The Great British Sewing Bee: some thoughts

Are you watching The Great British Sewing Bee? I’m glued to the telly. It’s been filmed about a mile away from my house – I’ve walked past that converted chapel many times without realising what delights lay upstairs…

My friend lives in those towers! I've been on that bus! I've shopped in that Leyland! etc etc
My friend lives in those towers! I’ve been on that bus! I’ve shopped in that Leyland! etc etc

I have SO MANY thoughts on it that I’ve organised them neatly into categories for you. You’re welcome.

The Great British Sewing Bee vs. The Great British Bake-Off – which is better?

– Patrick Grant is much better than Paul ‘housewives favourite’ Hollywood. Patrick’s beard alone is worth the price of admission. Whereas May Martin is not quite as good as living legend Mary Berry. Sorry May. Those are big shoes to fill.

Patrick's beard in full flow
Beard of glory

– On the other hand, Claudia Winkleman is a reasonable sub for Mel and Sue, but she does look very orange, as pointed out by The Perfect Nose.  I never notice it on Strictly Come Dancing, probably because anyone in that studio a shade paler than ‘radioactive Dale Winton’ is immediately frog-marched to a tanning booth.

– Trying to be objective, I think sewing has less of an imediate appeal than baking. There’s something about cake that almost makes you want to lick the screen – that doesn’t quite translate to hemlines and zips.

-Baking is also loads quicker than sewing, so the time constraints make more sense. A cake that took 12 hours of work would be pretty special, but you can sink that into a dress without batting an eye-lid.

The contestants

I think they’ve done a great job of casting this show. Everyone is an interesting character. Let’s be honest, TV is about people, not skills. This show was never going to be an instructional video and they weren’t really looking for the best amateur sewers in the UK (although they seem to have accidentally unearthed one in the shape of Anne. The woman has a whole forum dedicated to her advice).

I was actually giddy at the amount of sewing content they did include, including that trippy little animation on installing a fly zipper which was probably lost on 80% of the viewing public.

I also liked this little pocket demonstration
I also liked this little pocket demonstration

Same goes for the competition format. I wish nobody had to leave each week but TV demands a narrative and someone to root for. I was really sad to see Michelle, Tilly and Mark leave, but my current favourite is definitely Sandra, mainly because of her awesome Black Country accent. And her pockets.

Pockets of joy
Pockets of joy

The twee factor

Is minimal, thank God. I’m so glad it’s all about dressmaking, with the Cath Kidston homeware stuff relegated to those bits about sewing laundry bag or a cushion with rabbit ears (whatever the hell that was). They may be useless but they are a convenient moment for a tea-break.

Sewing behaviours described by the contestants’s friends and family that I recognise in myself, and was relieved to hear discussed on national television

  • Hoarding large piles of fabric in odd places
  • Disappearing off for hours to sew and forgetting to eat regular meals
  • Leaving pins scattered freely around the house which then end up in your boyfriend’s feet
  • Sewing garments for you, your friends, and anyone except your long-suffering partner
  • Frantic last-minute finishing leading to attaching things the wrong way round

The impact on the Great British Public

A small selection of a huge amount of tweets about GBSB

Twitter seemed to like it, anyway. Some of the reviewers weren’t so keen, saying that ‘trousers just aren’t as sexy as chocolate cake’, I think that depends on who’s wearing the trousers. But apparently haberdashery sales are soaring, which can’t be bad.

Watching this programme reminded me of seeing your favourite band in the world on the telly as a teenager. You’re torn between feelings of insane joy and nit-picky possessiveness.

But I really hope an interest in dressmaking surges. I don’t think everyone is going to learn to sew, realistically. It takes a lot of time and money. But having an idea about what goes into clothes can only help people make better buying decisions.

Further reading

Anyway I have MANY MORE thoughts but I’ll spare you for now. You should go and read these:

  • Ann Rowley is giving some fascinating behind-the-scenes info on this Artisans Square thread, including the fact that this week they were supposed to be making a child’s party outfit until the last minute…
  • The Thrifty Stitcher was the sewing consultant for the programme, and she drafted that trouser pattern they made!
  • These Twitter reviews in the Independent are amusing.

