New Dubai mum’s big embrace of entrepreneurship with Bear Hugs by Cat

Mother launches start-up venture Bear Hugs by Cat, which hand produces teddies out of baby sleep suits as a memento for proud parents.

Catharine Steele with memory bears which she made out of baby sleep suits at her villa in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National
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When she started up her teddy bear making business, Catharine Steele had not touched a sewing machine in 17 years.

And as a mother of two young children, she was getting just three hours sleep a night.

But neither of these factors stopped her from forging ahead with her plan to set up Bear Hugs by Cat, which hand produces teddies out of baby sleep suits as a memento for proud parents.

“I love spending time with the kids, but I was starting to feel that all I was doing was talking about my children,” says Ms Steele, 33, who is from Surrey, England and has lived in Dubai for the last four years.

“I kind of thought, ‘I wouldn’t mind having something just for me’,” she adds.

She got the idea for her company from a friend, who started a similar business after having a baby.

The concept of making so-called memory bears, which have the baby’s name, birth date and weight embroidered on the paws, is very popular in the United Kingdom, where her friend’s business is based.

She knew of no such company that existed in the UAE. But just because there was no competition did not make it easy to get off the ground.

“My new one didn’t sleep for the first eight months, so [I had to try] to find time to get this done before Christmas to see if I can get any Christmas orders. I made a tester in October and thought, ‘do you know what, I can do this’. I went and bought a sewing machine and thought right, let’s do it,” said Ms Steele, who worked in media before she had her children.

The first of her bears – which she makes by cutting up between eight and 10 sets of baby clothes and stitching them together using a pattern – took her more than 10 hours. She now has it down to about six and a half.

But it was a learning curve.

First she had to learn how to use a sewing machine again, which was something she hadn’t done since school. That included taking it apart, cleaning it and putting it all back together.

“I bought one that had 15 stitches and I thought it had the stitch I need so let’s give it a go. I managed to do it and thought ‘OK, let’s see if I can build some bears and see how it goes’. But then it started to eat up the material and I thought ‘how do I stop this from happening’?”

And then there were the ears, which never bent the way she wanted.

“I made three or four attempts of just cutting ears out and realising how to make the roundness correctly. And that was it, it was all go. And touch wood I have kind of got into a rhythm of knowing how to do it. I don’t follow any patterns. Once the pieces are cut I know which bits to do and when to do it now.”

After she made two bears, she posted on the British mums Facebook page and set up a promotional one of her own. She has not had to advertise since. She has made about 17 bears since she started the company last November.

Finding time can still be an issue – she doesn’t have any help at home and her elder son, Charlie, aged 2, only goes to nursery three times a week, while her youngest, Alfie, nine months, is at home with her, leaving her working time limited to the evenings.

Ms Steele says she is never going to make much money from her bears – which, for now, she sells for Dh300. But that is not the point.

“It’s so rewarding. I handed over a bear yesterday and I always get the same reaction, that ‘it’s a lot bigger than we expected’, and the second is, ‘oh, it reminds me of when they were that small’,” she says.

Orders are steady but she has no plans to rest on her laurels.

“I am in the process of trying to do another character. Because most of us are having children in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and around, and we may not necessarily be here all our lives. The idea I am going to be doing is a camel because it reminds people of living [here] and having a baby [here].”

A tooth pillow is also in the offing for older children.

Mrs Steele never imagined she would run her own business but now she cannot imagine doing without it.

“If I decided to go back to work full time I don’t think I would ever leave Bear Hugs,” she says. “Who knows what will happen in the years to come but this is definitely me at the moment.”

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