One of the hottest trends of the season isn’t a skirt length, a new bag shape or heel height – it’s a hobby. After knitting and baking comes ... sewing.
A new BBC primetime television programme devoted to the phenomenon, The Great British Sewing Bee, aired for the first time last week, pitting enthusiastic amateurs against each other in a competition judged by Patrick Grant, a Savile Row tailor, and May Martin, a sewing teacher.
In London the Fashion and Textile Museum says its sewing classes have been met with unprecedented demand. On the opposite side of the world, the exhibition Home Sewn opened at the New Zealand Fashion Museum in Auckland in September, looking at everything from machines to the fabrics and techniques used by women to create their own couture.
“There is growing demand for individually crafted clothes, and young people are increasingly interested in making them,” says Celia Joicey, head of the Fashion and Textile Museum. “It could be the result, in part, of high-profile companies such as Alexander McQueen producing ready-to-wear clothing with exceptional cut and quality.”
Education has been at the heart of the Fashion and Textile Museum’s remit since its beginning – the museum celebrates its 10th anniversary this year – but it now offers more than 10 craft-based courses: from introductory lessons for people keen to get the most out of their sewing machines (led by Jolanta Cerniauskiene, Zandra Rhodes’ own dressmaker), to tuition in quilting, appliqué and pattern-cutting.
“Sewing is definitely back, partly due to the downturn in the economy,” says Wendy Gardiner, author of 15 books on sewing and co-founder of the iSew website. And, though she notes that on the surface this might be attributable to the desire to save money, in fact, “with today’s cheap fashion, you can’t make clothes for less than shop-bought ones”.
Doris de Pont, curator of the Auckland exhibition, thinks fast fashion has actually helped drive the sewing renaissance. “It has given rise to a desire for something unusual and authentic,” she says. “Home-sewing, upcycling and craft practices are ways to achieve this.”
Sharon Graubard, fashion director of trend forecasting company Stylesight, agrees: “Craftsmanship’, ‘artisan’ and ‘couture’ are real buzz words. If consumers don’t have the feeling of some sort of workmanship about a product, it won’t have any emotional pull.”
And sewing your own – or, at least, customising shop-bought clothes – is a way to create something unique. “We have noted a growing trend towards the handmade, particularly among young people,” says de Pont. “Home Sewn was curated as a response to this, seeking to provide historical context and inspiration for people interested in taking up sewing.”
The increasing role of technology seems also to be attracting more men to the craft. “Today’s modern sewing machines are computerised and a breeze to use: select the stitch and it automatically sets the length and width to create the perfect stitch every time,” says iSew’s Gardiner. “[Even] buttonholes can be an easy one-step – you select the buttonhole stitch, start to sew and it creates the buttonhole in one go.”
Indeed, the new BBC show mainly seems to feature contestants hunched over sewing machines attempting to pipe a seam or invert a zip. And while it may not have the visual appeal of the BBC’s last hit hobby show, The Great British Bake Off, it’s clearly part of a popular, well, pattern.