Great British Sewing Bee

It’s no secret that I loved the BBC’s The Great British Bake Off – indeed, I’ve loved it since the first episode of series one – and my irreverent recaps proved surprisingly popular here last year.  I was a little more dubious about The Great British Sewing Bee, but I decided to give it a whirl… and got hooked.

It’s already three episodes into a four episode series, so there’s not much time to get on board – but those of you in the UK can catch up on BBC iPlayer.  I won’t be doing proper recaps of the episodes, but I felt that it warranted at least one post.

So, why was I dubious?  Well, for a start I don’t know the first thing about sewing.  I can sew on a button, but that’s it.  With baking, I know my croquemboche from my croque monsieur, and my Bakewell from my baking beans.  The finer points of French stitching, however, are a total mystery.  Would I find it interesting to watch people do something I couldn’t objectively assess, and had no interest in doing myself?

Turns out, yes.  Because any reality competition of this sort stands or falls based on the people, not the activity.  And the people, of course, fall into three categories: the presenter, the judges, and the contestants.

Claudia Winkleman is the heavily-fringed presenter – she has spent more than a decade bobbing around the lesser-watched BBC shows and second-channel spin-offs (what a lot of hyphens for one sentence) and more or less copies the presenting style of Mel & Sue from the Great British Bake Off – which is fair enough, since almost every other element, from the title to the opening titles, are shamelessly copied too.  Claudia is shunned and giggled with in equal measures, again much like Mel & Sue – but manages to hold her own rather well.

The judges buck the usual trend of gruff man and lovable woman, by having a woman (May Martin) who looks like a sullen Delia Smith and is apparently the ‘country’s best sewing teacher’, although I don’t remember being polled, and Savile Row’s Patrick Grant, who is quite sweet (although his beard makes him look as though he’s been hurried into a witness protection programme).  Both are rather unduly critical, and don’t have close to the same chemistry that Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood have, and May Martin is ruthlessly unhumorous, but perhaps they’ll improve if this gets another series.  They have potential.

Before I get onto the contestants, I should explain what they do.  The first challenge is always creating something from a pattern (a child’s dress; an A-line skirt), the second is adorning or transforming a plain high street item (blue shapeless dress; white blouse), and the third is creating something more complicated for a specific model, rather than a mannequin.

What’s quite curious is that they are never judged on their taste, or the success of their design – just their sewing ability.  Yes, that’s what it should be about primarily – but The Great British Bake Off is always about the choice of flavours and the appearance of the product too, rather than simply baking skills.  So Sandra’s madly dated designs do ok, because she is an adept seamstress, whereas Michelle (say) gets little credit for having stylish ideas.

Yes, the contestants.  There’s a few who are clearly there as characters – and, let’s not forget, having a regional accent is enough for a BBC reality show to consider you a wacky character.  So we have Lauren, who would fall into the Danny-school-of-boring if she weren’t lucky enough to be Scottish; Sandra, with a broad Brummie accent, lots of laughter, and the general appearance and personality of everyone’s favourite dinner lady. She’s great fun.  Michelle and Jane rather blend into the background (I don’t even remember who Jane is, actually) and Tilly thinks she lives in the 1940s, but with a bit of a temper.  Oh, and Mark is the token men-with-piercings-can-do-domestic-things-too man.  Except his sewing is all for historical reenactments and Steampunk days, which has little bearing on the creation of an A-line skirt.  As he points out, the eighteenth-century didn’t have zips.

So that leaves my two favourite contestants (or ‘sewers’ as they’re called on the show – a word which doesn’t work so well when written.)  Stuart is a giggly man who was born to give witty soundbites on reality shows.  He burbles nonsense about being nervous or having cut his fabric the wrong way, but will wrap it up with an intonation which sounds as though he’s made a helpful and pertinent summation of the situation.  He’s a step away from Brendon on Coach Trip, and the expert flounce from camera.

Which leads, head and shoulders above the rest (in my affections), the wonderful Ann.  I have such a fondness for old women with spirit – and Ann provides.  She’s in her 80s, ridiculously pleased to be there, and very affectionate towards everyone.  The show seems to think she’s been alive for centuries – I half expect her to lean over and advise Stuart on what people really wore in 1807 – and she cheerfully gets on with it while Claudia and the judges mumble about her Life Experience in the corner.  She’s a wonder.

So, has that sold the show to you?  They hope to get the nation sewing – well, I’m not a stitch nearer sewing than I was before I started watching, but I’m certainly entertained.

28 thoughts on “Great British Sewing Bee

  • April 21, 2013 at 10:59 pm
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    Yup, sold it to me! as with your GBBO posts, you made me laugh. Of course, I was predisposed to like it, but I haven't seen any of it, I was away when it started and despite my hints, my other half failed to record it for me. It hadn't occurred to me I could watch it on iPlayer. I
    like the sound of Mark – historical reenactment and steam punk is right up my street, and I know all about not using zips!

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    • May 1, 2013 at 9:12 pm
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      I'm so pleased you enjoyed the review, Jodie :)

      The next series is going to be longer, and the judges will have settled into their roles, I think… I'll be watching!

