ONCE upon a time during the height of empire, fashion dictated that walls of the well-to-do were decked with hunting trophies from expeditions in exotic lands.

A stuffed giraffe or lion's head above the fireplace was testimony to an adventurer's skill and masculinity.

Fast-forward to 2014 Barnard Castle and visitors to the town's NeST art gallery can feast their eyes on an exhibition of conserved creatures – but in this case no animals were harmed during its making.

They are the work of textile taxidermist Joy Dawes, who has swapped teaching on Teesside for life as a full-time artist.

“I always thought this is what I would look forward to. This is much more than a hobby,” said Mrs Dawes, 52, who taught art, design and fashion at Stockton Riverside College until last September.

They may look cuddly, but her creations are not simply stuffed toys.

“Toys are for playing with. These are purely decorative,” she explained.

“With toys, you have to be very careful about health and safety hazards – my pieces include lots of zips, buttons and even watch pieces.”

Mrs Dawes' textile taxidermy has its roots in a college recycling project which resulted in students making a giant cage.

“I made a bird to go in it and it just went on from there. Now, the animals are taking over from the birds.

“I started small and now I want to go to do life size. I want to do something that looks realistic.”

Her work on show at the NeST has proved popular – one visitor has already bagged a giraffe while another has walked off with an elephant's head.

Other pieces on display include Rambo – nothing to do with Sylvester Stallone, but a rams head (ram) made from an old pair of sheepskin boots (bo).

“I have already been asked by another visitor about doing a greyhound,” she added.

Although resident in Stockton, Mrs Dawes came across the NeST gallery, which supports new and emerging artists, during an educational trip to the nearby Bowes Museum.

Her exhibition is continuing at the NeST, in Newgate, Barnard Castle. The gallery is open daily from 10.30am and admission is free.