Seamstress May Martin on The Great British Sewing Bee
PUBLISHED: 13:50 28 June 2013 | UPDATED: 15:39 24 September 2015
Budge over bake-offs; contestants armed with no more than a needle and thread battle to impress The Great British Sewing Bee's seamstress May Martin
“All you need is enthusiasm,” May Martin assures me, fixing me with her precise and steady gaze. May Martin is one of two expert judges (the other being dapper Savile Row bespoke tailor Patrick Grant) who have been presiding over The Great British Sewing Bee, a new series on BBC2 that has had viewers hooked every stitch of the way and could turn us into a nation of makers and menders.
We meet prior to the show’s finale and after one of May’s classes at the Adult Continuing Education Centre in Winchester (May lives near Romsey); for The Great British Sewing Bee is a continuation of what May does in real life – encourage others to sew anything and everything from curtains to dresses, and much inbetween.
She’s been in the business of teaching people to sew for over 40 years. She is well known in her world and has the absolute confidence of a woman who knows her stuff, which is why Love Productions, the company behind this series and The Great British Bake Off, were keen to have her on board.
May tells me she’s 61. Did I hear right? I’m minded not to believe her (she could pass for late forties, early fifties tops), but she says that it was her age as well as her expertise that attracted Love Productions. Anyway Claudia Winkleman provides the fluff, although May is quick to put me straight on Claudia’s abilities.
“People see her as ditsy, but she’s very bright and kept us in good spirits, particularly when we were flagging after a long day of filming. She had me in stitches! I was really nervous during the first episode, getting used to doing telly is a steep learning curve, but Claudia was like a mother hen.”
As the series continued May found her pace and I’m eager to quiz her about who wins, whether contestants were at needles drawn and if there will be another series.
May is giving nothing away, but budge over Bake Off, it’s time we had a programme encouraging nifty needlework.
There have been lots of “lovely comments” to May about there being a programme about sewing instead of cooking on television – although one (male) television critic claimed sewing isn’t as ‘sexy’ as baking.
Well, I could be sexist and say he’s fallen into the role of the stereotypical man who thinks about his stomach rather than the shirt on his back. Anyway, too much cake adds inches to the girth, a criticism that cannot be levelled at needlework.
May continues the theme: “You bake a cake, you eat it, but when you sew something, you create something that you can keep forever, and I find that creation process really exciting.”
It all started with an email from Love Productions saying: “We’d love to meet you.”
May remembers: “Love Productions found me; they wanted someone who had been in the business for a long time and sewing has been my world for 40 years.
“They wanted experts rather than personalities, and I use these skills everyday in my working life. I’m in the classroom. This is what I do.”
A screen test followed, then two more with potential companion judges – and one of those was Patrick.
“He has such charisma; he’s fab; he could be my son; we get on so well,” smiles May.
The chemistry is spot on, but it doesn’t mean they always agree.
“The other week we completely disagreed about who should go out. He wasn’t going to budge and I wasn’t going to budge…” She has a twinkle in her eye and raises an arched eyebrow when she adds: “I won.” I bet she did.
The series has been well-received: “The viewing figures have been amazing – we’ve held our figures for the last three weeks and for a pilot series on BBC2 that’s impressive.”
There was no shortage of applicants either. Around 1500 applied and from 27-year old Lauren to 81-year-old Anne, and from HGV mechanic Mark to Tilly who only started sewing two years ago, there has been a competitor to inspire all of us to sew. Challenges have included customising a shift dress and making a tailored jacket, plus demonstrations on making curtains and cushions.
For May the success of The Great British Sewing Bee is just another step to encouraging one and all, men and women, young and old, to pick up a needle.
May says: “It all started when I was 13 and worked my first shirt. I had a lightbulb moment. You know when something just clicks? And I found I was just really good at it; I’m very good technically.”
She qualified as a textile tutor in 1972 and has been teaching ever since, initially in schools and then, after marrying and starting a family, teaching adults in the evenings to fit her work around family life.
“I’m so lucky. I’m fortunate enough to have earned such a good reputation that I can write my own timetables, and I’m so busy I already have residential courses booked into 2015.
“My classes have always been popular, but I’ve put on extra classes to allow for the interest the programme has generated.”
The Great British Sewing Bee could see a resurgence of interest in sewing skills.
“As far as I’m concerned sewing has never gone away, but I think there is a bit of a resurgence which is really exciting.
“Fabric shops are starting to come back, there’s a new fabric shop in Southampton, and there have been reports that the sales of sewing machines is going through the roof.
“You don’t only need sewing skills to make new, you need skills to customise and reinvent items. For years and years my students have come on my courses with bargain buys and secondhand clothes to adapt… but now it’s fashionable and called vintage.
“I also have ladies who adapt clothes all the time; they buy a really good item in the sales, perhaps buying a size too big, and put in darts to shape it to fit. Then there’s a shorter lady who takes things up.
“I have young mums who like making things for their children, such as dresses for their little girls and laundry bags.
“I have people come to my class knowing nothing who learn to create an original garment, and that’s the hook. You can go anywhere and won’t see anyone else wearing what you’re wearing.
“It’s an interesting hobby – some come on my course for the creative process, some come because it’s a necessity.
“I really look after my students; I don’t get involved in anything in life half-heartedly. It’s not in my DNA.”
While The Great British Sewing Bee contestants have acquired new skills, so has May.
“I feel I’ve gained a qualification in television programme making. One of the most interesting things for me is talking to Patrick about tailoring. We talk technique and he’s been teaching me about his tailoring world and I can’t wait to visit his workshop. He’s incredibly knowledgeable and that’s been fantastic.
“I’m lucky. I love what I do. How many people can say that after 40 years? And I feel as enthusiastic about sewing now as I did 40 years ago. I’m a teacher, that’s what I do. It’s my life blood to share my skills. I love teaching.”
And by the way, the answers are: Ann won, they all got along so well that three of them (Lauren, Tilly and Stuart) are even running workshops together (Lauren is also opening a haberdashery shop), and, yes, series two is going ahead and applications are invited.
So needle and thread at the ready, steady go - or should that be sew?
The Great British Sewing Bee by Tessa Evelegh with practical tips by Patrick Grant and May Martin, is published by Quadrille, £20