Keeping the Old Teddy Bear Looking New: Maintaining a Vintage Steiff Collection
A 1949 Steiff Teddy baby models a lavender sachet, perfect for keeping your mohair collection insect free and fresh smelling.
Special and precious things require TLC (tender loving care) and that is no different when it comes to Steiff (or other vintage mohair) collectibles. Yes, it is delightful to come across a newfound treasure by serendipity or on an antiquing adventure. But, once you have brought the item home, what’s next? Cleaning, display, restoration and storage are critical steps to help preserve your item for years to come. Let’s take a look at some best practices to keep your items in the best condition possible for the long run.
It goes without saying that cleaning ANY “new” vintage mohair item is a must-do. Why? There are four key reasons. First, obviously, is appearance. Dirty items simply look worse and less cared for than clean ones, and dirt and dust “mats” down mohair. Second is structural integrity and longevity. Dirt and dust are not good for mohair or its cotton backing and can weaken the materials over time, possibly decreasing the item’s lifespan. Third, dirty mohair items also can attract moths and other bugs, and everyone knows the havoc and sometimes-irreversible damage these insects can cause. Finally, when you bring a vintage item into your collection, most of the time you really don’t know the conditions in which it was loved, kept or displayed in any of its previous lives—or what might be hidden in the mohair. It is never a bad idea to thoroughly clean a vintage item before introducing it to the rest of your hug.
If you have any doubts whatsoever that your item has, or at one time had, moths or other pests, it is essential that you address this right away. If you see any tiny holes on felt surfaces like paw pads or ears, or “nibbled away” bald patches on the mohair, this is a sure sign of moth-visitors. This doesn’t necessarily mean the item has live issues now, but it does show that the item is tempting to bugs! Here’s what to do: There is a common belief that putting a collectible in the freezer for a few weeks kills any live pests inside the item. This may or may not be true, but putting an item in the freezer exposes it to moisture and freeze and thaw cycles that are quite bad for the item and can cause additional damage. What you should do is take the item and put it in a dark sealed Tupperware-style container along with a handful of mothballs for a month or so. This will definitely kill ANYTHING inside of the item. And don’t worry; the mothball smell goes away in a few days once the item is released from captivity!
The cleaning basics: Woolite, soft white cotton washcloths, and a wire pet brush.
Now for the cleaning. Cleaning mohair stuffed animals takes awhile, but the results are usually spectacular and gratifying in many ways! Here’s what you need to start:
• mohair item(s) you wish to clean;
• white terrycloth washcloths or rags;
• a cup of warm tap water;
• Woolite hand washing gentle detergent;
• a wire pet brush;
• (optional) a vacuum cleaner.
1. Remove as much surface dirt and dust as possible by shaking the item carefully yet vigorously. You don’t want to damage the item, so use common sense here. You will be surprised how much dust floats off of most items; even more tends to come off of long haired ones. If possible and practical, vacuum the item very gently and at a distance.
2. Make a solution of about one cup warm tap water and 1 tablespoon of Woolite detergent. Stir this up; the water will turn slightly cloudy-gray.
3. Dampen the washcloths or rags in the cleaning solution. Start at the bottom of piece and rub it down with the damp cloth. DO NOT soak the washcloth or the item; this is a surface cleaning only! You’ll be surprised what comes off, so keep changing the place on the washcloth where you are rubbing or you will be grinding old dirt into new places on your item. Work strategically your way upward or forward (depending on the design of your item), so you can keep track of what you have done and what’s left to be done.
One of the reasons to use white washcloths is so you can see the dirt that comes off your item and adjust the cleaning surface accordingly.
4. Once you have given the item a complete head-to-toe cleaning, take a clean white washcloth and rub the item down once more, to remove any excess water, cleaning solution or lingering dirt.
5. Let the item naturally air dry away from the sun and heat sources.
6. Take a metal-toothed pet brush and gently fluff up the item. It is amazing what a difference this can make.
NOTE: Of course, if you have an exceptionally old, frail, damaged or otherwise fragile Steiff collectible, it is recommended that you have it cleaned by a professional restorer who has experience with delicate items.
Closed, glass door cabinets are a great way to display your collection and keep it as clean and organized as possible.
OK, now that your item or items are squeaky clean, it’s time to show them off. There are a few basic display principles that also help with preservation. First, keep any mohair items out of the direct sunlight and away from direct heat sources, like a radiator or space heater. Heat and light tend to dry out the mohair and the stuffing. This can cause the insides to break down, especially if the item is stuffed with foam or excelsior (wood wool). Sunlight can also dramatically fade colored or airbrushed mohair, so keep that in mind as well.
Second, it is best, if possible, to display your items behind glass or in an enclosed case. This helps keep things as clean and dust free as possible. It also lessens the possibility of random moth invasion! It is also a good idea to put small sachets of lavender in your enclosed cases, as this repels insects without having an offensive odor.
Finally, Steiff animals look most attractive when grouped together. Put similar animals together (like the dogs, bears or cats) or group them by size or era of production. It is delightful to see several of the same models together to compare their faces and construction.
It is also important to keep displayed items and displays clean. Wipe the shelves clean every quarter and clean the animals annually. Yes, it can be a lot of work, but it is important to keep your items as dust-free as possible, and this annual check in can also give you a heads up for any possible otherwise hidden bug issues.
To restore or not to restore, that is the question for many collectors with items that may have fallen victim to a chewing puppy, moths or just plain time. Restoration is a very personal issue. It is not inexpensive but most restorers can give estimates before beginning work so you can see for yourself. In general, a professional restoration helps an item retain or grow in value; it should not decrease it, as long as the job is top notch. It is important, however, if you have had an item restored and are selling it, to note the specifics behind the restoration.
Certain things can and cannot be restored on vintage mohair animals and Teddy bears. If your item has lost eyes, or facial or claw stitching, or even stuffing, these things can usually be repaired. Felt paw pads can be resurfaced. Holes in seams can be darned; joints can be repaired. What is difficult to manage is if the mohair has really dried out—dry rot—and is crumbling. This requires heroic, time consuming and expensive repairs, if it can be fixed at all.
From the collector’s standpoint, here are two subjects that should be considered for restoration. First, if you have a marvelously rare and collectible item that you know you will most likely never find again and it needs work, go ahead and do it. This will add to the longevity of the item and preserve if not increase its value all around. Second, if you have a beloved family heirloom that is important to you and that you would like the next generation to treasure as well, then do that as well.
Finally, sometimes it is not possible to show off all of your treasures at once due to space issues. Or perhaps you have a special collection of rabbits that come out at Easter only or Christmas tree ornaments, which are reserved for holiday display only. So how can you keep them fresh and “healthy” in storage? It’s easy! Simply put your clean, dust-free items them in a sealed, dark Tupperware-style container with a few lavender sachets. It is a good idea to label the top of the bin with its contents, so you don’t have to go digging through the container to find something that may or may not be hidden within.
Taken together, these simple steps and best practices should help keep your vintage mohair finds—both new and old—in great shape for you and future generations to treasure.
Rebekah Kaufman is a Worthologist who specializes in vintage Steiff and other European plush collectibles.
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