Somewhere in an unusually cold marquee on a pristine lawn, series four of The Great British Bake Off started filming yesterday. Months to wait to see that, but the producers have already branched out. The Great British Sewing Bee (Tuesdays BBC2; iPlayer) had different ingredients but kept the same format, with three tasks per week, a historical interlude to allow viewers a toilet break, and an elimination of one of the country's best amateur tailors at the end. What it most importantly kept was the knack of being relentlessly nice without being twee. Hard but fair.
As with the Bake Off, the words "Great British" in the title had more significance than just geography. Something small but great, and probably far from unique but certainly British, was on display. In GBBO people baked cakes and most of us have done that at least once, but not with anything like that sort of skill or creativity. The contestants baked a lot of cakes at home, primarily to share them with people they loved.
In GBSB people made clothes, and most of us have never done that so their skill and creativity was almost miraculous. The contestants made a lot of clothes at home, primarily for themselves. Sewing was mostly a lone pursuit, a way of drawing inner confidence from a job well done.
We were told that GBSB reflected sewing coming back into fashion, but the participants were full of the sort of fierce self-sufficiency that wouldn't give a bugger if it were still seen as laughably eccentric. If there was anyone cooler, or hotter, on TV this week than Tilly, her bedroom clothes rail stuffed with spankingly cute dresses she'd designed and executed herself, I didn't see them.
The Bake Off's secret strength, of course, is its unerringly well chosen cast. Every year the perfect mix shakes itself down into a natural order from last to first, turning your initial prejudices upside down but also introducing you to ten people you like immediately. The Sewing Bee had this nailed down, with obvious no-hoper Mark, who was only used to making costumes for steampunk conventions but suddenly came good in the last round; chummy yam-yam mummy Sandra; and twinklingly camp Stuart. (Would three-and-a-half-hours be long enough for his first task? "Oh I think I'll have had enough by then, yes.")
The early favourite was Ann, 82 years old and still with the pinpoint focus of a kestrel, who had been sewing for seven decades. Watching her swiftly knock up a perfectly fitting crepe wool shift dress, I started feeling sad about the day she takes all that knowledge with her.
Judging were no-nonsense Women's Institute sewing teacher May Martin and the show's instant star, Savile Row tailor Patrick Grant. Seven feet tall and immaculately whistled, quiffed and bearded – Rupert Everett with better diction and a softening northern burr – Grant was serene but perhaps a bit naughty. "Sandra's made what we call in the tailoring industry 'a bit of pork'..."
Claudia Winkleman, who in the best possible way has made a career out of presenting shows on subjects she doesn't know too much about, fronted it with her normal unfussy charm and curiosity, speaking up for us laypeople when tailoring jargon crept in. Great British Sewing Bee was another fluffy comfort blanket to crawl under, but by heck it was well stitched.