There’s no question about it, sewing is hard. I don’t mean putting on a button, but actually making wearable clothes, from a pattern, with a machine. Doesn’t seem to put people off, though.
Indeed, series four ofthe Great British Sewing Bee which deals with the trials of making clothes, is such a hit it is now about to start series four. Here we have the valiant sight of people, ordinary people, coping with the travails of invisible zips, facings, the horror of the Pattern Block… indeed, with the entire gamut of the stony sewing terrain, from lacing up a sewing machine to hemming a pair of trousers, via that mysterious activity known as Basting. Plus endless amounts of ironing.
You can never sew anything without ironing it first, can you?, I ask Esme Young, sewing doyenne and new arrival on the ‘Bee’s judging team. “You must underpress all the time, that is very important,” she agrees.
Underpressing! Another term. Although one which is hardly unfamiliar to designer Young, 67, who has been making clothes for the last 60 years. “Yes, I was about seven when I started sewing. We were taught at school, and the first thing I made was a gathered skirt.”
From that modest beginning, she was unstoppable. Chic and stylish with her grey bobbed hair, racing-green day dress, spectacular jewellery and sensible shoes, Esme Young admits she has never been daunted by the challenges of a recalcitrant piece of fabric, an impossible pattern or a tricky sleeve. Ever. She was making her own patterns by the time she was in double figures. Indeed she was accustomed to buying a piece of material in the morning, running up an outfit and wearing it out on the town that same night.
“That’s what you did. You would make an outfit to go out in,” she tells me. “Because you couldn’t buy such cheap clothes as you do now. If you read fashion magazines, and you couldn’t afford something, or you were living outside London, you had to make it yourself.” No online same-day delivery in those days, you see.
“The first things I made were absolute pig’s ears,” admits Young. “I didn’t understand about facings, or finishings, or anything.” But she had found her metier. In 1972, she and three mates from art school founded funky fashion label Swanky Modes, which had a shop in London’s Camden Town. Their first piece of press was in Nova magazine. It featured a model wearing a plastic dress and was shot by renowned fashion photographer Helmut Newton. Young lived in a Notting Hill squat, rode a motorbike and was basically extremely cool. Clients at Swanky Modes included Cher, Grace Jones, Toyah Willcox and Julie Christie. What a fantastic person to inspire nervous stitchers on the Bee, I think.
“Well, I have learned through experience. And I have learned not to be too prescriptive,” says the radical Young, who alongside a career running a fashion company and teaching pattern cutting on the Fashion BA course at Central St Martins, has her own studio from whence come amazing outfits for film stars (Renee Zellweger’s famous bunny outfit in Bridget Jones, Dale Winton’s pink lurex suit in Trainspotting), adverts (Levi’s, Rimmel, Pretty Polly) and bespoke events (Dame Kiri te Kawana in a Union Jack jacket for none other than a Radio Times cover!).
Her advice? “Young designers will often look at things in a different way, and when I was first designing, that’s exactly how I felt. People would say, ‘That is wrong’, but ‘That’ was how I wanted it.”
Her stuff has even made it into the V&A; the Swanky Modes Amorphous Dress, now in the museum’s permanent collection, is made out of one piece of black stretchy material. This little black dress is so uncompromisingly sexy that when one of her clients arrived in it at a restaurant in New York, the entire room stood up and applauded. That is what you call a showstopper. Her creations have been worn by camp burlesque singers, and by rock stars.
Has she had any complete disasters? “Oh God, yes. We were making an outfit for a stripper and it had this huge white train. We were up all night sewing this thing, and I got the underneath of the train caught up in the overlocker [on the sewing machine]. There was a huge great big cut in it. It was a complete disaster.”
What’s the hardest thing to sew? There must still be things that cause headaches, whether for strippers or mere civilians? “Well, I hate making wedding dresses,” says Young. “I’ve made quite a few, but I hate it. It’s such pressure. And they are usually white, so I have to cover my entire workshop in paper before I begin, to avoid any dirt. And you have to have lots of fittings. Other than that, I suppose something tailored is the hardest thing to make. Or a collar and a lapel.”
Her real dislike, however, is for something not wearable at all. It is for that giant clothes emporium of the high street. “I have a problem with Primark. I have bought two things in there, but I won’t go in again. It’s like a feeding frenzy. People go in and they think, ‘Ooh, that only costs a fiver, and so does that, and that,’ – and they buy things they are never, ever going to wear. When you go in there, it’s as if people have gone mad. There are clothes on the floor, clothes hangers everywhere, there is something horrible about it.”
Does she hope the Great British Sewing Bee, with its peak time promotion of home-made stuff, might provide a gently halting hand on the monster? “I hope so,” says Young. “I hope by encouraging people to sew, that they will sew for themselves. You can’t make something cheaper than Primark but you can make something that is absolutely individual to you.”
As the Bee comes from the same TV stable as Bake Off, what’s the sewing equivalent, then, of boiling an egg?
“Probably sewing on a button.” What about a hem? ““Oh, I wouldn’t say a hem is easy,” says Young, darkly. “Hems can be very tricky.”
So what would it take to a triumph on Bee? “Two things. Really fabulous sewing, and something that will surprise me. People’s personalities come out in something exciting, so that, but also very beautiful sewing.” Quite a tough order from Ms Swanky Mode herself.