, then bow-sliced off the muzzle to modify into a separate pattern (including the obsessively-precise tick marks to synch up the pieces). After lining the Tissavel fabric with cotton backing (which takes forever since I can't iron the backing on synthetic furs), I put the muzzle together, lined again with doubled quilters batting to give the sculpting some depth. I was getting excited before I even joined the muzzle to the rest of the head-- everything was coming together so well. Adding the tongue and sculpted upper-palate to the muzzle was a breeze once I realized I had to sew the muzzle separately from the head. It still took a crazy-long time to make, and involved so much seam butterfly-tacking (since I can't iron synthetic fur, which melts under heat)-- but it wasn't hard to do, just a lot more work than a standard muzzle. If I had given it any real forethought, I would've used mohair or alpaca so that I could iron on the cotton backing instead of having to tack-stitch the perimeters of every...single...pattern piece.
I also pre-stuffed the tongue, and closed off the entire tongue (and tacked down the stuffing within the tongue), before I ever turned the head. I made the head opening a little wider than usual, so that I wouldn't have to strain the seams to turn the head with the pre-stuffed tongue.
When I make another open-mouthed bear, I'll try to remember to take photos and put together as a tutorial. On the web, I've been able to find snippets and hints about open-mouthed bear creation, but seeing the process step-by-step in photos would make it so much easier (I think) for other developing bearmakers to grasp. I know that reading the paragraphs above probably feels like sifting through word-barf. I'm not sure how many words I use are actual sewing terms, and which ones I just made up to explain to myself what I'm doing. A photo tutorial would really help show what I'm trying to convey with the process. I can't be the only teddybear creator out there who struggled with this particular concept. We need a tutorial (with pictures) to show how easy this process is supposed to be... so that's officially on my ToDoList for this year. Help from other artists along the way made a big difference in how quickly I refined my teddybear crafting skills. It's time I started posting my own tips and tricks to help other artists who might be struggling with the same issues I had. I'm so excited!!! I can make my own smiling open-mouthed bears now! Not only that, but the mouth looks super cute when it's closed, too... and cute from every angle. The biggest hurdle for me was making an open-mouthed bear whose expression still looked like a Peach Peddler bear. There was one previous head that didn't make the cut, and it went into a baggie with the V1 pattern, to help me remember why I made certain changes along the way. The Version 2 (V2) head is EXACTLY what I wanted. This is a major triumph for me, as a bearmaker! I don't think I'll make very many of these smiling cubs because they really do take ages to make, because I don't skip any steps or hurry. I am so happy that I can, at least, make a special bear for myself now and then. The one I'm finishing up now will be my Valentine's gift to myself. Then I need to get cracking on the lineup for the bear show in February. I was supposed to be working on that already when I was interrupted by that stray thought which led to a new technique.