After the first Covid-19 lockdown was enforced, entry-level sewing machines sold out across the country for months.
People realised just how helpful doing something crafty like sewing can be, not only to help pass the time, but also for our mental health.
A project called the Big Community Sew was even launched, by The Great British Sewing Bee’s Patrick Grant.
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It encouraged thousands of people to make face masks for their friends and neighbours, and gowns and scrubs for NHS workers – and Grant got fellow Sewing Bee judge Esme Young, plus presenter Joe Lycett, involved too.
“Those people that were volunteering their time, found it really, really beneficial in lots of ways,” says Edinburgh-born Grant, 48.
“It gave them a purpose to their day, it gave them a social network to engage with and it simply gave them something that was a very mindful activity.”
Now, as The Great British Sewing Bee returns to BBC One, we chat to Grant, Lycett and Young to find out what’s in store.
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This is the seventh series of the competition, which sees 12 of Britain’s best amateur sewers take on various creative challenges.
Each episode has a different overall theme, and involves three tasks; the pattern challenge, a transformation challenge – where the contestants are given second-hand garments and must up-cycle them into a brand new outfit -and a final sewing challenge, which tests the contestants’ ability to create a made-to-measure outfit for a real life model.
So, how tough was it for the sewers this series?
“There were a lot of tears this year – more than normal,” muses Brummie comedian Lycett, 32. “Straight out of the gate, episode one, everyone’s crying!”
However, when it comes to the creations, expect a lot of exuberance on your screens.
“I don’t know whether it was because we’ve been feeling so kind of lacking in fun clothing opportunities for the year, but there’s loads of fun party stuff, there’s lots of sparkle,” teases fashion designer Grant, who is director of bespoke tailors Norton & Sons of Savile Row.
As for the standard of the sewers this year, he notes: “In week one, Esme and I looked at each other and we were like, ‘Well this is going to be difficult’ because occasionally there are one or two that maybe aren’t quite as good as the others and you can see it quite early on… We set this first challenge and almost everybody absolutely nailed it.”
There’s a reason so many of us like watching The Great British Sewing Bee – it’s nice, warm TV.
“There’s a lot of telly that is based on the assumption that people want to see other people kind of put down, and we’re the opposite end of that spectrum,” suggests Grant.
Indeed, 72-year-old designer Young, who has enjoyed a sewing career spanning 50 years, admits she always feels “really sorry” for the first person to leave the competition.
“It’s awful to be that person – it’s awful to be evicted at all!” adds Grant.
Elaborating on why the show is such a hit, Bedfordshire-born Young – a teacher at London’s Central St Martin’s College – says: “I love how the sewers express their vision. They all have their own personalities, and that’s what they bring to the room.
“What we’re always looking for in students is who they are, and I think that’s something that happens on the Sewing Bee. It’s about them.”
“It’s celebratory, and it’s instructive, and it’s inspiring – and also there’s a lot of my professional life that we get to talk about,” follows Grant.
“Interestingly, we’ve managed to get some really important messages about sustainability and textiles and the way that people treat their clothes into the show, in a nice way that’s positive.”
Christmas 2020 may have been a difficult one for many of us. But it did bring some festive editions of Sewing Bee, starring the likes of Dame Shirley Ballas, Sally Phillips, Sara Pascoe, which were so brilliant to watch.
As Lycett puts it: “It really brought a kind of non-uniform day vibes to the sewing room.”
“I got so many texts from celebs being like, ‘Can I do the next one?’” says the funnyman. “Carol Smillie is desperate!”
Apparently, many of the celebs went on to buy sewing machines after starring in the show (or got their old ones out of the attic).
“[TV personality] Dr Ranj sent me a picture; he re-did a version of the dress that he did,” reveals Grant.
“Very few of the celebrity contestants had much – if any – experience of sewing, using sewing machines, and they gave it such a great amount of gusto.
“They totally went for it, and they were really brave in the choices of things they were going to make, and it was really fun.”
We’ve talked about how much people have enjoyed using sewing machines during the pandemic, but what have the Sewing Bee team been getting up to at home over the last year?
“Well, I’ve made elderflower cordial,” says Young, recalling how she discovered elderflower trees while out on her daily walks.
“I tried to make some elderflower champagne, but I got terrified it would explode so I didn’t tighten the bottles enough – so it was just more elderflower cordial.”
“I really got into dry white wine,” quips Lycett, laughing. “That was a real friend.
“Gardening was the big thing in lockdown one – still doing lots of gardening but obviously as the winter drew in, there was less to do. And painting and writing – writing about gardening, which has been a real treat.”
Grant has been keeping himself sane by walking and cycling, but says he has spent most of the last year working.
At the end of March last year, he moved to Blackburn to run his factory Cookson and Clegg, which manufactures textiles.
“I’ve never worked longer hours in my life,” he admits. “For about six months we were making PPE, then we went back to making normal stuff.
“And then when the second wave started we were back on PPE, and we just had to re-mobilise; we made all the scrubs for the vaccine centres in our region.
“We’ve got big orders in for reusable gowns. Hopefully, there are some quite big changes to the way some of the NHS procurement happens. I think, certainly in our region, they are looking to try to continue to buy some product from the UK, which will help the textile and the garment sewing industry a little bit.”
The Great British Sewing Bee returns to BBC One on Wednesday, April 14