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In the early nineties, wool prices plummeted in Australia, leaving rural towns staring down the barrel. It was the crisis that birthed Tambo Teddies - an unlikely success story, but one that would put the tiny outback town of Tambo, Queensland, on the map.

Today, mention Tambo to anyone, and they'll inevitably respond with "Teddies!" In fact, the state premier has gifted teddies to Jacinda Ardern and the royal family. Not bad for a town of about 380. Kiwi owner Alison Shaw, 57, who hails from Ōtautahi Christchurch, says people are looking for something of quality that they can treasure for a lifetime. The teddies, which are named after local Tambo properties and made from Aotearoa New Zealand and Australian sheepskin, certainly fit the bill.

But how did a Canterbury lass end up in the outback? While jillarooing, Alison met her husband at the local pub. She remains a Kiwi at heart, though - with a daughter in Wellington and mother in Christchurch - and remarks on similarities between the two rural communities: "Same sort of challenges, living in the high country and living in the outback." And, of course, many teddies are made with New Zealand sheepskin, sourced from all over the country.

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But how did a Canterbury lass end up in the outback? While jillarooing, Alison met her husband at the local pub. She remains a Kiwi at heart, though - with a daughter in Wellington and mother in Christchurch - and remarks on similarities between the two rural communities: "Same sort of challenges, living in the high country and living in the outback." And, of course, many teddies are made with New Zealand sheepskin, sourced from all over the country.

Alison worked as a wool classer for twenty years, continuing on and off when she had her kids. "I absolutely loved it, and I do love wool, it's a fantastic fibre." In 2014, she and Tammy Johnson took over Tambo Teddies, which had historically been a small-scale operation. According to Alison, the process was manual, slow and messy. "We had to find ways to increase production and find staff to stick around in a small town."

In 2019, they turned to Toowoomba, a bigger town and major migrant resettlement community 800 kilometres down the road, where they set up a sewing hub employing Syrian refugees. "A contact put me in touch with Multicultural Australia. We met them, discussed our needs and went from there," says Alison. "We outgrew our first premises in twelve months and have purchased a much larger building for manufacture and warehousing. We have also set up a retail location where people can come and see their bears being made. We now have sixteen people employed!"

Scaling up a cottage industry without losing its essence has been a challenge. To this day, each bear is still made by one person from start to finish and, according to Alison, they can be the same pattern, or even cut out of the same sheepskin, but when they're sewn up, they're different. "We register who they go to live with, and people contact us a lot about their bears. We've just had a customer named Nelly write to us. She said, 'I have one, our thirteen grandchildren each have one and we have also purchased one for each of my goddaughter's three children.'"

 

This story appeared in the Ngahuru Autumn 2022 Edition of Shepherdess. You can find your copy at one of our stockists or order a copy here.

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