We were very lucky to catch up with writer Tessa Evalegh who told us all about writing The Great British Sewing Bee.
Have you written many craft books and style books? What is your particular expertise?
I’ve written more than 30 craft and style books. In terms of traditional crafts, I’ve loved sewing and knitting since I was 5 years old. My mother said I was the easiest child to entertain – all she had to do was give me the scrap bag! I always loved sewing but probably my most extraordinary achievement was making a roll neck jumper for a toy octopus when I was 11 using just a ball of wool and two knitting needles. I didn’t have a sewing needle at the time to sew up the seams, so I just grafted all those eight sleeves onto the body and somehow knitted the seams together! Knitting and sewing have been my building blocks for learning all kinds of crafts from making my own clothes and soft furnishings to home DIY, decorating and working with plants. I believe crafts are a bit like foreign languages: once you’ve mastered one, you can transfer the skills to others – it’s a matter of understanding materials and how to use them. I just love passing on all these life skills that can be so immensely satisfying. I really believe everyone has a creative heart, and that we all get immense satisfaction from making things. I call myself a translater. I translate complicated skills acquired over a lifetime into easy how-to’s and then give people ideas for making desirable projects that look just right for right now! Usually, it’s just a matter of keeping things very simple but choosing gorgeous materials and colours so you can make something appealing without getting bogged down by complicated skills. That is at the core value of every single book I write. If people then develop a love for a particular craft, they can move onto the more tricky technicalities when they’re ready.
How did you get into writing books?
I started off as a magazine journalist, working first in a Home Department of a woman’s magazine, then overseeing all the practical departments, spanning homes, gardens, sewing and knitting. That’s where I learned the art of using words, illustrations and photographs together to communicate how to make design decisions for homes and gardens, as well as making all kinds of items.
What advice would you give to someone wishing to become an author?
There are all kinds of authors for all kinds of books, and having written about many different subjects, I know that each has its own disciplines, challenges and even vocabulary! The best piece of advice I could give to anyone who wants to become an author is to have huge enthusiasm for their subject and the book they are writing. You are passing on that enthusiasm and if you’re half-baked about it, your readers will soon see through you and lose interest themselves. On a more personal note, a book is loads of work. The deadlines demand top priority on your time from the moment you start thinking about it right up until the day the last proof is passed. If you don’t love it, you’ll never muster that kind of energy!
Why do you think there is such a renewed interest in sewing?
There’s a new generation who realise that to be really individual, it’s great to be able to sew your own. Unlike previous generations, they don’t do it to save money because the high street offers plenty of great budget styles, so sewing-your-own has shrugged off that ghastly home-made image. Nowadays, it’s cool to be able to make something fabulous in a fabric you’d never find on the rails of high street garments, which generally come in in ubiquitously safe colours and patterns. Then there’s retro cool. Retro garments are all very well, but they’re one-offs and don’t come in a range of sizes. It’s great to be able to rifle through the rails of a charity shop in an upmarket area, knowing you can adapt or alter or a fovourite find to fit. On a more practical level, the basic skills were in danger of being lost as they’re no longer taught in schools. While nobody wants to go back to the old sewing schoolmarm approach, where knuckles were rapped and all but the most perfect seams endlessly unpicked, there’s a growing desire to learn the basic skills. Sewing cafes popping up all over the country and sewing blogs meet that desire, and, I have to say, last year’s The Great British Sewing Bee really ignited it, bringing sewing inspiration into our sitting rooms and sending fabric and sewing machine sales through the ceiling in fabric stores and haberdashers across the country.
Who taught you to sew and have you always sewed?
