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Creating a buzz: The Great British Sewing Bee

Claudia Winkleman, presenter of the new BBC series, The Great British Sewing Bee.

Claudia Winkleman, presenter of the new BBC series, The Great British Sewing Bee.

Tuesday of this week brought the first episode of a series I have been looking forward to for several weeks – The Great British Sewing Bee.

Made by the same folks that brought us The Great British Bake Off – it looks set to have a similar effect on the world of sewing as GBBO has had on home baking.

In other words, all those buns cupcakes in your Facebook feed could soon be replaced by pictures of customised necklines and homemade skirts!

Joking aside, the programme is following in its predecessor’s footsteps by tapping in to another facet of the growing trend for homemade handicrafts and bringing it into the mainstream, which I think will be a good thing.

Sure, some people will take it up while it’s enjoying its fifteen minutes and then abandon their needles when the next fashion comes along, but some will stick at it and discover how wonderful it is to make your own things.

It could also shine a spotlight on those who have been crafting away for years and maybe bring opportunities for bloggers like myself, sewing tutors and all those fabulous haberdashers and craft shops dotted around the UK and Ireland.

As the lovely Claudia says in the intro of episode one, sewing is back from the grave, undergoing a “quiet revolution”. As recently as forty years ago, it was the norm for most of one’s clothes to be homemade, but sewing as an essential skill fell by the wayside, perhaps a victim to consumer culture.

Over the past five to ten years, dressmaking and clothes customisation or ‘upcycling’ has grown rapidly in popularity, so the BBC has launched its search for “Britain’s best home sewer”. Given that the word sewer has two pronunciations, I shall refer to them as “the competitors” to avoid any unpleasant waste-related confusion.

First we’re introduced to the all-important judges – sewing queen May Martin and Savile Row entrepreneur Patrick Grant.

The judges, May Martin and Patrick Grant.

The judges, May Martin and Patrick Grant.

May has taught needlework skills for over forty years, most recently at Denman College (Women’s Institute Academy), specialising in garment making and home accessories.

Patrick bought struggling tailors Norton and Sons eight years ago, and has to date tripled output, earning him the Menswear Designer award at the British Fashion Awards in 2010. Although not a tailor himself, he has some of the best in the business working for him.

Next, we enter the ‘Sewing Room’ in East London, once home to London’s burgeoning rag trade, and meet our sew.. I mean… competitors. It’s rare to be able to say it about a show like this, but I really love them all! I admit a soft spot for the steampunk-loving, bearded HGV mechanic Mark, but camp-as-a-row-of-tents Stuart is a brilliant character too.

L - R Jane, Stuart, Mark, Tilly, Michelle, Lauren, Sandra, Jane.

L – R Ann, Stuart, Mark, Tilly, Michelle, Lauren, Sandra, Jane.

81-year-old “yoga nut” Ann is grace and elegance personified but I also really like the younger ladies, Lauren, Michelle and Tilly – very different personalities, styles and approaches to sewing but really likeable, creative women.

I find Jane fascinating; a widow for fifteen years, she makes most of her own clothes and has a passion for classic cars – a strong minded, confident individual.

Sandra is the sewer (I give up, it is the best word) I ‘recognise’ from the crafty women in my own life and I find myself already rooting for her to win. A working mum and homemaker, she has made clothes for her children since they were tiny, as did her mother and grandmother before her, and her daughter has had a sewing machine “since she was 21”. 

In each of four episodes, the contestants will face three sewing tasks. In this installment, they had to make an A-line skirt from a pattern; adapt the neckline of a top, and produce a made-to-measure dress for a model.

My own A-line skirt, my first ever handmade garment.

My own A-line skirt, my first ever handmade garment.

The coverage of the skirt-making was really interesting for me as a beginner who has a little bit of knowledge and experience, especially as I recently made my first piece of clothing – an A-line skirt!

They explain and show a little of what the competitors are doing in making their skirts, with some basic explanation of patterns and aspects of dressmaking, without getting so in-depth that someone who is watching purely for entertainment would get bored.

There is a lovely piece on the history of sewing and the evolution of garment-making patterns, which I found truly fascinating.

The next task challenges our contestants to alter the neckline of a simple high street top – they could do whatever they wanted, as long as they cut into and changed the neckline.

I sewed black lace trim to the sleeves and the bottom of a plain silver top. Then I created a skull stencil in cardboard and sprayed black 'airbrush' fabric paint over it. The stars are on a necklace I'm wearing, not part of the top.

I sewed black lace trim to the sleeves and the bottom hems of a plain silver top. Then I created a skull stencil in cardboard, placed it on the top and sprayed black ‘airbrush’ fabric paint over it. The stars are on a necklace I’m wearing, not part of the top.

Judges were looking for creativity and a neat finish. Although the sewers didn’t have to make something from scratch, they only had an hour to complete the challenge and this time pressure flustered many of the contestants.

Again, I loved seeing what each person did with their top – I love buying little items from charity shops and amending them. That is my most recent effort, in the photo to the right. And it took me far longer than one hour!

The third and final task was the most difficult by far; they were each given a real, live human bean and had to adapt a dress pattern to create a made-to-measure dress for their model.

Each person chose their own pattern and fabrics, and the models were different ages, sizes and shapes. As well as the differing tailoring approaches, this made for eight totally different dresses. Really fascinating to watch! Sadly, the judges had to pick one contestant to leave at the end of this round of the competition.

As well as being available on iplayer until the end of the month, this week’s episode is being shown again tonight at 5:05pm on BBC Two, so no spoilers here.

If you haven’t already watched this wonderful show, I urge you to do so. See below or check the What’s On calendar for the dates and times of each of the four episodes in the series.

The Great British Sewing Bee will be on every Tuesday on BBC Two at 8pm until 23rd April 2013. Episodes available to watch on iplayer until 30th April 2013.

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