Wednesday 10 April 2013

The Great British Sewing Bee (episode two)

I got hooked watching the Great British Sewing Bee after seeing the first episode on YouTube linked here: Episode One, and last night, via my Swiss computer hookup, I caught the second episode. (If you're in the UK, you can watch that here on the IPlayer here: Episode Two.)

After forty-seven years of happy home-sewing, (yeah, sorry about that) I still found myself asking, could I do what those sewers are trying?

Because as the most experienced of their contestants, the charming gray-haired Ann, points out, one is used to having time to do everything right, or at least to rip it out, like the much younger Scot Lauren (pictured below) often finds herself doing.  But here, two rather fiendish judges say there's only one hour to put on patch pockets or three hours, say, to adapt a neckline on a purchased blouse.

Their rather snotty and rueful pseudo-sympathies are enabled by the host of the show, one Claudia Winkleman who, I suspect, has never, never, darling, worn a hand-sewn garment in her entire be-fringed life. (Are you under those bangs, Claudia, and what the hell was that joke about Tom Cruise from "Cocktail" all about? Don't you realize these people are fighting the clock while you swan around making idiot jokes? These people are armed with scissors!)

So, while I applaud the show for giving us impassioned sewists of all walks of life, and I applaud the winners and losers for their sportsmanship and game faces when confronted with the nicky-picky judging, I condemn the show for missing the whole point of home sewing:

SEWING IS ONLY RELAXING AND REWARDING AND PROFITABLE WHEN YOU HAVE THE TIME AND PEACE TO DO IT RIGHT! (yes, I'm shouting, lean back from your computer to avoid the full force of my indignation at the idea of making sewing a "bake-off.")

What would I have done? Oh, I'm so glad you asked, BBC2.

I would have given each of the contestants the challenge of making one demanding Vogue Designer pattern for man or woman, one costume, one Burda high-fashion quickie, one home dec project, one self-designed pattern, and one children's item and maybe more? Slow them down a little and lets see some ensembles emerge to highlight the possibilities of individual style. Let their skills develop over time, rather than do them in under the pressure of the clock. This road leads inevitably to a victory for the home ec teacher, Ann. Instead, let these projects develop over a season, stop eliminating people, and let us love their different sewing styles and root for them until the season's grand judging at the end.

Every time they eliminate a contestant, starting with the vibrant, gracious (only) black lady on the show, they narrow their viewing audience. That's dumb. No! Let the London bookies take our bets for months on end.

Stretching the contestants' chances over a whole season would have let Mark do both a costume in his style, with the needed time, and a pattern for men devised by himself. Stewart could let fly with his fabulous quilted pillows or drapes or amusing little boys' clothes. The odds would have been soaring as we watched Tilly do an original Alexander McQueen knock-off!

But no, it's all about the neatness of invisible zippers. It's all about the "excitement" of seeing people axed, like sewing was some Donald Trump, "you're fired" moment. These producers so don't get sewing. It's inclusive, supportive, generous in spirit and all about broadening rather than narrowing options, about exploring rather than judging.

The sorriest event so far is the (spoiler alert) elimination of the studded, pierced and roughly handsome Mark who specialized in eighteenth century costumes for his steampunk festivals. Did you see the photo of him in full rig? Didn't he look happy and proud in his homemade kit? Did you see the work he did on the row of buttonholes lining the front of his piratical jacket?

No. What do the producers do? Give him a handful of challenges, at least two featuring invisible zippers, when he's never had to do a zipper in his life! Or a flyfront! He's been doing buttoned flies from the historical past. Give the guy a handicap, for God's sake. Haven't you ever been to a horserace?

The next sorriest event so far is the (spoiler alert) elimination of Tilly, who had by far the most fashion sense of anybody in the room and was caught out first by trying to fit a black Chanel collar on the white blouse instead of the winning tacky ribbon stitched on by Ann, and second, for being the only contestant to be trying to fit her own pattern design onto a busty live model who looked nothing like the slim Tilly in size or shape. This meant that while all the other contestants were cutting commercial patterns to the size of their live models, Tilly had to REDESIGN AN ORIGINAL PATTERN. Doesn't she get mega-points for that?

The elimination of Michelle was a bit awkward, but her wrap dress was a disaster, I admit.

Bravo, Tilly! Bravo Mark! You're my winners for your originality and pep! It looks already like the winning ladies will be the least adventurous in fashion sense and the most reliable at putting in zippers. They will give home-sewing no fresh reputation, and just reinforce the idea that it's best left to aunties in hairsprayed helmets, armed with ruffles and rickrack.



  1. Im in NZ so haven't seen this episode yet-no iplayer for us, still holding out for youtube. I am not surprised by the eliminations at all. And it is such a shame. Tilly is fabulous. I have been following her blog for a while and she is fresh and innovative. I was rooting for Mark from the start too and simply adore his steampunk costumes. They both embody the creative and artistic element of sewing and the FUN!
    You can already see who the producers want to win and it is not going to enthuse anyone to pick up a needle, especially if everything has to be perfect and somewhat old fashioned everytime.

  2. Jo, Tilly has a blog? Please link us up. I adored her retro style from the start!


    I am sure Tilly will be fine. She is sort of England's Answer to Gertie (from the Gerties Guide to Better Sewing in the USA.)

    I agree, the time limits do make it a narrow contest. Such tight time constraints spread the field based on basic skills and mean even the best sewists don't have time to do anything more than basic shells.

