In a converted chapel in London’s East End, programme-makers are pursuing television’s Holy Grail: a new series that will become as close to the nation’s heart as the phenomenally successful Great British Bake Off.
The Great British Sewing Bee hopes to do for dressmaking what Bake Off did for fondant fancies. There’s the same winning formula: two judges (one kind, the other a teeny bit gruff); engaging contestants (two men, six women, all “characters”) facing a series of increasingly jaw-dropping challenges. Claudia Winkleman takes the supportive Sue and Mel role: “When the sewers were struggling my answer was always sugar – or chocolate. I baked cookies for every episode,” she claims.
The series taps into a revival of interest in sewing that has grown in recent years, partly in response to the recession. Cathy McKinnon, editor of Cloth magazine, which is aimed at the young, hip sewer, says, “When the magazine launched in 2009, retailers were reporting a massive increase in sewing-machine sales – sales of Argos’ cheapest model had risen by 500 per cent in a year. Since then there has been a huge rise in people making and selling clothes online. One of our guest bloggers has four million Pinterest followers worldwide. And workshops and sewing cafés, where you can hire a sewing machine and just hang out and make stuff, are becoming popular all over the country.”
However, when I met Winkleman and the judges on the day of the final she still hadn’t picked up a needle. She’s part of the generation who missed out on learning how to sew and cook at school and is now keen to learn. “I’m totally new to sewing – I can just manage name tags,” admits Winkleman. “But my mum [former Fleet Street editor Eve Pollard] does tapestry to relax, so I always knew it was soothing.
“In the same way that before Bake Off I thought baking was too difficult, I now see there’s a thrill about creating a beautiful skirt out of a fabric I’ve chosen myself – something that I would otherwise spend a lot of money on. Another challenge was making little girls’ dresses – they’re so cute. I thought, ‘I want to make that.’”
Bake Off owes much of its pulling power – more than seven million people watched the final – to judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood. Sewing Bee’s Patrick Grant (very Savile Row) and May Martin (very WI) have a similar kind of chalk-and-cheese chemistry.
“May and I come from very different worlds, we have different tastes and we look at things with completely different eyes,” says Grant. “I like simple things, while May is more into finery. She loves the machines and the brilliant technology and I like the needle and the thimble. I don’t think either of us is harsh; we haven’t made anyone cry. But this is a tough competition. The contestants are all enthusiastic home sewers, but even professionals would find some of the tasks challenging.”
Squashed together on a sofa during the lunch break there’s a lot of joshing and giggling as all three tuck into Winkleman’s bottomless bag of marshmallows. But it’s not always been sweetness and light: “Patrick and May had one terrible row about who to send home,” Winkleman shudders. “It was like being in an episode of Oprah; they just couldn’t agree. I almost burst into tears.”
Back on set the tension at the sewing machines has risen several notches as time begins to run out; one woman’s hands won’t stop shaking as she wrestles with a satin evening gown. When the chips are down this will be what glues us to our screens: how much we care about the contestants and how they cope under pressure.
The tension in the workroom is even getting to Winkleman, who keeps cracking up on camera when Grant tries to tell her about the intricate lace a contestant is transforming into a classic cocktail dress. “It’s intense in here; this is very different to the way people sew at home. Suddenly everything matters. We’ve had lots of tears,” she says.
It may be classic Winkleman hyperbole to suggest this series could change the winner’s life, but could it change hers? “Nothing’s as successful as Bake Off. Superman isn’t as successful as Bake Off,” she insists. “We just hope people will find us and like us. There is simply something exciting about watching people making something from nothing – it’s magic.”
The Great British Sewing Bee starts tonight at 8:00pm on BBC2