Final thought

Why was nobody (except for Michelle) using a rotary cutter? I couldn’t live without mine now. Do you use one?


52 thoughts on “The Great British Sewing Bee: some thoughts

  1. Tempest Devyne (@tempestdevyne) April 16, 2013 / 6:38 PM

    I love Bake Off for the people, but as a sewer I get all geeky/nerdy about GBSB. Luckily I watch it alone so no-one gets to hear me shouting “I do that!” or “look at the beautiful rolled hem!” etc. I love Claudia, though Mel and Sue are better, but Patrick beats Paul hands down. I also adore all the GBSB contestants. I don’t want to see anyone go home each week. I wish it was longer than 4 weeks.

  2. piakdy April 16, 2013 / 12:17 PM

    I have no time for the The Great British Bake-Off. It’s one cooking program too many. And watching luscious food makes you want to eat. Which leads to increasing waistline. As if Britain doesn’t have an obesity problem already!

    Sewing on the other hand…You keep your figure, and maybe even get to dress it in one lovely new outfit!

    GBSB all the way!

    • yesilikethat April 16, 2013 / 3:09 PM

      Ha ha, hadn’t thought of it quite like that! I can’t be down on anything that involves cake I’m afraid. I will keep watching both!

  3. Thea April 14, 2013 / 5:14 PM

    I too love it – I can’t believe there’ll be only two more to come! It must be hard to convey sewing on telly, it seems so much more technical. I watched the first episode twice to catch up on the technical bits… And even after that, I couldn’t even begin to figure out their tutorials, they were so vague and quick! I also think, they could give the independent pattern designers more of a thumbs-up when their patterns are used. Oh well. Bring on Tuesday!

    • yesilikethat April 16, 2013 / 3:07 PM

      It would be nice if the BBC has a resource page with links to all the patterns and designers. Ah well maybe next time.

  4. gingermakes April 12, 2013 / 1:33 PM

    Rotary cutters are the best! I used to HATE cutting– it’s so slow with scissors, and my shears always made my hand sore after a little while. But it’s so much quicker and more accurate in my opinion to use a rotary cutter.

    • yesilikethat April 12, 2013 / 8:46 PM

      Me too! I heart my rotary cutter! I even have a special pinking blade, although I’m normally too lazy to put it on…

    • gingermakes April 12, 2013 / 9:03 PM

      Whaaaaaaaaat? Did not know that was a thing… now I need one of those, too! 😀

  5. Vicki Kate April 12, 2013 / 7:33 AM

    There are some really great points here! I totally agree, Patrick pips Paul but Mary beats May. I think there’s a bit more chemistry between Paul and Mary which make them fun to watch as a double act. There isn’t the same banter or relationship between Patrick and May, but then they’ve only been working together for five minutes! The body language on the cover of the book is downright awkward to my eye too, whereas you know Paul and Mary have been having a good giggle when you see their publicity shots.

    Personally I love Claudia in this as she’s toned down the manic and is actually asking some good questions but still being a bit eccentric (patch pockets on her shirt!).

    I had the same concerns about the immediacy of cake versus the hours of skirt. Or that it’d be shabby chic central. I’m glad that it’s garments and that they’re challenging, although the timescales are not realistic for most people to achieve. Having said that, as a showcase for sewing I know from some comments I’ve received that it’s really driving business for some independent sewing retailers which is fantastic!

    It’d be great if the BBC could find some way of giving people some direction of where to look for more information or help without breaking their advertising rules. I know most have the sense to use Google but there’s a lot of information out there and if your search term is slightly off, well we all know where that can lead!

    There are some awesome resources out there and some fabric shops do classes which makes so much sense as you can really develop customer loyalty. I just wish I had something like that near to me to develop the social side of my sewing beyond the web!

