Hello - welcome to my blog! I am writing this post in conjunction with a sewing pattern for a little 9" teddy bear which I hope to release soon. I hope it is helpful. If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments and I'll be sure to get back to you.
Mohair is my favourite fabric for bear-making - not just because of its beautiful lustre, but because its physical properties make it one of the easiest fabrics to work with.
However, given that it costs £40 - £140 per metre, you might want to explore cheaper alternatives - particularly if you have never made a bear before.
I've been thinking about those physical properties that make mohair so perfect for bear-making. If you know these, you can look for alternative fabrics with similar properties.
They are as follows:
Woven backing: Mohair does not have much stretch to it - in large part because it has a woven, rather than a knit, backing. Look for alternatives that are woven.
Strength/thickness: Mohair is a fairly sturdy fabric with little 'give' to it. So, for example, if you are making an unjointed bear, you can stuff one limb without pulling the other limb out of shape too much. It is also relevant with jointed bears: the fabric needs to remain firm and in position when the joint is moved. Mohair will do this whereas, for example, quilting cotton, will twist and distort around the joint.
The thickness of the mohair also ensures that the texture of the stuffing does not show through.
To replicate these qualities, you could use a heavy upholstery fabric with a light interfacing, or cotton with a heavier interfacing. You can buy interfacing from most fabric supply stores. Try the fusible type, which will bond to your fabric when you run a hot iron over it.
Lack of fraying: There are exceptions, but generally I have found that mohair doesn't fray much. This is particularly important in the final stages of bear-making, when sewing up the openings left for the insertion of stuffing. As the raw edges are pulled together around a solid mass of stuffing, the fabric comes under great pressure. If you are using a fabric prone to fraying then the stitches, when pulled, may simply rip through the small seam allowance, leaving a ragged hole behind.
You could use Fray Check on the edges. It's a sort of varnish-like liquid which you can paint onto the fabric and, when it dries, it sticks the fibres together to prevent fraying. It does come with its own problems though. It tends to dry hard, so you have to stitch just beyond it, and then holes tend to appear around the base of the stitches, where they stretch the fibres of the fabric.
Stay away from fabrics which you know have a tendency to fray.
Pile/fur: I suspect that the cotton backing of mohair fabric is actually strengthened by having mohair fibres woven into it.
Beyond this though, choosing a fabric with a pile conceals many flaws - untidy stitches, wrinkles, knots where the sewing thread had been tied off. Even a fabric with just a little surface fuzziness, like fleece, could be an advantage.
Below are listed some alternatives to mohair that I have tried successfully.
1. Fleece: Too stretchy on its own, but you can line it with interfacing - the kind that you iron onto the back - and then it becomes absolutely perfect. The one drawback I have found is that it can be difficult to embroider the bear's nose over fleece. In the picture (below left) I have just sewn a patch nose, and abandoned any attempt at embroidery. One solution to the problem is shown in the picture (below right): replace the fleece of the muzzle with a sturdy piece of lined cotton. This should be easy to embroider over.
2. Faux fur: You need to take care with faux fur. The inexpensive kinds that you can buy in ordinary fabric/haberdashery shops often have a knitted backing. The types that I have used have had some kind of stiffener applied to prevent stretching, but this never seems to be completely successful. It may be a good idea therefore to line your pattern pieces with fusible interfacing.
I made this giant panda (below) out of faux fur, and lined each pattern piece with cotton fabric before sewing.
3. Cashmere: You can buy a man-made cashmere fabric from online teddy bear supply stores. (If you are in the UK, try Christie Bears, or Bear Basics.) I make tiny mooses out of it. In the picture below, the figure on the right is what the moose looked like before he was turned right side out. You can see that there is a sort of white silicone-type mesh attached to the back of the fabric to give it strength and stability. It works well for small patterns.
4. Cotton: The little patchwork bear (below) was made by first cutting out the pattern pieces in plain cotton, then layering and sewing scraps of colourful cotton and denim over the top. With this double-thickness fabric, the bear came together quite well - although not without the odd wrinkle here and there. The cotton was prone to fraying too, so his stitching was not very neat in places.
5. Linen: I use upholstery linen to make crows with. I line the pieces with fusible interfacing first, then Fray Check the edges. It is very prone to fraying - even with these precautions - and trying to sew up the openings after stuffing can be tricky. For this reason, I wouldn't recommend it if you've never tried bear-making before.
On the other hand, it has some advantages. It has the strength/thickness which is listed above as one of the best qualities of mohair. I really enjoyed working with it: it's definitely worth a try if you have a little more experience.
I have only tried 100% upholstery linen. I cannot vouch for ordinary linen or linen-mix fabric; it could be that these are stretchier and less stable.
A note about velvet: You might have expected to find velvet on a list of good alternatives to mohair. I have tried it several times. It certainly looked stunning on each occasion but the modern fabric in particular frayed terribly, and was tricky to sew up after stuffing. The vintage mohair wasn't so problematic.
If I find any more good alternatives, I shall be sure to add them to the list. I would love to know if there is anything which you have found works well!