  4. I agree that the focus of the Great British Sewing Bee is off. Home sewers sew at their own pace, mostly for themselves, and rip out and redo as necessary. The show seems to be trying to single out the home sewer who could turn their sewing into a business--working on a deadline, sewing for people they don't know, making items that don't interest them. They also got rid of the two people who show two very creative approaches to sewing--authentic costuming and making one's own patterns. The show is unlikely to inspire young people to take up sewing when they keep the people with the most pedestrian styles.

  5. Yes, Becca, you've made an interesting point, especially with regard to the male judge whose work on Saville Row suits would prioritize precision and speed in a stylistically conservative and competitive environment. Well-spotted!

    1. I wonder if it wasn't May who prioritized precision rather than Patrick. In fact, after I read a bit more about his sewing experience I was a bit confused why he'd be a judge for a sewing show. They don't make it clear that he's more of a designer / entrepreneur than an actual tailor. In fact, he revived Norton and Sons - so he must be a modernizer to be able to take an ailing Savile Row shop to the 21st century.

      So in that context, his comment on what he's looking for - "understanding of materials, shape, fit...that goes into making of beautiful clothing" - makes a lot more sense. And, when the judges disagreed over who should go in episode 2, it was Patrick who rooted for Tilly rather than Stuart - May's preference because his work showed "lots of processes in it" and he's an "improver" - terms I'd see coming from a sewing teacher. I think as a designer Patrick probably gets Tilly more than May would.

      Regardless, I agree with everyone that ridiculous time limit and elimination lets the show down. And if it has to be a "competition", then leader board format would be a much better idea. What I find interesting is the judges' professional feedback on everyone's projects, not the competitive element. And the more contestants they keep on the show for the duration of the theory the more projects to get professional feedback on! (Same with Project Runway / Catwalk - they're more fun at the beginning of the series when there are more outfits to look at, more variety of solutions to the same challenge.)

      I'll still watch the last 2 episodes. As Portia of Miss P blog - who seems to work in British TV industry - says, whatever GBSB's faults if we don't show support we won't get more sewing programs. (

  6. I was sorry to see Mark go!

    You're right, the format is unlikely to draw in anyone who doesn't already sew. Unlike cooking you can't really see what's going on as the contestants are working. I like your idea of getting the contestants to choose themed patterns. This worked well in episode 2 with the blouse challenge.

  7. If only you were there, Cyber, with your futurist/Orientalist/minimal/sixties vibe to show what can be done through choice of fabric and line!

  8. Except that she wouldn't be sewing what she wanted to, either. I agree, one challenge with as much time as you wanted would be much more like home sewing, but would be harder to put on television.
    I was sorry to see anyone go. I think having such a wide variety of contestants would work well with a points system or leaderboard, so that over the mere 4 episodes, everyone's different strengths could be shown, whilst still recognizing technical excellence, which seems to be the focus of the judging criteria.

    1. that's a great idea - points or a leaderboard. I also hate seeing people go.

  9. I love the idea of a point system / leaderboard. Almost starting with a dancing with the starts / strictly come dancing start. Maybe a few weeks with everyone. I think your ideas are great. I have heard the ratings are quite good in the UK. But, I don't understand those numbers at all, lol.

  10. Keep in mind the premise of the show - to find THE BEST home sewer in Great Britain. So...yes, that means being able to insert an invisible zipper; it means being able to do a rolled hem on silk (chiffon, yet!). It's about skills.

    Tilly has done a good job with her sewing in the three she's been at it; but she still has a long way to go, even in some of the basics. That's not a put down; everyone starts at the beginning, and learns at a different pace. I'm a way better sewer now than I was 25 years ago; but when I grow up, I want to be able to sew like Ann Rowley.

    And, if you truly find the show a snorefest, change the channel - no one is holding a gun to your head, forcing you to watch :-)

  11. I love the idea of a point system/leaderboard as well, Kbenco.

  12. What I meant, PearlK is that as a cliffhanger, it's a snore, because obviously Ann and Sandra have the best skills. But I'll definitely stayed tuned. I so much want sewing programming to succeed.

  13. Hm. I love your ideas about the show format, but I have to disagree about Mark and Tilly.

    I think reality shows are basically like the SATs: they're not about knowing math or English, sewing or pattern-drafting, but rather, they test you on how well you take a test. I think the GBSB is about taking an honest assessment of your skills, and knowing how to best showcase your strengths within the constraints of the competition. We all know that Tilly drafts a cute pattern and can sew the Dickens out of a range of things, but drafting her own pattern for a model with a body she knew was quite different from her own? Not the smartest move. Not making appropriate adjustments for the model's body in the week preceding, even though she had the same model in the last challenge? Deadly.

    Ambition is good, but without clean execution it just looks wrong-headed. I don't think Ann or Sandra will win because they necessarily have better-developed skills than everyone else, but rather because they have a better understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses and make their decisions based on that. I do think a leaderboard would be an awesome way to let everyone relax a bit and have more fun with their makes.

    Perhaps I'm just really stinkin' competitive, but if I were going into the GBSB, I would have practiced seam finishes, pockets, zipper insertions, linings, and those basic things in advance, just in case. Then again, I would have also donned war paint and been an awful human being, so maybe we shouldn't take my word for it?

    In any event, I'm so glad to have found your blog! This post really made me think. If anything, the GBSB has made me realize that we, the sewing community, are united by our beard-loving.

  14. Thanks, nice points, like your humor and I would have enjoyed seeing you head in there, covered in warrior marking chalk, preferable a Celtic blue?
    Perhaps I should have viewed the show with the assumption that these contestants had oodles of time to prep.
    We'll all keep watching, more happily if we take your attitude, on the understanding that this is not sewing chez home, but sewing on the SAT model. I can live with that.