CATHLAMET, Wahkiakum County — Pat Talbott, a 71-year-old grandmother, says she would never wear fur.
But the Cathlamet woman has spent 35 years repurposing fur coats from animals, such as minks, skunks, alpacas and rabbits, to create teddy bears she shows and sells.
Over the years, she found a steady supply of unwanted coats and other outerwear in auctions and thrift shops.
People would spend thousands of dollars on a jacket, and later, after they died or came under criticism, the clothing would be abandoned. The waste tugged at Talbott’s heart, and she decided to use her artistic skills to sew bears, creating a lasting tribute to the animals sacrificed for coats.
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“At one time the fur trade was huge in this country,” said Talbott, who learned her thrifty ways from her Norwegian grandmother. “We killed so many animals, and there are still so many coats out there.”
Her husband, Bill, recalls when an upscale department store went out of business in Seattle. A Seattle socialite went there and purchased a fur that originally cost $10,000 on final clearance.
“She wore it one time to the symphony or opera and got booed,” Bill said. The woman contracted with Pat Talbott to make bears from it.
Before moving to Cathlamet 12 years ago, the Talbotts lived in Woodinville. That’s where she created her own patterns, which she cuts out of plastic so they can be reused.
At first, she stitched the bears by hand, then purchased a fur sewing machine from a shop in the Seattle area.
“It’s about a hundred years old,” she said of the machine, which purred along as she used cotton thread to stitch the pieces together. “Basically, it’s just a chain stitcher, heavy-duty, made to go through hide.”
She uses at least 60 pairs of scissors, each one razor sharp. They are expensive utensils, but worth the price, she said.
“I can get right down to the base of the hair, and I don’t have too much trouble keeping them sharp. I’ve only worn down one pair,” she said.
Talbott’s stockpile of furs has grown. Health concerns prompted her to move her workshop to the upstairs of the house, where she works near a bed piled high with furs of various colors.
For a time, Talbott stopped working on the bears, but now she’s back in the creative swing, working around her three-day-a-week kidney-dialysis routine.
Everything she needs is reachable in her upstairs room and in a work area she set up in the living room where she does the finishing work and applies noses and eyes.
Each fur type comes with its own challenges, she said, some of which don’t become apparent until she has started working on a bear.
“You can get a bear done, and suddenly it tears,” she said. “One of my bears, with a white face, it tore right over the eyes, so I gave him an eye patch.”
Sheepskin “can rot,” she said, which she discovered recently. “I got it done and found a rotten spot, so now I’m having to make a patch for it.”
In addition to using fur for the bears’ bodies, she recycles kidskin leather for the toys’ noses and vintage jet glass beads for the eyes. The materials offer a wide range of expression, she said.
No two bears are alike, but some creations have special distinctions. When a friend who ran a consignment shop happened onto a haute couture runway coat from the 1960s, Talbott scooped it up.
She made six bears out of the pastel-toned, multicolored fur.
“A woman came into a shop in Seattle where I was with one of the bears, and she said, ‘I have one of those,’ ” Talbott said. “It was a woman from Colorado who had purchased the first bear I had made out of the (pastel) fur. There are only six bears in the world that look like that.”
Families often bring a fur and ask her to make bears or other mementos.
Talbott is happy to oblige their request, which goes well with her other love — oral history. “Our strongest memories come from our sense of touch and smell,” she said.
“When the bears are done from grandma’s fur, then everyone wants to sit down and talk about grandma,” she said.
Talbott’s bears, which start at about $250, are not sold in stores, she said. “The bears tend to get shopworn. People like to handle them but not buy them.”
Most people understand she reuses abandoned fur coats and does not purchase new coats for her creations, Talbott said. One time, after a show in Renton, a teenager wrote her a letter about using all those poor animals.
Bill remembers his wife’s response. “Would you rather that they just get thrown out in the garbage?”
The young woman wrote back, saying she understood.
Preserving the remnants of a beautiful animal is a matter of ethics for Talbott.
“Many of them just break my heart,” she said.
She said she worked on a gray Icelandic seal fur that dated from about 1910, when the animals were still hunted. Now, “all of them are gone.”