Some people find The Great British Sewing Bee deeply soothing. But alas, I’m not always one of them. In the first challenge of the new series, the 12 contestants had to make a wrap skirt, a task that immediately gave me butterflies. At school, what was then called home economics was my least favourite subject. There were sound feminist reasons for this – the boys did not do it; they were elsewhere, welding or knocking up a quick bookcase – but mostly it was because I was useless at it. I was also terrified of our teacher, Mrs Nimmo, who was straight out of St Custard’s. I’ll never forget the time I tried to make a wrap skirt for her. It strongly resembled Ena Sharples’ apron. Sometime later, I caught my mother using it as a duster.
This doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t enjoy the show. I absolutely love it, especially the transformation challenge, when our competing stitchers have to turn one thing – on this occasion, a men’s shirt – into something entirely different. It’s like shopping at COS, the Swedish fashion chain. Ostensibly, the merchandise there is all very stylish. But then you get in the changing room, and you think: hang on, why has this got only one sleeve? Or is it, in fact, not a sleeve, but a neck warmer for a giraffe? “Whatever you do, it must be radical,” announced Patrick Grant, one of the judges of the Bee – as ever, a somewhat unnecessary statement. “I recently turned a cashmere cardigan into a pair of pants,” said Clare, who likes to style herself as “a young Miss Marple”. She made a halter neck dress out of her shirt. Elsewhere, we were given a corset, a miniskirt and a kind of draped… thing (a dress? a neck warmer for a giraffe?) that was in theory inspired by Vivienne Westwood.
The contestants are always great. This time, my favourites include Matt, who makes dresses for his partner, a drag queen called Miss Martini (“She always wants it tighter!”); and Mark, who works in a bank in Kenilworth, and who has a strong line in pussy bows (I mean that he wears them, tied with great aplomb around the necks of his shirts, which have collars the size of super-yachts). Joe Lycett, the show’s presenter, is sweet and funny. But I reserve my real fascination for its judges: Grant, the super-smooth chap who revived the Savile Row tailor Norton & Sons; and Esme Young, who teaches pattern cutting at Central Saint Martin’s in London.
They’re both so straight and sincere, and yet, somehow, they’re quite hilarious. The titchy Young looks like she went mad in Margaret Howell and slightly regretted it later (to her stern work dresses and police constable shoes she always adds an incongruous J Crew-style glittery necklace). Grant, meanwhile, is very tall, and sports a moustache that recalls – crikey, but this is a cool reference – Roger Moore in the 1970 Basil Dearden film The Man Who Haunted Himself. You can just see him whizzing over the Westway in his silver Lamborghini Islero 400 S. (Or, better still, across a blustery Lancashire moor on his way to visit some cotton mill.)
At one point, he and Young were standing beside a tailor’s dummy earnestly discussing rouleau loops, when it suddenly moved, making a scraping sound against the floor as it did. Grant began to laugh. “Sounds like you’re farting,” he said to Young. Unsmiling, she looked up at him: “I am, actually,” she replied. Later, a keen ballroom dancer called Alex tried to explain away the disaster that was his tea dress by insisting that he’d deliberately gone for a rough and ready look, a first in the realm of this particular style of frock. Young turned her face slowly in his direction. “I think you’re making that up,” she said – which he was.
As we enter the second month of lock-down, “making” shows are all the rage. Channel 4 is busy treating us to Kirstie: Keep Crafting and Carry On. But The Great British Sewing Bee is a world away from Allsopp and her glue gun (please God she won’t at some point make PPE out of some dollies’ clothes and an old Badoit bottle). It’s utterly delightful, without ever being laboured. In our seclusion, its pleats and pockets seem both stalwart, and oddly real.
The Great British Sewing Bee
This article appears in the 22 Apr 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The coronavirus timebomb