Above: A few memory bears, made by volunteer Nancy Crow, await pick-up. Photos by Kathy Dean.

Ten years ago, a call for help went out to the Atlanta chapter of the American Sewing Guild. An Atlanta hospice was looking for volunteers to stitch together bears for the patients’ families. The handmade, custom bears — called “memory bears” — are made from the clothing of the loved one who has passed away.

Nancy Crow with Memory BearAt the time, Nancy Crow was leading Sew Creative, a sewing guild in Fayette County. “I thought it would be a good group project,” Crow said. When the hospice, VITAS Healthcare, sent her the material, it turned out that none of the sewing group’s other members were able to take on the project, “so I did the first 10 bears on my own,” she said.

Since that time, Crow has made over 2,725 memory bears, finishing about 300 of them in 2018. In recognition of her work, she received two awards in 2011 from VITAS Healthcare for volunteer achievement, one from the Atlanta hospice and another from the VITAS national headquarters in Miami.

Many Types of Memory Bears

Though possibly the most industrious, Nancy isn’t the only person who makes memory bears. VITAS has one other woman who sews the bears for their patients.

“People all over are making them,” Crow said. “Just Google ‘memory bears’ and see.” Websites like Pinterest and Etsy show many versions of memory or keepsake bears that can be custom made, and there are a variety of sewing patterns available.

Crow uses the Simplicity “It’s Sew Easy” A2115 pattern. But the bears are all different, she said. “How I make the bear depends on the material they bring to me. I ask the families to provide whatever is meaningful to them.” And that could be just about anything, from wedding dresses, military uniforms and silk scarves to leather jackets, T-shirts and bathrobes.

After sewing and stuffing the bears, Crow adds eyes and a nose, maybe a ribbon if necessary, but otherwise only uses what’s given from the families. “Mine have no mouths,” she added, “because you can talk to the bear, but you shouldn’t expect it to talk back.”

She said that figuring out what fabric to use and how to cut it into the pattern takes the most time. It can be challenging, too, like when she gets a large logo, a baseball cap or material that’s very stretchy. “I get creative on how to make it work,” Crow said.

She believes it’s easier for her to make the bears than it would be for family members to make them. “I can cut up the garments,” she said. “It’s too personal for them; they’d never be able to do it.”

Memorable Bears

The most difficult bear project she ever received was when she got three men’s white t-shirts. “I added bows to keep them from looking so dull,” she said. One of her favorites is the bear she made from Crown Royal bags supplied by the family.

Crow remembered one woman who sent material that her mother had used to make dresses for her and her sister. “I shaped the material and added a skirt to the bear to represent the dresses,” she said.

Grumpy and Crown Royal memory bears
Memory Bears can be made from and fabric sent by families, including T-shirts and even Crown Royal bags. Photo courtesy of Nancy Crow.

Another woman had included a bunch of her father’s socks among the garments she sent. “They had a strong memory attached to them. Every morning, there was a discussion: do you want your socks on or off?” Crow said. “I cut down a few of the socks so I could add them as part of the bear’s feet and legs. I met that lady at the memory bear reunion that year, and she was over the moon about the socks on the bear.”

VITAS hosts memory bear reunion events where families are invited to bring the bears, meet the women who sewed them and share their memories. “We like to hold the reunions as a kind of memorial event and support group,” said Andrea Temple, Volunteer Service Manager for VITAS Healthcare in Atlanta. “It can be difficult to plan, however, since we cover 24 counties in the metro Atlanta area.”

Temple delivers the fabric to Crow, along with any special instructions from the families. She coordinates volunteers who make the bears as well as those who sew other items for hospice patients, including lap blankets for veterans and ‘fidget’ aprons and blankets that provide tactile stimulation for Alzheimer’s patients.

She said that the memory bears are a big hit. “Other hospices and organizations ask us for information about the bears.”

Just One of Nancy’s Many Projects

You might think that the memory bear project would be enough to keep Crow busy, but you’d be wrong. Originally from Florida, Crow has been retired from the Clayton News Daily in Jonesboro for some time. She’s one of those people who has gotten busier after retirement, however.

She’s the secretary for the Creative Crochet Guild based in Peachtree City and teaches crochet for Fayette Senior Services in Fayetteville. Crow also runs the “Sit and Stitch” group that meets twice a week at Fayette County’s Life Enrichment Center.

Memory Bears VITAS HealthcareThe Sit and Stitchers have donated many items through the years, like baby hats and chemo hats for the local hospital. Under Nancy’s direction, they also provide items included in the holiday packages delivered to homes via Meals on Wheels. “One year it was a scarf, another it was a potholder,” she said. “Every year we add something.”

Recently, she’s also joined a prayer shawl ministry with the Fayetteville First United Methodist Church. “I was looking for another outlet to do things for others,” she said. “After all, I’ve crocheted enough afghans for myself — I have enough to last a millennium!”

While she enjoys all her creative outlets, the bears hold a special place in Crow’s heart. “Each one is unique because the material I get makes them unique,” she said.

Kathy Dean is a freelance writer and editor based in metro Atlanta.