When I asked my friends what the Bible has to say about The Great British Sewing Bee, one suggested that I read ‘The Parable of the Sewer’.
Other recommended references included the three-strand cord mentioned in Ecclesiastes, and the needle through which the camel struggles to squeeze during Jesus’ conversation with the rich young man. Such comments were meant to be playful rather than profound, but they hinted at the Bible’s fondness for fabric imagery.
From the moment that Adam and Eve stitched together multiple fig leaves to cover their essentials, people have been fascinated by clothes.
Throughout Scripture we’re treated to vivid descriptions of characters’ garments, from Joseph’s fancy coat to the camel-skin robe of John the Baptist. We read about Tabitha’s sewing ministry in Acts 9, and perhaps the richest description of the act of sewing itself comes in Exodus 35, where people make offerings for the Tabernacle: ‘All the women who were skilled in sewing and spinning prepared blue, purple, and scarlet thread, and fine linen cloth. All the women who were willing used their skills to spin the goat hair into yarn.’
Human beings have incessantly yearned for yarn and there is always ‘a time to tear apart and a time to sew together’ (Ecclesiastes 3.7).
Bake-off to Bee
Now 21st-century Brits are cottoning on to the trend. The Great British Sewing Bee (GBSB) is enjoying strong viewing figures as the nation tunes in each week to find out who will be crowned Britain’s best home sewer. The popular show comes from the makers of The Great British Bake Off (GBBO) and lures viewers with the same format: ten amateurs gather in the sewing room to complete a series of increasingly difficult challenges. Each episode begins with a pattern challenge. Then there’s the alteration challenge, a brief history lesson and, finally, a more creative task that echoes GBBO’s showstopper.
At the helm is Claudia Winkelman, who acts as a kind of one-woman Mel and Sue. Claudia is better known for hosting Strictly Come Dancing, Comic Relief and BBC1’s film programme.
She regularly confesses that she’s terrible at sewing. But this may be part of the same self-deprecating approach that causes her to describing herself as a ‘shrill moron with a big fringe’ whose job consists of ‘dying my skin orange and reading aloud’.
Saville Row and WI
By her side are GBSB’s answer to Paul and Mary – Savile Row designer Patrick Grant and Women’s Institute sewing teacher May Martin. They’re dedicated experts in their field, but even Patrick was sceptical that the show would be a success. ‘I don’t think sewing’s a fun thing to watch, full stop!’ he said. Claudia agreed. On the first day of filming she phoned her agent to say, ‘I’m in a room of people bent over machines… nobody’s going to watch it.’ But they were both proved wrong. The show has gained a loyal following and the Daily Mail described it as, ‘more gripping than The Wire. More innovative than Breaking Bad ’.
Keep calm and sew on
GBSB has a gentle retro charm that resonates perfectly with the spirit of the moment, combining crafting, hand-made products and a kind of austere make-do-and-mend mentality. Although stitching a nightgown might not seem as DIY-able as baking a GBBO-style Victoria sponge, viewers are keen to try it for themselves; John Lewis reported a 180% increase in the sale of some sewing machines after the first episode of GBSB aired.
The show proceeds with a balance of drama and gentility which some viewers find infuriating but many more find endearing. The contestants frantically keep one foot on the sewing machine pedal, but meanwhile they nibble biscuits and drink tea from ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ mugs. They panic, but only about whether they’ll have time to attach enough diamante to the lace trim. Although the show is competitive at its core, the diverse group of contestants help and support one another and regularly weep when one of them is sent home.
More than almost any other reality show, GBSB has a reputation for featuring people who are genuine and interested in their craft, rather than those desperate to appear on TV. It’s their personalities and reactions that make the show, as Grant explains: ‘It’s not about watching the sewing. It’s more about watching the characters … failing and succeeding and crying and laughing’. It’s these human stories that keep viewers hooked on the show. After all, who doesn’t love a good yarn?
Rachel Thorpe writes the ‘Crossing the culture’ column for EN and works as an events planner and freelance writer in Cambridge. More of her articles can be found at www.rachelthorpe.com