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.
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
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 3 – That’s my series 🙂
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!