    • yesilikethat April 12, 2013 / 8:45 PM

      I forgot to mention all the innuendo, Patrick eyeing up Claudia’s ‘pockets’ was only the start!

      You’re right about Paul H and Mary B having chemistry. Hopefully they’ll commission another, longer series of the Sewing Bee so the new judges have more time to get comfortable.

  6. T R April 12, 2013 / 12:05 AM

    So far the show has been great viewing, and from the comments I’ve read on-line by the participants, the camraderie / atmosphere was great, too!

    I asked the same question you did: Why no rotary cutters? I use them for the vast majority of my cutting. Some of their scissors looked extremely cumbersome and awkward to use.

    My take on the contestants: Ann is the best sewist, Sandra is up there, too, and has a great sense of humor (as did Mark), and Lauren has such an earnest, sweet look on her face along with commendable sewing skills. But my money is on Mark.Not that I think his sewing is the best: his pockets were creative, but didn’t demonstrate good skills (“He sewed on the middle of the rick-rack.” and “He left the edges raw.” Oh, please! That’s lazy, and after one wash, the garment will look sad and cheap.), and his blouse certainly didn’t meet the challenge criteria of being fitted. But, based on the attitude of the judges I think they’re setting him up to win.

    • T R April 12, 2013 / 12:11 AM

      Sorry, make that Stuart who’s my predicted winner.

    • yesilikethat April 12, 2013 / 8:43 PM

      Aw I like Stuart! I do think he was smart to choose that heavy, stable silk and that blouse pattern, they were a lot less risky than Sandra’s silk chiffon or Tilly’s self-drafted blouse.

      Not a massive fan of the tulip pockets personally, but I like his quilting/textile way of thinking.

  7. Helen April 11, 2013 / 8:34 PM

    Great post and you’ve pretty much summed up my feelings, particularly that point about possessiveness vs insane joy! Totally my emotions in a nutshell. And yes, also nice to know that it’s not really that weird to have a fabric and pin filled house and to loose days to sewing (I fully intend to spend my next fortnight’s holiday sewing most days!).

    TBH I don’t mind too much if more people don’t take up sewing, but I do hope that we get more of it on TV. Huzzah for that!

  8. babygreens April 11, 2013 / 5:39 PM

    I’m really enjoying the programme – returning to sewing after many years it’s great to see garments being made and to learn from both the successes and failures. No rotary cutter here, I love my scissors.

  9. Miriana April 11, 2013 / 4:50 PM

    Will someone, in that room full of scissors, please cut Claudia’s fringe.

    • Elise April 12, 2013 / 8:53 PM

      Haha my mum insists on watching Claudia present all that dancing nonsense and her fringe drives us craaaazy! 😉

  10. Awfulknitter April 11, 2013 / 2:53 PM

    As a rule, I don’t like competitive reality TV shows, so I was surprised that GBSB only irked me slightly! The main thing, though, is that when there’s only one sewing programme on telly, it can’t possibly be all things to all people, and represent all aspects of the craft. Think of how many cooking programmes there are – what would it be like if there could only be one?

    • yesilikethat April 11, 2013 / 4:07 PM

      Very true! I for one could do with less cooking shows on telly. The only one I watch is Masterchef: the Professionals. Love Michel and Monica.

  11. CGCouture April 11, 2013 / 2:42 PM

    I am apparently in the minority; I actually kind of like that Claudia gal, but I’m not overexposed to her either–I’d never seen her before. She’s much more interesting than that woman judge who appears to be rather snobby, or else that’s how her nerves make her come off as. And to be honest, I’d probably watch the show no matter how much it sucked just to see and hear Patrick Grant…. 😉 And my hubby watched it with me last night and agreed that it was actually kind of a cute show…which coming from my hubby is a pretty big compliment for something he had no interest in.

    And yes to the rotary cutter–I can’t cut for **** with a pair of scissors, but I ❤ my rotary cutter.

