Is the Great British Sewing Bee still relevant in 2019?

Is the Great British Sewing Bee still relevant in 2019?

Header Image credit: freestocks.org on Unsplash

In 2013, sewing was put on the cool map like never before by a TV show that surpassed even the wildest expectations of their creators, Love Productions for the BBC. Modelled on the wildly popular Great British Bake Off, created by the same production company, GBSB got amateur dressmakers to sew on prime time TV.

And changed the sewing world in one unassuming swoop.

Season 5 is about to begin on Tuesday 12th February and I wanted to explore if, 6 years later, it is still as relevant and ground-breaking as it was in the beginning.

The world before the Sewing Bee

At least in the UK, sewing in the early 2010s was still regarded largely as a granny hobby. Yes, we had sewing blogs and we were talking about sewing online on forums, we had Pattern Review and Burda Sewing community, but sewing wasn’t exactly mainstream.

Up until the 80s, sewing used to be taught in school, and for some, this was the beginning of a long-time love affair, whilst others were put off for life. The latter, perhaps because of the boring projects and the fact that there seemed to be so little practical application in actual everyday life. This also coincided with the rise of mass-fashion in the 90s, where clothes became more and more accessible, cheap and also the disposable income rose in the nation. Home-made was something to be embarrassed by, a sign of not being to afford the latest fashions, rather than a conscious act of creativity and self-expression.

So the sewing machines went into the attic and started gathering dust, the grans and mums stopped passing on the sewing craft, and the art of making one’s clothes slowly became forgotten.

But then, in 2013, a new reality show that threw together 8 amateur sewists appeared on the BBC, for a trial run of 4 episodes. And it got a respectable audience of 2.7m viewers for the final. Not in Strictly or even Great British Bake Off league, but still, substantial enough to warrant a second series.

Anna Beattie, the lead of Love Productions and the creator of GBSB, said in an interview for the Telegraph: ‘Everyone said that Bake Off was a 10-minute item, or a daytime show. They didn’t realise how much there is in baking. When we were thinking about making a sister show, we felt the time was right with sewing. There’s a renewed interest in making things, or watching other people do it. But if Bake Off hadn’t preceded it, I don’t think Sewing Bee would have happened. It was an enormous gamble for BBC Two. Nobody thought an audience would come to a show about sewing.’

But how wrong they were all proved to be.

And the Sewing Bee effect was put into motion.

The ‘Sewing bee effect’

Whether the Sewing Bee was banking on the rise of the Maker Movement or it caused it (at least in the UK), it’s undoubtful that the ‘sewing bee effect’ is real. It manifested in both significant rises in sales of sewing equipment, fabric, patterns and haberdashery, but also in new business, physical and online. You can read more about the figures in this article.

Great British Sewing Bee 2019

Moreover, and more importantly, it made sewing aspirational and social, something you talked about with your friends, rather than something to be embarrassed about or engage with behind closed doors.

Another side effect that was less obvious, but not to be ignored, was talking about how clothes are made on prime time TV. For people that sometimes could be under the impression that t-shirts just magically appear on the racks of shops, seeing how much craft, love and effort is put into making even the simplest garment was illuminating, and hopefully perspective changing.

And this was not by accident. Anna Beattie again: ‘Few people think that a homemade dress is really better than one bought at Topshop – unlike shop versus homemade cake. We’ve sought to turn that around,’ Beattie says. ‘People who make their own clothes can make sure they fit perfectly and express their personality so much better with them than with things bought off the peg. I think the timing is right: there’s a huge online community around quite trendy sewing, and the show has encouraged people who haven’t done it for years to start again.’

Sewing people are the nicest people

What made Sewing Bee different from other reality shows like Project Runway, for example, was the lack of drama, lack of back-stabbing competitiveness. In Patrick Grant’s (Sewing Bee judge) own words: “The people are genuinely passionate about what they do – unlike other reality shows, they’re not wanting to become famous. They’re just nice people doing what they enjoy.”

The fact that we were not watching professionals that made everything perfectly the first time also encouraged people to have a go, gave them confidence that if people of the telly can make mistakes, it’s ok to fail and try again at home too. Also, the inclusive community online that formed around the Bee created a context that fostered creativity, inclusivity and people being proud of their efforts.

