Monday, March 2, 2015

The Great British Sewing Bee

By Denise Marois-Wolf

Like so many of my sewing friends who were enchanted with the early years of Project Runway, I’ve grown weary of the series. Despite Tim Gunn’s insistence that each season’s designers are the most talented group ever, I haven’t been impressed with the designers in a while (really, Tim, don’t you remember Jay McCarroll, Daniel Vosovic, Laura Bennett, Uli Herzner, Christian Siriano, Mondo Guerra?) The product placement has become more prominent, the back-biting and drama takes center stage, and you only see brief periods of garments actually being sewn. ‘Nuff said.
Then I heard that the Brits had come up with a sewing show that follows the same format as The Great British Baking Show, which has become so popular on public television. Each season, they select a crop of “amateur,” or as Gunn would say with a sniff, “home sewers,” give them three challenges to complete over a weekend, and send one contestant home each week while naming one top sewer.

Claudia Winkleman, a presenter for the BBC, journalist, and television personality, hosts. Saville Row tailor Patrick Grant and Mary Martin of The Women’s Institute are the judges. Their critiques are helpful without being disparaging, and it’s nice to see them appreciate the work that goes into even the most failed efforts. There are 10 contestants. Season Three includes a corporate strategist, a teacher, an artisan cheese maker, a lieutenant colonel in the army (who made bridesmaid’s dresses and a ball gown for his wife), and a sports physiotherapist, as well as a student of menswear.
The first episode sees contestants using a pattern to make slacks with an invisible side zipper, fitting and sewing a summer dress to a real person, and repurposing a denim shirt. In other episodes contestants make costumes, dresses, even kilts. British sewing pro Angela Kane even has some Bee-related videos on her website, and there’s a companion book by of basic sewing techniques by Tessa
Evelegh. Judge Mary Martin has written the Sewing Bible book of tips. Both books are available on
There are plenty of close-ups as contestants cut tricky fabric, try to lay out patterns so prints align, struggle with equipment and techniques they’ve never used before, and basically deal with the same frustrations as the rest of us, only in a more compressed time frame.
Unlike Project Runway, there’s no racing off to the fabric store. Everything they need, from fabric to notions and trim, is right there in the workroom, and it’s fun to see all that fabric eye candy being grabbed off the bolts and put to good use.
I love this show because of the diversity of the contestants’ backgrounds, the emphasis on technique and skill, and the overall camaraderie among the participants. There are no snide aside to the camera remarks criticizing a colleague’s lack of training or design skills, no self-aggrandizing. It’s not a design show; it’s a test of actual sewing skill. Sometimes the contestants are given a pattern to sew straight out of the package, and other challenges require them to fit the pattern to their model. In my opinion, the garments they
turn out are quite fabulous and inspiring.

The Great British Sewing Bee appears in the UK on BBC2, which means it’s almost impossible to access here in the States. My advice is to google it on YouTube. I was able to find the first episode of Season 3 on YouTube The second episode is up as I write this. Sources say it airs on Thursday nights, and is available a couple of days after on YouTube, where is stays for a few days. You can also watch the show, including previous seasons, if you download TunnelBear on your computer. I googled The Great British Sewing Bee and found the Season Three premiere on YouTube, and was able to see two episodes of Season One as well.
Happy viewing.
Here are links to some interesting side bits. Hopefully, they’ll still be available when you try to access them: A directory of links to sewing techniques used in the challenges:
Mary Martin demonstrates:
Making a leather clutch:
How to turn a man’s shirt into a strapless summer dress:
How to alter a charity shop dress:

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