Words: Katherine Hassell Pic © UNP
May Martin must have taught thousands to sew since she qualified as a teacher more than 40 years ago. But now – courtesy of The Great British Sewing Bee – she’s standing at the front of her biggest classroom yet... the nation. May relishes the chance to spread the word – and her passion shines from every pore.
More than three million of us watch talented amateur sewers attempt to cut, stitch and fit their way to the title of the nation’s best. And, while few would’ve predicted just how big an impact the programme has had, May’s clearly thrilled she’s helping revitalise a skill that had been seen by some as ‘fuddy-duddy’.
“I think we’ve made sewing fashionable,” says May (64). “When I started teaching, my students were mostly retired ladies. It wasn’t cool for the young to sew. Now, I’ve got lots of youngsters; they’re meeting up with friends and sewing in groups. It’s a cool thing to do.”
It’s not just women either. “We’ve got quite a few chaps this series, including two from the military,” May reveals. “The show is making people think it’s possible for anyone to have a go. I’m getting people in my classes who have never touched a needle before.”
The alteration challenge – in which competitors are given an item, such as a denim shirt, and asked to transform it into something else – has particularly inspired people. “My students go to Primark, come in with a couple of things and say, ‘What can I do with these?’” she laughs. “It’s made people think of possibilities. It’s exciting.”
May knows the feeling well. She enjoyed cross-stitch as a child, but it was using a sewing machine to make an A-line skirt at 13 which changed her life. “It sounds corny, but I had that light-bulb moment,” she recalls.
“The world started to make sense. I was never very academic. I went to grammar school and got O-levels and the odd A-level, but nothing else fed my passion. I went to teacher-training college and did a course in dress, design and pattern-cutting.”
More and more of us are being similarly bitten by the bug, thanks to the Sewing Bee. May confesses she had no inkling what impact the show would have. Last year, the industry sold 380,000 sewing machines, 180,000 more than the year before.
“The Sewing Bee has changed my life,” May admits. “You have no idea of the effect, until people start asking you to do things and viewers want to take selfies with you in the street. I keep thinking: ‘You want your picture with me? Really?’.
“Sewing Bee is the rubber stamp on something I feel passionate about. I love sewing!”
May’s talents are increasingly in demand. She runs courses across the south of England including the Women’s Institute’s teaching institution Denman College – where she’s taught for more than 20 years. Sewing Bee’s producers spotted her details on their website.
May impressed at auditions and was signed up as judge, alongside Savile Row tailor Patrick Grant. She admits filming the first series was terrifying: “I was like a rabbit in headlights. My students said to me, ‘That wasn’t the real you on television...’ and I said, ‘That was sheer terror!’ I do talks to 100-150 people, but that’s totally different to having a camera follow you – I was incredibly nervous and I didn’t know Patrick. We’ve got a good rapport now and have such a laugh – but that takes time to evolve. Now, I feel really comfortable. It’s a lovely job I really enjoy. I’m not terrified any more!”
The show’s host Claudia Winkleman was particularly supportive. “She was aware how I felt and couldn’t have been more helpful. She was like a mother hen. She’s the most fabulous lady. Claudia told me, ‘If you don’t talk, they’ve got nothing to edit. Just say what you think...’ She was very encouraging.”
May’s family must be proud. They’ve benefited from her skills for years. She has two sons – Graham (30) and James (34) and has been married to husband David for 40 years.
‘I love working on the show. I’m not terrified any more!’
“I used to make all Dave’s trousers,” she says. “He’s tall and years ago it was harder to get trousers to fit. And we had no money.” She made her sons’ school trousers, too, and still has hand-sewn puppets the boys made when they were small. Her youngest son has inherited her practical skills but uses them in a different way – he builds cars.
May says: “I’m teaching James’s partner Elizabeth to sew and I’ve taught my granddaughter Amelia (8) to do cross stitch. She thinks it’s amazing Granny is on the telly. And it is lovely to enthuse other people through what we do. Sewing feeds my soul!”
- The Great British Sewing Bee is on Thursdays at 8pm, BBC2. Catch missed episodes on BBC iPlayer
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