My sister tells me I first picked up a needle and thread at the age of three! By the time I was 5, I was cutting up my mother’s old broderie anglais petticoats to make simple garments for my dolls. Oddly, my mother wasn’t really a dressmaker – more of a mender and darner. But when I was 10, a neighbour taught me how to make and dress rag dolls. I called them Mary Dolls and churned them out for friends and stalls, kitted out in dresses, pinnies, knicker bockers and shoes cut from scraps in my mother’s ragbag of old clothes. This was where I learned the basics of garment construction and honed my stitching skills! I learned to make my own clothes at secondary school but my old fashioned head teacher said I was getting on too quickly and wouldn’t allow me access to the sewing room in free periods! When I get into projects, I become really immersed and maybe she thought I needed to balance dressmaking with other subjects!
What difficulties did you have putting this book together?
The more you know about a subject, the more you know about the pitfalls and putting a book together is no different! The deadlines start right at the beginning because unless you keep to schedule, you buy yourself serious problems further down the line. Sewing books are very complicated on many levels. There’s a real skill in trying to explain something complicated in a simple way without being able to actually demonstrate it. The illustrator, editor and I had many what we call ‘Two Ronnies meetings’. To the outsider, our conversations would have sounded like nonsensical tongue twisters as we discussed whether this was inside, outside, turned in or flapped over! Then there’s the challenge of getting everything to work on the page. But before we got to that stage, there was the development of the collection, working with pattern cutters, making and re-making the garments to get them exactly right, and working with a stylist and photographer to create the mood and look that Love Productions felt was right for the programme.
Essentially, pulling together all the elements in a complicated book like The Great British Sewing Bee is as much a project management job as a writing job. The days are mega full of meetings with all sorts of people like Love Productions, Quadrille, the publishers, fashion illustrators, pattern cutters, sewers, photographers, illustrators and editors. The only way I can get the writing done is to take my laptop to bed and set the alarm for 5am. I make myself a cup of tea then sit up in bed and WRITE. By 11am when the phone starts to ring, I’ve done 6 hours so I can concentrate on all the other tasks. The main challenge with a TV tie in book is that, while we can get a lot done in preparation, we really wanted to include contestants’ work and make the book reflect the programme, which can’t be done until after the filming … and then there’s the race to get it produced and printed in time for the first episode!
Did you meet the competitors and what were they like?
Yes, I was on set several times and met the competitors. As Claudia would say, they were all JUST DARLING! I think sewing is a great leveller. It doesn’t matter where you come from, how old or how young you are, sewing feels like a really community thing. You can sense it in the sewing cafes and sewing classes up and down the country as groups of sewers share tips and techniques whilst challenging and inspiring each other to greater things. But all that is magnified a hundred-fold for contestants in The Great British Sewing Bee! With the cameras scrutinising their every move and Claudia reminding them that they have only half an hour left when at home they’d be popping on the kettle and making a nice cup of tea to ponder the next stage of construction adds up to real stress! But far from becoming really competitive, this stress binds them together. Over the weeks, they became really close, and there is genuine sadness every time somebody has to leave.
What is the difference between the first and second books?
The first book is a real hand-holder for beginners, starting with showing readers how to tack and how to machine stitch a straight seam, whereas the second book assumes you can ‘drive’ a sewing machine! In terms of projects, the first book includes home furnishings whereas the second one concentrates solely on dressmaking and reflects the programme on how to sew different fabrics, plus how to achieve a fit and finish to satisfy The Great British Sewing Bee judges, Patrick Grant and May Martin. Both books include fully illustrated techniques plus essential information on understanding and using commercial patterns. The biggest difference is the second book includes full sized pattern pieces for all the garments! This second book has something for everyone: women’s, men’s, children’s and babies’ fashions ranging from simple to sew pieces, specially designed for beginners with no fiddly fastenings or tricky techniques, to some of the more challenging contestants’ garments.
What is next on the horizon for you?
I have another TV tie in book coming out later in the spring on my other lifestyle enthusiasm: gardening…. so watch this space!
Tessa can be found blogging on: http://www.tessaevelegh.co.uk
The Great British Sewing Bee: Sew Your Own Wardrobe
PUBLISHED BY QUADRILLE £25
Photos Copywrite Tiffany Mumford and Charlotte Medlicott