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The Great British Sewing Bee - Jan Constantine Interview

Posted by Camille on 2nd Apr 2013

Tonight on BBC2 at 8pm will be the first airing of new competition show The Great British Sewing Bee – a spin-off of The Great British Bake Off, hosted by Esme Young and Patrick Grant, in which contestants aim to create their own clothing.

Jan is very excited about the show and the effect it might have on the British public, so we decided to ask her some questions about her own Sewing Bee (her past) and what she thinks the future might be for sewing.

Contestants and hosts on the show. Photo copyright the BBC


Q) Who first introduced you to sewing? At what age did you start?

A) My mother and Grandma Constantine introduced me to sewing when I was around 4 years old. There was always sewing going on in the house – my mother made everything we ever wore and Grandma was always visiting, bringing her knitting with her, making clothes and working on her projects. Whenever I visited grandma she would show me how to do things. After a while I started making dolls’ clothes, and I was given a red sewing machine for children, one that actually worked. From there, I made my first skirt for myself when I was about 10 – it was in a dog tooth check with a zip in the back and a pleat in the front, and I wore it often. Slowly I started to make more and more clothes; I went every Saturday to the Bury market to a stall called Ada’s where they sold fabric remnants, which I would buy to make something new to wear to the discoteque each week. I absolutely loved it and couldn’t wait to start my next garment.

A) I think the Sewing Bee is going to be incredibly successful and is likely to kick-start an array of new sewing programmes. I think it might be even more successful than the Bake Off, because of what it’s going to start – it’s definitely time for a sewing revolution. Also, there are a lot of cooking programmes on television already, and many famous television chefs… so it’s a welcome relief to see a hands-on show that’s focussing on something different. This is the kind of programme that’s been long-awaited, really: in the olden days sewing was very high on the list of pastimes/tasks along with cooking, and every woman used to sew, but this is rarely the case now.Q) Do you think The Great British Sewing Bee is likely to be as successful as The Great British Bake Off?

Q) Going on from that question – there are a number of male contestants in the Great British Sewing Bee. What do you think of that?

A) I think that’s fantastic. More men should be encouraged to get stuck in and make their own clothing.

Q) Why? Do you think there’s maybe something lacking in men’s fashion currently?

A) I do, actually, and I think there has been for a long time. I think it’s time the peacock returned. Maybe the Bowie exhibition at the V&A will give some inspiration to the male population – male fashion has been sober for far too long. It's been sober since the seventies, basically!

Q) What about fashion generally? Do you think there’s more room for originality in today’s clothing?

A) Yes. To make your own clothes is to make an individual, one-off garment – a lot of people are seeking that kind of originality by wearing vintage at the moment but they might find more kudos in wearing something completely of their own. Really, who wants to go to a wedding or a party and see somebody else wearing the same high-street dress?!

Q) The Great British Sewing Bee appears to be primarily a tailoring/dressmaking contest. Do you think there’s room for a revival of other sewing projects, too?

A) Absolutely. This is only the start – everything will be looked at differently once people realise that it only takes a little time-investment to make these things themselves.

A) Yes, I do. Possibly because everything vintage is very popular at the moment, and as is the ‘make do and mend’ ethos – because of the recession that we’re in, people want to find a way to save money while also creating their very own wonderful projects.Q) Do you think there is a revival of hands-on creativity generally at the moment, and why?

Q) Considering cuts to arts funding and the pressure on young people today to take a ‘financially viable’ route into work – resulting in declining numbers of young people studying subjects like art, textiles and design – what do you think the future is for creative endeavours like these? How do you think young people might be encouraged to continue on a path like this? And how could somebody who was really passionate about sewing find a way to make a career from it?

A) There has always been a future for art and design, and there always will be. I believe that if you’re strong and willing enough, and you love it enough, then you will find a way of doing it. When I was at school, I remember being advised not to take the route I wanted; but I went on and did it anyway, and it’s turned out to be a very fulfilling career, right through from being a fashion designer in London to interior styling and design to now, running my own company.

I think more programmes like this might be encouraging, for a start. Following the careers of flourishing creatives might also encourage young people, as perhaps what’s lacking at the moment is belief in the possibility of success in this area. It’s a shame, because as a nation we are incredibly creative; even London Fashion Week this year has surpassed those of Milan and Paris. This country is a huge creative force to be reckoned with and this should be nurtured and promoted.

Somebody who wanted to make a career of it could take the route of studying their craft at school or university, or alternatively, they might start their own project and pursue it alone, by perhaps hiring a market stall and then going on from there. Everybody has to start somewhere and the chances are, if you have the talent, the passion and the enthusiasm, you should win through: once you set your mind on something and you aim for quality, it can happen.

Q) What tips do you have for people who might be interested in starting to sew?

A) Find a mentor! Somebody who can sew… and get some books out of the library. Programmes like this are great, as I’ve already said. But I’d also recommend getting together with a friend or a circle of friends with a similar passion, because it’s always more fun to work on projects with others. There are sewing courses available in every part of the country if you care to look – if you’re interested, maybe just find one in your area. You might be surprised by how much you enjoy it!

Tune in to The Great British Sewing Bee each Tuesday (BBC 2, 8pm)! And if this sounded interesting to you, perhaps check out Jan’s books Heirloom Embroidery and Love Stitching, within which you’ll find instructions and guidance on how to make wonderful sewing projects all of your own.

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