    • yesilikethat April 11, 2013 / 2:46 PM

      My boyfriend liked it too! I think May Martin needs to loosen up a bit, she seems a bit stern and uncomfortable. I’m sure with time her personality will come across more.

  12. Franca April 11, 2013 / 2:40 PM

    I loved this post and think i will do my own post on this!

    • yesilikethat April 11, 2013 / 2:44 PM

      Thanks Franca! Can’t wait to hear what you thought of the show.

  13. didyoumakethat April 11, 2013 / 12:55 PM

    I love this blog post and all the comments. So it’s Ball Ponds Road! I keep peering at it thinking I’ve walked past it and I will have.

    • yesilikethat April 11, 2013 / 1:17 PM

      Me and my boyfriend actually rewound and paused the TV so we could squint at it and figure out exactly where it was. My friend’s just bought a flat in that tower being built at the back!

  14. lemlina April 11, 2013 / 11:20 AM

    Haha, this cracked me up. Those sewing behaviours are spot on, every one of them!

    I have so far sat through both episodes with a massive smile on my face. And yeah, that cushion – whaaaat?!!!

    • yesilikethat April 11, 2013 / 11:23 AM

      If anyone managed to make those cushions from the onscreen instructions they deserve a Nobel prize.

  15. shivani April 11, 2013 / 11:05 AM

    I am really enjoying it because FINALLY a TV programme that captures two of my favourite things: proper beards and sewing. (there should definitely be more beards on telly)

    I was surprised by the lack of rotary cutter action too -I never use my shears now. (But rotary cutter blades are so expensive!). Personally I am not a fan of Claudia W – I don’t think she has any charisma and I hate the way she refers to sewing terms as though they’re just made up nonsense words… Mel & Sue are funny… Claudia is just orange.

    • yesilikethat April 11, 2013 / 1:21 PM

      Aw poor Claudia. It’s a tough job trying to replace a much-loved comedy double act. Agree with the annoying cluelessness about sewing words though.

  16. Saskia April 11, 2013 / 9:58 AM

    Wait, wait, wait, is that the Leyland on Great Eastern Street? My office is about half a mile away in the opposite direction! I feel a lunchtime pilgrimage coming on…
    I reckon they should just use Mel and Sue as hosts on all programmes, I’ve got a bit of a crush on Mel. Your favourite band analogy sums up exactly how I feel about it: was a bit dismayed to read Tilly’s comment on Didyoumakethat (I think it was there) that her mention of Swedish tracing paper on the programme last week led to a stockist selling out because no, I want all of it available for use by meeeeeee!
    And rotary cutters really scare me, but I can see how they’d be genius when working with slippery fabrics. One day I’ll take the plunge. Did you see the tailor’s massive pair of scissors, though? Love them!

    • yesilikethat April 11, 2013 / 9:59 AM

      Unfortunately not, it’s the one on Balls Pond Road, but I also know the Leyland of which you speak! I work very near there too! It’s a small world.

      The tailors huuuuuggeee shears were pretty impressive. Those things must be heavy!

  17. nicoleneedles April 11, 2013 / 9:38 AM

    I also live around the corner from that chapel – it was so brilliant to see the interior. I remember when it was totally derelict. Anyway, I agree Anne and Sandra are brilliant – I love how cheeky Sandra is with Patrick. And it’s great that the show is bringing sewing enthusiasts together, and I hope inspiring people to take it up. As Patrick says in one of the accompanying BBC clips, if we all sewed we’d all be better dressed!

    • yesilikethat April 11, 2013 / 9:41 AM

      I wonder what happened to it after they finished filming? It would be a truly amazing venue for sewing workshops.

  18. dottiedoodle April 11, 2013 / 9:32 AM

    Great review, and I was also relieved to hear sewing ‘habits’ discussed on national tv! Thank you for all the links, I’m off to explore.

  19. Rosie April 11, 2013 / 9:32 AM

    The unlikely friendship of Sandra and Patrick genuinely makes my heart melt, this alone should spur on a second series and another Wolves Mum/Saville Row Gent bromance. And yes to the rotary cutter, it’s the only way!

