My mum is a beautiful seamstress who once had her own made to measure dress shop. When I was wee, she used to make matching outfits for me and my doll (Tiny Tears at first, later Cindy – never Barbie). I got a toy machine when I was about five that did a simple chain stitch and started making dolls clothes myself, though I suspect my mum did a lot of unpicking and re-sewing for me when my back was turned. When I was growing up, she was a genius at making things that I coveted at the time – hot pants, I shudderingly recall, flouncy, fussy dresses for school dances, and a denim suit that I thought was totally the business. Thankfully there was no digital photography back in those days, so my crimes against fashion went unrecorded, and my reputation for good taste remains unblemished.
Thanks to Mum, I sailed through my Brownie sewing badge. For my Guide dressmaker badge I constructed a fetching purple bolero and dress with contrasting gold stitching – it was much, much worse than it sounds – and I confess now, for the first time ever, I cheated by letting my mum sew the hem. If I have to hand the badge back, then so be it. By this time I’d graduated from my toy machine to an ancient electric version that had been my gran’s and required several strong men to lift it onto the table. Grandfather shirts, kimonos and pinafores aplenty were constructed on that machine – and thinking back now, I reckon that once again the sewing fairy in the form of my mum did a lot of after-hours adjusting to make them wearable.
My best friend got a new machine when we were in our late teens which had me green-eyed with jealousy. We would spend Saturday’s together sharing it, constructing high-fashion outfits like ra-ra skirts, net tutus, and candy-striped dungarees that made me look like Andy Pandy. Lacking funds, we re-used a lot of old clothes and made every single scrap of fabric work – exactly the kind of recycling that is encouraged on the Great British Sewing Bee now.
I was very fond of putting together dresses made from remnants, as you can see from one of the very rare pictures of me at the time. My mum continued to surpass me in technique and imagination though. One Christmas I recall a jaw-droppingly gorgeous grey suit, fitted dress and little box jacket she made from a Fifties Vogue pattern for me, and another green dress and jacket in the Dior ‘new look’. I can’t tell you how much I wish I did have photos of those.
The machine I got for my twenty-first birthday was high tech for its day, allowing my love affair with dressmaking to continue through my student years. I was determined to stand out from the crowd and indulge my inner flapper, with drop-waisted dresses, a range of plus-fours, and several cloaks including a short Red-Riding Hood version and a full-length Dracula one. I reckon my tutors in the Law faculty would confirm I definitely made myself memorable, though not exactly for the right reasons.
But then I started work, and making ‘business’ outfits rather than clothes that satisfied my craving to be a bit different and a bit colourful took the shine off sewing for me. I decided that ‘home-made’ was a bit naff, and with the luxury of a steady income, I took to dressing off the rail. My machine gathered dust in the back of the wardrobe. My imagination gathered dust too, in the job I was doing, but I turned to other creative outlets, the Open University and history (woohoo), then writing (double woohoo).
Then came the Great British Sewing Bee and I was one of many who launched themselves back into sewing as a result. Home-made was chic not naff, and recycling was even trendier! I bought a new machine that did untold wonderful extra stuff. I lost myself in YouTube videos. I discovered a whole world of sewing social media. The most wonderful shop called Jinty and Baa opened up in the very village where I live. Karma. I came back out as a sewer (sewist?) who was proud to sport her home-made outfits and became obsessed with recycling. I gave tea cosies and cafetiere cosies to everyone, then there were tote bags, and I lost count of the number of masks I made.
And then came the pandemic, and it seemed like EVERYONE took up sewing. Watching this latest series of The Great British Sewing Bee has been so incredibly uplifting. What is it about sewing that has gripped the nation? People who don’t even sew talk knowledgeably about walking feet and piping and French seams, but it’s not only getting to grips with the lingo and the techniques that is bonding. It’s the team spirit in the sewing room (on tv, I mean – I don’t encourage anyone to venture into my sewing room). It’s the diversity, the growing numbers of men and in this latest series, the newbies, the mind-blowingly competent seamstress who has only one hand, and whose confession last week, that being on the programme had allowed her to ‘come out’ without her prosthetic hand (and had everyone in the studio and those watching at home in floods of tears). It’s the creative aspect of it too, the fact that you actually produce something that is unique. And making it for other people, or making something that’s a tribute to other people – I know I’m gushing, but I can’t help it, it’s simply heart-warming.
Is there a downside? Well yes, there’s the amount of money I’ve spent lately on gadgets – I can’t watch an episode of GBSB without seeing something I crave – thanks to last week’s episode, I now own a rolled hem presser foot. I bought an overlocker after last year’s series, but now I’m coveting a cover-locker too, which is basically bigger, better and a lot more expensive. Then there’s the compulsive buying of fabric without having a clue what you’re going to do with it – except that you do know eventually it will come to you in a moment of inspiration.
On the upside, sewing is quite simple extremely satisfying, and there’s always a new challenge to be found. I like to test myself with new techniques – though the piping experiment in my ‘flamenco’ dress went terribly wrong and made it look like a crinoline. More successful was the piping I did for the ‘Liquorice Allsort’ dress I made for the launch of Her Heart for a Compass. Using my new walking foot (yes, another purchase that the GBSB is responsible for) I experimented with ‘unstable’ fabrics such as jersey and georgette, creating what my friend Peter dubbed my ‘Little House on the Prairie’ dress. The jury is still out on how successful my attempt at vintage dungarees in needlecord was. They look lovely, they’re a great fit, but the zipper in the back makes them problematic to wear if you don’t have someone to accompany you to the loo.
The Great British Sewing Bee makes us all feel part of something special – I don’t know, it just feels warm and inclusive. For me, sewing is a wonderful way to escape when a book isn’t working, or when I don’t want to work! I like to make things for other people – my sister loved her pink flamingo dress and I loved making it for her. Quite simply, sewing makes me feel good.
The latest series of the Great British Sewing Bee ends this week. I’m more excited about it than Strictly, and that’s saying something. But I don’t want it to end. I want more of Esme and Patrick, I want more insider tips and tricks and techniques to experiment with. What am I going to watch that will then have me in full procrastination mode, heading away from my work in progress? Oh yes, there’s always Gardener’s World. Good old Monty! I wonder who makes his waistcoats?