I also want to give a shout out to the production team’s efforts towards diversity inclusivity, both in race, age and gender. Yes, they choose people who make good television, but it’s a great feeling to know that everyone can be a contestant, so long as they love sewing (and of course, can sew). I came across a really great article analysing the diversity and representation on the programme after the first series that really gave me food for thought.

Impact of the Sewing Bee in 2019

Picture Shows: Patrick Grant, Esme Young, Joe Lycett – (C) Love Productions – Photographer: Mark Boudillion. Picture property of Love Productions.

After 3 years hiatus, the Sewing Bee is back in a few days. People are obviously still very excited, judging by the incredible amount of social chatter on my feeds. But is it still as relevant as it was in its heyday?

The sewing community is definitely not anything like it was in 2013. The amount of sewing influencers (bloggers, vloggers, Instagrammers) has grown tremendously. There are countless small businesses making money in this space, perhaps following the example of the ultimate Sewing Bee Alumni, Tilly Walnes of Tilly and the Buttons, who single-handedly proved that you can make money out of sewing in the UK. It’s easier than ever to learn how to sew, in person and online, and we are flooded with inspiration on all the social media channels.

So what can the Sewing Bee show us that we haven’t seen before and that we can’t get anywhere else? Is it Patrick’s moustache? Esme’s witty inuendoes (I’m sure the 9PM slot might encourage more boning and stuffing conversations)? Is it the flamboyance of Joe Lycett (the presenter replacing Claudia Winkleman)? Or is it the voyeuristic pleasure of reality TV? Or just that sewing is STILL on TV?

Personally, I perhaps still suffer from some sort of PTSD, even if it’s been 4 and a half years since my series was filmed, I still struggle to watch it without feeling very stressed for the competitors. Also, I really can’t imagine what they will be asking people to do that we haven’t seen before. I also feel that my general attention span for watching TV had diminished as the years go by. So I can say I’m moderately excited, in a ‘show me what you’ve got kind of way’.

Guess we will see on Tuesday, right?

You can watch the previous series here:

Great British Sewing Bee Series 1

Great British Sewing Bee Series 2

Great British Sewing Bee Series 3 – That’s my series 🙂

Great British Sewing Bee Series 4

ARE YOU EXCITED TO WATCH THE NEW SERIES? WHAT DO YOU MAKE OF THE SEWING BEE EFFECT? IS THE SEWING BEE STILL RELEVANT IN 2019? WOULD LOVE YOUR THOUGHTS IN COMMENTS!

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17 Comments

  1. Sue
    11 February 2019 / 8:46 AM

    Of course it’s relevant! But perhaps in a different way. The first series really got the ball rolling and inspired a lot of people to sew again or to learn to sew. And it became about the partipants as much as the sewing thanks to social media and the sewing community – we all feel like we know each other and can learn from and support each other. The sewing bee is exciting to see how they meet the challenges as well as showing us viewers techniques to investigate. Love the 🐝, despite having to watch on YouTube or Daily Motion because it’s not aired in NZ. Hope to be able to see the new series soon!!

    • sewrendipityalex
      Author
      16 February 2019 / 6:34 PM

      I find it so interesting that people all over the world are so into a British programme! Thank you for taking the time to comment.

  2. Elaine Marsh
    11 February 2019 / 10:29 AM

    I have watched all of the programmes in each series and am pleased it’s being given another. But slightly put off by the fact it’s in the ”reality’ show genre, having to accept that people who only watch similar shows for the entertainment and competitive factor and nothing else and don’t have a clue about sewing or other subjects will groan I guess. Truly you cannot learn anything substantial from this type of programme, only be inspired to take it further. Sewing has been in my life throughout and I consider it a gift/talent, like art. Creative skills using the hands should never be down played as your article hinted at, they are vital in the problem solving area of our brains and lives. Hopefully it will return to the school curriculum along with cooking, under life skills lessons. Being a contestant I’m sure is scary/exciting but that’s why you do it isn’t? I’ll be watching the new series as ever and shouting at the female judge, and trying to ignore the guest presenter and their irrelevance. Keep on sewing folks.