    • yesilikethat April 11, 2013 / 1:16 PM

      I like the description of their relationship as a bromance, although I can see it as an old-fashioned Mills and Boons novel too, entitled ‘Tailored for Love’

  20. Caffy Bundana April 11, 2013 / 9:22 AM

    It’s a great way to get people kind of exposed to sewing… some people have barely seen a sewing machine. The tutorials are a little bit of a joke, however!

    I hope that interested peeps will find and utilise the wonderful world of sewing blogs like yours and mine to find some interest and resources!


  21. busyellebee April 11, 2013 / 8:57 AM

    BTW, because of Michelle, I’m so getting a rotary cutter – if nothing else, they will make me look cool! ROFL 😀 Seriously, I imagine cutting the fabric will be a far quicker and accurate process. Any recommendations?

    • yesilikethat April 11, 2013 / 9:10 AM

      I have the Olfa deluxe 45mm rotary cutter from here – – you don’t need to get the posh one, but the blade retracts so I thought it would be better as I am remarkably clumsy. These things are sharp! You can sometimes get cheap cutting mats on Amazon, I’ll try and hunt out the one that I bought. It will change your cutting out process!

    • busyellebee April 11, 2013 / 1:11 PM

      Lovely, thanks so much 🙂

    • Awfulknitter April 11, 2013 / 2:49 PM

      I have a pair of Olfa rotary cutters too: a big delux one (I think its a 45mm one too) and a dinky one (28mm) for fiddly bit. I couldn’t find a big cutting mat cheaper than the one from The Cotton Patch, so that’s where mine came from.

      You’ll also need weights to hold your pattern down while you cut. I’ve been using cans of tuna… 🙂 But I’ve been meaning to make some out of pennies (yes, coins!) in either pretty paper ‘parcels’ or little fabric bags.

    • busyellebee April 11, 2013 / 2:56 PM

      Thanks for the info. I need to get around to making some weights too. I’m still at the ‘pin the pattern to the fabric’ stage. I also need to get a bigger cutting mat … I’m going to get shouted at by the bank manager again – oh well, at least I can dress the part and look fabulous!

  22. busyellebee April 11, 2013 / 8:52 AM

    Hello, I must admit I have mixed feelings about the show. It seems to me to be a hurriedly put together series, made on the back of the rise in sewing machine sales. Bake off on the other hand made baking popular in the UK.

    Yes, sewing a pair of trousers is never going to be as sexy as a cupcake. For baking you only need a few affordable pots, pans and ingredients, but for sewing you need a machine, loads of kit, and some time to gain the skills needed to use them. Plus the snob factor is greater with clothing than it is with food. If a mistake is made with a hem line, it is there for all to see. If you make a mistake with a cupcake, you can eat the evidence!

    That said, I’m glued to the show. I completely agree with you about the hosts. I too hope that it will make more sewing popular, I’m fed up of the dull ubiquitous style of clothing on offer in the high streets and would personally like to see more haberdasheries opening up. 🙂

    Thanks 🙂

  23. lizzylikescake April 11, 2013 / 8:45 AM

    Anne is totally my favourite. She’s awesome.
    Also while Claudia is fun I really really love Mel and Sue (hang over from light/late lunch) so believe all programmes can be improved by their splendidness.

    • yesilikethat April 11, 2013 / 8:48 AM

      I also love Mel and Sue because of light lunch! I used to watch it while revising for my GCSEs. Happy days. Not so keen on Sue’s rubbish radio 4 comedy programme though.

    • lizzylikescake April 11, 2013 / 11:32 AM

      Hmmm yes. Her sitcom was funny though!

  24. Maryall April 11, 2013 / 8:41 AM

    Tilly was using one for her blouse 😉 Great show, too! I wish there were more series coming! For a beginner sewist like I am, I saw some interesting things. It is quite different seeing how to really sew a garment – I mean, in real life, not in tutorials 🙂
    And I agree on the beard! 😀

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