You might not recognise her face, but you have almost certainly seen the work of Esme Young, the new judge on The Great British Sewing Bee. This sewer extraordinaire’s CV includes costume designing for the Bridget Jones films (she’s particularly proud of the Bunny Girl outfit) and co-founding fashion label Swanky Modes. The label gained iconic status in the Seventies with its signature body-con dresses beloved by celebrities such as Cher and Julie Christie.
Despite such a distinguished track record, Esme (67) admits she was very nervous when she was asked to join The Great British Sewing Bee team. “I was absolutely terrified,” she says, adding that she doesn’t even own a television.
“I’d only ever seen clips of Sewing Bee on my computer. It’s a new experience for me talking to the camera, but everybody has been helpful and made me feel really relaxed. Well, I was never really relaxed, but they made it easy for me,” she laughs.
Her co-stars – host Claudia Winkleman and fellow judge Patrick Grant (of Savile Row tailors Norton & Sons) – were particularly supportive. “Patrick really helped,” says Esme. “He’s such a gent. He gave me tips and looked after me. And Claudia’s so much fun, she’s a great distraction and you do forget the cameras. They’re always giving me advice on where to look and what to say.”
At this point, Mr Grant interrupts with a roar of laughter: “Esme’s got plenty to say!” Clearly, the chemistry between the two judges will be something
“He’s very tall and I’m very small,” says Esme and Patrick chips in: “We are literally looking from different perspectives. I see the high-up bits and she sees the low-down bits.”
So what is Esme looking for? A combination of good sewing and good design. “Everything has to be perfect – beautifully put together with attention to detail,” she explains. “I look for beautiful seams, beautiful zips, beautiful tailoring, but I’m also looking for an element of surprise. I want to be excited. I want to see their personalities and that’s in the choice of fabric, colour and their sewing techniques.”
Esme admits she and Patrick have had ‘slight disagreements’ when judging. He jokes: “It’s great because now I’m the nice one – which I have always believed myself to be.”
Her standards are exacting, but Esme is much respected by her colleagues and the contestants – and she looks set to be a big hit with viewers. How will she cope with being recognised in the street?
“I’ve no idea! I do get quite a lot of people staring at me anyway because I look…” Esme is momentarily lost for words so Patrick finishes her sentence with ‘very, very striking’.
She continues: “I get people making comments about what I’m wearing. I probably make a quarter of my clothes.”
So what will this year’s contestants be making? As many home stitchers have become more adventurous, the show has broadened its scope to stretch their skills.
Aged from 18 to 71, the latest batch of hopefuls includes a junior doctor, a scientist and a stay-at-home dad who will be asked to produce everything from lingerie to athletic wear. There will also be a Sixties week and new machines – such as an overlocker – are being introduced along with trickier materials.
Week one saw the contestants making a chevron top, something Esme describes as ‘deceptively difficult’ with the need to pattern match and sew on the bias. They’re also asked to turn a maternity dress into something else. It’s the alteration challenge that has proved particularly inspiring to viewers, with newbies and established sewers alike upcycling clothes from the high street.
Thanks to Sewing Bee, more young people have taken up the pastime. Esme’s own love of sewing began at seven. “I made a red skirt at school,” she recalls. “It was elasticated and must have been hand-sewn because we didn’t have sewing machines! That’s what ignited my passion for sewing. Something really clicked with me.
“As a teenager, I’d make outfits for nights out. To begin with, they were quite dreadfully made. The clothes were awfully finished, with no facings, but I felt very proud of them. My mother made things, too. In fact, I’ve still got her sewing machine. It’s one of those old ones – not with a treadle, but with a handle you turned.”
Now Esme, a graduate of the prestigious fashion school Central Saint Martins, where she teaches pattern cutting, is hoping to help inspire more people to take up sewing.
“Sewing Bee is making people realise that you can do it yourself,” she enthuses. “You can see it’s achievable. You don’t have to rely on shops. If you’re unhappy with what’s in stores, you can think: ‘I’ll do it myself.’ And you can put your own personality on what you wear. I’m sure the programmes will be quite inspirational.”
- The Great British Sewing Bee is on BBC2 on Mondays