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  • April 21, 2013 at 11:02 pm
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    I have been enjoying it, although I missed the last episode, I'll have to get on to the iPlayer. I like Ann too but Lauren is probably my favourite (I'm Scottish). One thing which was great about the bake off was the sense of disaster, so many cakes were dropped or otherwise ruined – such fun. It just isn't quite the same if a zip or a neckline is sewn on the wrong way.

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    • May 1, 2013 at 9:13 pm
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      That's a very good point! Unpicking stitches isn't so interesting as staring dejectedly at a squashed cake…

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  • April 21, 2013 at 11:19 pm
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    I just learned about this yesterday and have found somewhere to stream it from so am happily looking forward to catching up with it! I am (emphatically) not a sewer but, as you say, it's all about the people.

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    • May 1, 2013 at 9:13 pm
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      Hurrah!
      And yes, this show has shown me how people who don't like baking could love Great British Bake Off.

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  • April 22, 2013 at 1:53 am
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    This sounds like something I would enjoy watching. I'm a very amateur sewer myself (or "sewist" as some North Americans have started styling the word) and enjoy watching what others can do.

    Can't think of this kind of reality show being aired over here, unless people started stabbing one another with their Ginghers…

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    • May 1, 2013 at 9:14 pm
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      'Sewist' at least avoids the awkwardness of writing 'sewer' down! But, yes, it is quite a quiet, British sort of programme…

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  • April 22, 2013 at 3:55 am
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    I was hooked from episode one – and believe me, even though I do a bit of sewing myself, I learned quite a lot from this series. Like you say, it's the type of reality series (on the footsteps of the GBBO) that I really like watching!

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    • May 1, 2013 at 9:15 pm
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      I think I know too little about the whole sewing thing to have learnt much – I don't know the basics yet – but I do enjoy watching. Reality contestants who are generally lovely and charming, rather than obnoxious and loud!

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  • April 22, 2013 at 5:04 pm
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    Ooo, I hope I can figure out a way to stream that here. I can't sew anything (other than a button) myself, but one of my dds is a beginner and loves it – she's always looking for more resources to glean from.

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    • May 1, 2013 at 9:15 pm
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      Claire has managed to find it online, so I imagine it's out there somewhere :) Good luck!

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  • April 22, 2013 at 6:45 pm
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    Ann is wonderful. Not only a great character but, trust me on this, she is the most incredible craftswoman. Did you see the boucle jacket she made last week? I was awed!

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  • April 22, 2013 at 7:07 pm
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    I love watching people do what they do best – be it cook, sew, or decorate. If I can figure out how to stream it, I will try and catch up. What fun!

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    • May 1, 2013 at 9:18 pm
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      That's a lovely description of what makes these shows a joy, Belle!

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  • April 22, 2013 at 7:20 pm
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    Love your write-up on GBSB. I really like the programme, but as you say, it's not quite as watchable as the GBBO. I think I've learned a couple of tips though…..hmmm but will I ever use them? Once again Simon, thank for cheering me up with you blog; I try to look in most days. Jeano.

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    • May 1, 2013 at 9:19 pm
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      Thanks so much for your lovely comment, Jeano!
      I'll be intrigued to see what the second series will be like…

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  • April 22, 2013 at 10:57 pm
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    I don't sew or craft but I'm avidly watching this. I agree that Patrick (too dapper) and May (too keen to point out mistakes) are no Paul and Mary. I was rooting for Stuart – sorry he left last week.

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    • May 1, 2013 at 9:20 pm
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      They definitely point out mistakes too often – they need to be a bit more positive. They'll get there in the next series!

      Claim to fame – I've discovered that I have a mutual friend with Patrick. ('Friend' very loosely on their side, I think… but a very dear friend of mine.)

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  • April 23, 2013 at 12:47 pm
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    I'm just so happy there's something on television that inspires you to write your hilarious commentaries! I must find out if my mum is watching this (I told her it was going to be on) as she is a big sewer (made my wedding dress, no less) and my grandmother, who she learned from, was a professional dressmaker. Me? I can barely sew a button on, so the line stopped here, alas!

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    • May 1, 2013 at 9:22 pm
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      Thanks Victoria, I appreciate that!

      Very impressed that your mum made your wedding dress! My Mum made her bridesmaids' dresses, but I don't think she made her own…

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  • April 23, 2013 at 3:12 pm
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    Sigh. Another great show we won't see over here. But your recap brings it to life. And the picture of Ann (I started to type "Gran") kind of says it all. How sweet.

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  • April 24, 2013 at 9:14 pm
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    I loved every minute and am so glad there is to be another (longer) series.

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  • April 24, 2013 at 10:54 pm
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    I loved it all too and have applied to be on the next series. But I can't let go your comment about Sandra's accent. Not Brummie at all. Wolverhampton. Totally different. ;)

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    • May 1, 2013 at 9:23 pm
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      How exciting! I do hope you get on, Ros!
      And apologies apologies! Despite coming from Worcestershire, my black country knowledge is weak…

      Reply

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