Monday, 8 April 2013

The Great British Sewing Bee - A review from a professional seamstress

I have a confession. I'm a bit of a lifestyle TV junkie. I love house shows, cooking shows, craft shows, even thanks to my husband I am obsessed with shows about pickers and car restoration. I have always had a enormous love of all things-creative, individually made and loved items with a true soul. I hate all things IKEA (except for the assembling part which apparently makes me weird as people supposedly find it difficult?).

But it was with some trepidation that I watched 'The Great British Sewing Bee'. My all-time favourite television show is 'Project Runway' (the American version), a show brilliant for the actual competition, but also for it's slick American reality TV making skills, and of course, for Mr Tim Gunn who is surely one of the most wonderful people on television. I have eagerly watched it's uninspired British cousin: 'Project Catwalk', the even less inspired Rhianna vehicle 'Styled to Rock', guiltily enjoyed 'Kirsty's Handmade' series and tried desperately hard (and failed) to like 'Paul Martins Handmade Revolution' (a wonderful idea but painful television and completely lacking in any form of charisma). But I was afraid that 'The Great British Sewing Bee' would annoy me.

I had seen ads for the competition last year and was disappointed to not be eligible on the grounds it was only open to people with no formal training or paid experience in sewing related fields. And this is where my inner snobby dragon raised it's great fiery head. Before anyone gets offended, I'm not saying you can't be a good sewer unless you're professional, and I even perfectly understand the reason for the rule, it just means the actual show would be aimed at a much lower talent level demographic than my favourite sewing TV shows. While being good for getting people involved in sewing, I suspected I would find it a bit painful.

But I forgot that good television has nothing to do with content. Obviously they have picked a mixed bag of talent, with stragglers at the bottom who are there for entertainment value, and to be got rid of in the first two rounds, as well as the more experienced sewers. I immediately liked Jane, a widow who makes all her own clothes and drives vintage cars, especially when she chose an adorable car fabric for her first project. But she completely won me over with her story about making a wedding dress, an awful experience that meant her family didn't get Christmas dinner. She finished with 'They're divorced now'. Who hasn't been guilt-tripped into sewing for a wedding and lived to regret it?

But I did learn something very important from the show: it doesn't matter how enthusiastic you are, there are things about sewing that can only be learned by years of experience. I have got used to thinking that my sewing skills are nothing to be impressed by, that sewing is easy: 30 plus years of experience, more than one professional qualification and 10 plus years of paid work will do that to you. It's true that sewing a dress from a pattern using a sensible choice of fabric for a perfect size 10 model is something pretty much anyone could learn to do in a few days. But I know professional sewers, myself still included, who still get cold sweats at the mention of the word 'fitting', particularly the older and larger the model, as things tend to move around from their so-called 'ideal' position. If you've only every sewn for yourself, and particularly if you are a fairly standard size, you will not be particularly good at fitting awkward sizes, as we saw this week. This is a skill that can only be learned by trial and error over many years. Working in bridal alterations was boring work, but taught me a lot about fitting that years of sewing couture garments had not.

There are so many different types of sewing, and I suspect that Marks' success in the final challenge came from his experience in period tailoring, which is much more complicated than dressmaking, and from making clothes for his wife and daughter. Also in spite of her age, the model has a pretty good standard shape (sorry my image is slightly warped). If she had have been a voluptuous hourglass figure he would really have struggled to fit her into a dress of this cut. I'm really interested to see how they use model size and shape in future episodes, as I think poor Tilly got the raw end of the deal. On the other side though, her style of dress and method of fitting should have made it easy to alter the dress to fit her model. As they said on the show though, his appropriate use of patterning was well done, and especially compared to his other efforts, this dress was a masterful improvement. I'm really eager to keep watching and see how the competition progresses.

I would really like to know what their attitude to inside finishing is. How much is that included in the judging. I noticed Mark zig-zagged all his seams, something I haven't seen anyone do in 20 years, although another contestant did have an overlocker on their bench. I love good finishing as much as anyone, but surely nothing is going to fray in a 7 hour challenge? Also why did noone make a toile for the fitting challenge. Surely this is the simplest way to get a good fit and only takes half an hour or so?

The more experienced sewers on TGBSB are not necessarily more talented or stylish, but are significantly better at making sensible choices about fabric, style and time. The most successful pieces are simple pieces, made well. Tilly is a 'born again' sewer, as I call people newly enthusiastic about a skill (I see a lot of born again swing dancers in the first 12 months of learning: newbies who preach a single-minded gospel of their new found love to anyone who will listen), and is probably the most creative and stylish of anyone on the show, but that can't compete with decades of experience, and more importantly, mistake making. I learnt this in my recent foray into learning how to knit, you are no good at something until you can fix your mistakes.

I must also give special mention to Patrick Grant. I have hinted above of my love of Tim Gunn of 'Project Runway' fame. There is something about men who really understand sewing and well-made clothes that I adore, as long as they have good personalities (take note Julien MacDonald, I am definitely not including you in this remark). But Patrick Grant personifies the understated elegance of previous generations, like Beau Brummel or Cary Grant. There is absolutely nothing flashy about his appearance, and yet the more you look at him the more you realise he is absolutely gorgeous and impeccably dressed. In a post-metrosexual age, where most men remove far too much hair, or sport the pretence of scruff with the actor/musicians highly self-conscious 3 o'clock shadow, it is so nice to see a man taking his fashion cues from the Edwardians, and combine a beard with a properly tailored suit. I do hope he will set fashion trends for others.

Obviously any show that encourages people to try sewing is OK in my book. And despite my intentions, I am completely hooked. It's probably a good thing it's only four episodes though, or my husband might get very tired of hearing me rip amateur sewing to shreds (see what I did there) from the comfort of my living room.


  1. Hey I just found your blog, it's really great! I love your writing.

    That's a good point about the insides of the clothes they made - I wonder if the judges even looked closely at them once the garment was on the model or the stand. Finishing would add extra time and they didn't have much...

    Have to agree about Patrick too!

    1. Thanks very much. I'm really eager to find out who wins.