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Behind the scenes of Sewing Bee: Patrick Grant reveals what really happens on ‘the nicest show on TV’

What did you do last weekend? Maybe you went shopping or watched a box set. What you probably didn’t do was cast a pewter arrowhead. For the fashion entrepreneur and Great British Sewing Bee judge Patrick Grant, this casual piece of crafting was just one of several he embraced at Blackburn’s Festival of Making, a free celebration of craft set up in 2017.

When you’re as passionate about craftsmanship as Grant, there’s no finer way to spend a Saturday.

‘At one workshop, I made a flag,’ he says, speaking over the phone from his home in Lancashire. ‘At another, I did some printing using a Tetra Pak and a pasta roller. Just simple little things, but in making them you find yourself completely engaged and detached from everything else around you, which gives you a lovely bit of head space.’

It took the imposed isolation of a global pandemic for Britain to cotton on to the fact that crafting is good for you.

‘The calmness you feel when you’re making something with your hands is so beneficial to your mental health,’ says Grant, adding that he sees crafting as the perfect antidote to our increasingly screen-based existence. ‘As the digitisation of our lives increases, so does our desire to be connected to something analogue and real. When we spend so much time on our phones, we naturally have an inclination to do things with our hands. It’s built into our psyche, and makes us feel good.’

He describes the show as 'like Disney World for sewing fans. Often dubbed 'the nicest show on TV', it's currently in its ninth season He describes the show as 'like Disney World for sewing fans. Often dubbed 'the nicest show on TV', it's currently in its ninth season

He describes the show as ‘like Disney World for sewing fans. Often dubbed ‘the nicest show on TV’, it’s currently in its ninth season

Grant, 51, who grew up in Edinburgh and studied materials science at Leeds University (he’s also worked in a ski resort and as a nanny), certainly wasn’t the boy his house masters at Edinburgh Academy would have deemed most likely to end up a judge on BBC’s The Great British Sewing Bee.

Often dubbed ‘the nicest show on TV’, it’s currently in its ninth season. The contestants are aged between 20 and 73, and come from all walks of life, united by a love of dressmaking.

‘It’s one of those bits of telly where only good stuff happens,’ is how Grant explains the appeal. ‘It’s rare to see reality TV that is actually real. When you watch our show, you get to know the people in a very straightforward, honest way. Nothing is produced or scripted.’

He describes the show as ‘like Disney World for sewing fans. You’ve got all the machinery, the haberdashery, every bit of fabric you could imagine, and you get to do challenges with a whole gang of people who love doing the same thing. That it happens to be a televised competition seems irrelevant to them. They spend their entire time helping one another out.’

While he attributes the show’s camaraderie to its contestants (‘fascinating, lovely people you just want to watch’), he points out that sewing has always been a communal activity. ‘People tend to sew in groups – in clubs or classes. Even in our workshop in Savile Row, everyone’s chatting while they’re sewing, so it feels naturally collaborative.’

Ah, yes, Savile Row. Grant’s ‘other’ job is menswear designer, a profession he arrived at relatively late in life, aged 33, when in 2005 he bought the ailing London tailor Norton & Sons and set about reviving it (so successfully that, in 2010, he won Menswear Designer of the Year at the British Fashion Awards).

He also owns the ready-to-wear labels E Tautz and Community Clothing, the latter a passion project launched in 2016 with the purpose of making high-quality, everyday basics, manufactured in Britain.

By utilising factories at off-peak times, refusing to gift or pay influencers to wear its clothes and spending less than five per cent on marketing (most brands spend around 20 per cent), prices are kept as low as possible. As Grant says, ‘It shouldn’t be the case that only rich people can afford good-quality clothes.’

The contestants are aged between 20 and 73, and come from all walks of life, united by a love of dressmaking The contestants are aged between 20 and 73, and come from all walks of life, united by a love of dressmaking

The contestants are aged between 20 and 73, and come from all walks of life, united by a love of dressmaking

Nor should it be that they are manufactured abroad. Grant works with 42 factories in 35 towns across the UK, employing 1,880 people. He’s about to launch a campaign to restart production of underwear at a factory in South Wales, which produced Gossard’s Wonderbras in the 90s but closed in 2001.

‘There were once 2,000 skilled women there,’ says Grant. It [the factory] was important to their communities, but it also gave them a sense of purpose and pride. We’d like to bring it back.

‘Even 100 jobs would be a start. A lot of people have no idea how poor certain regions are, and how devastating the loss of industrial jobs can be to communities. In the UK there are now fewer than 100,000 jobs in the textile and clothing industry. At one time it was about 1.6 million. It is on its way back up. The problem is that most factories find it very difficult to get young people to train.’

Grant believes there needs to be a cultural shift that starts in the classroom. ‘I feel sad that schools are offering less opportunity for kids to have a go at making different things. When I was at school, I got to do metalwork, woodwork, pottery, art, even taxidermy. As a nation, we’re extraordinarily creative. We punch far above our weight in the creative fields. It might be our multiculturalism, or the way we’ve been educated up until now.

A CRAFTED OBJECT HAS VALUE AND HUMANITY 

‘In the past, children had the opportunity to learn all sorts of amazing skills. When you remove that from schools you are potentially causing an economic catastrophe. If I was in charge, I would be pumping more money into giving kids the opportunity to do creative, interesting stuff. We can get to maths later.’

Crafting is also good for the environment, Grant believes.

‘By turning something old into something new, we’re reminding people that, if we want to reduce the impact of mass consumption on the planet, we should repurpose the stuff already here.

‘But that requires skill, ingenuity and a problem-solving mind. And when you own an object crafted by somebody, it has more value and meaning. You can feel the humanity in it.’

His most beloved possessions are those he’s had for decades, including a pair of mittens knitted by his grandmother. ‘She wasn’t a great knitter,’ he recalls. ‘But they’re the most cherished things I own. I feel a connection to her when I wear them.’

He’s aware of the double standard inherent in being someone who makes products but who advocates people acquire less, and isn’t so idealistic as to imagine that they will ever stop entirely. Rather, it’s a question of buying less and buying better.

‘A lot of people feel pressured to buy new clothes because there is some sort of societal stigma around wearing the same stuff on rotation, particularly if you’re young. For some, buying stuff has become a crutch for happiness. We need to fix that about ourselves collectively.’

One person who would agree is the King, who founded the Prince’s Foundation, of which Grant is an ambassador. (Grant is involved, too, with the foundation’s Future Textiles initiative, which encourages young talent into the industry.)

‘King Charles is a passionate advocate for repairing and keeping for ever,’ he says. ‘His face lights up when he sees somebody doing something with their hands. There’s nothing guaranteed to get him more excited than having somebody whittle a spoon.’

He recalls an anecdote the King told him about ordering a new pair of dress shoes from Tricker’s, and how he’d insisted they reuse the grosgrain ribbon from his old pair. ‘The ribbon must have been 40 years old, but he loved the quality.’

It must be heartening for the UK’s estimated 19.5 million crafters to know their monarch has been a craft aficionado for decades. ‘King Charles is the patron [president] of the Heritage Craft Association,’ Grant points out. ‘He was mocked in the 70s and 80s for his views, but he has always been behind the idea [of reusing], and likes to keep things for ever.’

A noble aim, and one which we can all emulate. It just takes a needle, thread and a modicum of patience.

The Great British Sewing Bee is viewable on BBC iPlayer

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