    • sewrendipityalex
      Author
      16 February 2019 / 6:36 PM

      Yes, I completely agree, Elaine! I think there are so many other areas of our lives that can benefit from us engaging in creative pursuits! Create problem solving, 3D thinking and imagination are just a few. If people get that from watching a ‘reality show’, well, whatever it takes :).

  3. 11 February 2019 / 2:02 PM

    OMG thank you for publishing, I would have missed it!

    • sewrendipityalex
      Author
      16 February 2019 / 6:37 PM

      Have you watched the first episode? What did you think?

      • juliana bendandi
        17 February 2019 / 6:08 AM

        Dear Alex! I‘m in Germany and don‘t really know how to watch the new season! Aaargh! There was a tip on The Foldline to register for an international IP account and just put down UK instead of own country…but that sounds kind of dangerous and illegal. Do you or any of your readers have a tip?

  4. Karen A.
    11 February 2019 / 5:06 PM

    I think that creativity never goes away and is always relevant. With all media showing celebrities dressed to the nines and the ‘how to’s’ whether on tv or youtube, the home sewist can get their creative juices flowing to design and create themselves. Thank also for the links to the GBSB shows! Those of us in the states really like the access.

    • sewrendipityalex
      Author
      16 February 2019 / 6:38 PM

      Completely agree, creativity is always relevant. That they manage to inspire and be nice at the same time, even better 🙂

  5. Martha Reed
    11 February 2019 / 5:27 PM

    I didn’t know there was finally a way for we US sewists to watch. Thank you! I know what I’m doing tonight!!

    • sewrendipityalex
      Author
      16 February 2019 / 6:38 PM

      Glad it was useful!

  6. Juliana bendandi
    11 February 2019 / 8:32 PM

    Thank you so much for your blog! I have learned so much from the sewing bee and have been binge watching it since your interview on the clothes making mavens! I am wearing a dress that had been sitting in my closet unworn for years which I was inspired to alter from listeing to you talk about sustainability. I didnt know what to do: the dress was so expensive, but I hated the fit! I love wearing it now. I will make myself a warm hat to wear under my bike helmet with the rest that I cut off. I have also dyed a colour blocked dress I had sewn (and hated!) and love how there are now different colour blocked variations of black! You are very inspiring!

    • 11 February 2019 / 9:26 PM

      This is so awesome, Juliana!

    • sewrendipityalex
      Author
      16 February 2019 / 6:40 PM

      Thank you so much for your kind words and taking the time to comment. I am a big fan of dyeing, it always helps to refresh a piece of fabric or even a garment. Better than giving it away!

  7. 11 February 2019 / 9:28 PM

    Insightful post, Alex. My worry for this season of the Sewing Bee is that they always seem to have to up the ante with every new series — meaning the sewing projects get more and more difficult and complex, which seems unfair to the competitors. The first season is always the easiest, it seems. But regardless, I can’t WAIT to watch it. I love the friendly competition and the real people, and I love the little segments about the history of a garment style or a fabric.

    • sewrendipityalex
      Author
      16 February 2019 / 6:46 PM

      Yes, that’s true! I am very curious what they will come up with this time. Episode one was interesting, and it didn’t seem too hard. Easy to be an armchair critic, huh? Though I must admit I was getting stressed for them. So sad when they have to go home :(.

  8. Joan Hosaka
    17 February 2019 / 8:16 PM

    I LOVED LOVED LOVED this series and am so excited that it is returning. To watch past episodes here in the US I had to prowl through YouTube to find the episodes and not all of them were available and the quality varied. What made it so delightful and insightful to me was the interpersonal relationships among the contestants. Everyone was so nice to each other. In my country’s political climate I’m not sure that respect would be shown. And your other commenters are right – the series started with easy projects and as time progressed, the difficulty of the projects increased. But that made it so educational. I’m 78 years old and have been sewing since I was about five making doll clothes with hand stitches. I moved on to clothes for myself on my Texas grandmother’s treadle machine and then a dressmaking class at a Singer Center in Chicago at age 13. Other than another dressmaking class at about age 25 I am entirely self taught. And there is so much out there that I still need to learn and this show helps me learn. Fellow clothing sewers with whom I can share my passion are not that common and are difficult to find so this series gives me the fellowship and education that I love.

So, what do you think?

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