Many have said that the Great British Sewing Bee is basically the Great British Bake Off, with dresses instead of cake. Yes, there are challenges where the contestants have to make something. Yes, both television shows focus on hobbies that you would associate with the WI. And yes, both shows have wacky presenters with a well-groomed male judge and an experienced female judge. But this is where the comparisons stop, just for the sake of judging this show on its own merit.
All the contestants have their own reason for sewing and making their clothes. Some started sewing at an early age; another one makes his own Steampunk Victorian costumes. Altogether a nice variety of people showcasing all sorts of ways to be crafty.
The judges are May Martin, a sewing teacher from the WI, and Savile Row’s Patrick Grant. A single scowl across the room can determine who has slipped a stitch yet they give their advice in a helpful way.
The beginning of the competition was a chance for the judges to see how well the contestants knew the basics of sewing. The contestants had to make an A-line skirt, alter a neck line and create their own dresses. Written down that does look like the dullest show ever, or perhaps a reminder of the textiles syllabus you always ignored. However, all eight contestants treated the challenges differently and by the end of the day there were 24 unique items of clothing.
Watching programmes like this — whether it be DIY or cookery shows — you get the sense that you could do that too. Look they’re only sewing two pieces of material together, what’s all the fuss? The show tries to push this sense that you should shun ‘off the peg’ clothing too. The contestants and the judges all talk about how satisfying it is to wear something that is one-off and that you made with your own hands. In addition the show gives the audience their own challenge, this week a laundry bag, so we can join in too. And this is where the show disappointed me.
Sewing is hard. If you will excuse a quick mention of Bake Off, if it inspires you to make a cake and you manage to make it look disgusting then it doesn’t really matter. The chances are the cake will still taste nice, so it isn’t too bad.
If you make a dress then it could be disastrous and make you look like some kind of sack lady. At points the show mentions that if you are a beginner then follow a pattern and you will be fine. Another word of advice is to just tinker with a sewing machine to get the hang of sewing. These aren’t things that will just be hanging around the house. On top of that the design for the laundry bag isn’t even on the Great British Sewing Bee website. Meaning all you have to work with is a speedy demonstration that was on the show.
The contestants are all lovely though. Predominantly they are Mums so when something goes wrong they manage to cope in the way that only Mums can — they laugh it off. Even when a contestant gets eliminated no one presumed that they were safe. So it’s reassuring that nice people are still allowed on television.
Overall, the show is somehow spellbinding. But if you actually want to learn how to sew then this programme has missed out the basics.
The Great British Sewing Bee is on BBC Two on Tuesdays at 8pm. You can catch up with episode one on BBC iPlayer.