45th Annual Meeting, May 31st, (Textiles) “ Oh, Bother: The Conservation of Winnie the Pooh and Friends” by Alison Castaneda

Like the conservation treatment of the World War II plane “Flak-Bait,” detailed in a talk given earlier in the Opening Sessions by Lauren Horelick, the treatment of Pooh and Friends was an example of a complex textile treatment that straddled the border of disciplines.  The three-dimensional plush toys, made from fabric and sawdust filling, were an excellent example of a treatment that can cross barriers and generate interest in textile conservation.  These beloved characters got another well-deserved moment in the spotlight on Tuesday afternoon, along with their champion Alison Castaneda.

The five small stuffed animals were the original toys on which A. A. Milne based his charming stories.  The first toy Milne purchased for his son Christopher Robin in the 1920s was a standard teddy bear from Harrods.  Soon, Pooh, as he was named, was joined by Piglet, Eyore, Roo, and Tigger, all of whom came alive with the unique voices and personalities given to them by Daphne and Alan Milne.  When A. A. Milne, who had already been an accomplished adult author and poet, was inspired to reach other children with the magical world him and his wife had created for their son, it was important to ensure the characters were true to life.  The iconic illustrations by E. H. Shepard were based on the toys themselves, a detail that was important to Milne.

Following the success of the stories, the toys began their world tour.  Publisher E. P. Dutton & Co. brought them on a PR trip to New York City and further, visiting libraries, schools, museums, and malls, delighting children across the globe.  Life on the road took its toll, however, and by the time the rag-tag crew was donated to the New York Public Library in 1987, the toys were worn, misshapen, and the multiple campaigns of repair were not always skillfully performed.

While initially put on display in this state, complaints began to mount regarding the worn appearance.  The historic toys appeared uncared for.  Furthermore, the damage and rough repairs had morphed the animals, almost Frankenstein-like, into characters that no longer matched Shepard’s sweet illustrations.  The treatment that Castaneda undertook was therefore designed not just to stabilize, but return Pooh and Friends to a state that reflected their original design without hiding the wear and tear that is a natural outcome of a well-loved toy.

The first challenge was unpicking the history of repairs.  By comparing old photographs and accounts from the family, Castaneda was able to differentiate between “historic” repairs, or those performed during the comparatively short time that Pooh and Friends spent with Christopher Robin, and those undertaken on tour.  During examination, it became apparent that the level of skill and care in the lovingly stitched Milne repairs differed vastly from the later rough repairs provided by the publishing company.  Due to the importance of the early history of the toys, Castaneda only removed these latter repairs.

The difference was staggering, especially in the Roo toy, whose neck had lengthened at some point after leaving Christopher Robin, resulting in an alarming, elongated appearance.  Some of the repairs were so extensive that once removed, little fabric was left.  Because the appearance of the toys was integral to their meaning, and some structural integrity was required to keep the sawdust filling from pouring out, Castaneda created fills with cotton fabric inserted underneath the original fabric.  Overlays with toned alpaca plush and/or dyed net were used to visually infill the often extensive losses.

Castaneda didn’t just replace paw pads and shorten stretched necks.  She also created custom mounts that would gently support the toys on display and while travelling so that they could be safely enjoyed by generations of children to come.