Clare Bradley - Winchester’s Queen of the Sewing Bee
PUBLISHED: 09:23 28 July 2020
From palazzo pattern challenges to kick-ass kilts, Winchester woman Clare Bradley stormed to stardom during the Great British Sewing Bee. All the while saving lives on the front line at Portsmouth’s QA Hospital.
From pattern challenging palazzo pants to transforming laundry bags into ready-to-wear garments, viewers hailed the return of series six of the BBC’S Great British Sewing Bee at a time when distraction and inspiration proved a welcome antidote to lockdown.
With the highest number of contestants in the show’s history, 12 of Britain’s best amateur sewers toughed it out for ten weeks wowing audiences with their creations before the series reached a tense finale. Emerging victorious to be crowned ‘Queen Bee’ was our very own Winchester woman Clare Bradley, a respiratory consultant specialising in lung cancer at Portsmouth’s Queen Alexandra Hospital.
Swapping the operating theatre for the sewing room, Clare’s journey to the final round culminated in many triumphs, including a Madonna-inspired top for 80s week and revamping a Provençal tablecloth into a child’s party frock. However, it was her handmade kilt of pleated precision and flawless 1930s made to measure gown which saw Clare winning the coveted trophy, much to her surprise.
“Going through the final with Matt and Nicole, we all had very different styles and very different strengths. So, the idea of knowing who was definitely going to win wasn’t there and seeing their dresses in the final made to measure, I thought this could go any of three ways. I was preparing myself to be a gracious loser. I genuinely hadn’t prepared my gracious winner face.”
Having been taught to sew by her mother as a child, Clare only returned to sewing in earnest a few years ago as she struggled to find clothes that fitted properly.
“I mainly got into sewing because I couldn’t find trousers to fit me and it sort of spiralled from there. I like the 1940s style because it fits my body shape and my lifestyle. They’re very practical clothes. You can cycle in a 1940s A-line skirt! I like the balance of interesting design and shapes and wearability.”
When it came to some of the more difficult challenges in the competition, a love of vintage clothing made sure that Clare was no stranger to an awkward pattern or two.
“With sewing, knitting and crafty things, the way that I’ve developed my technique is to make things that maybe are pitched at a higher level than I have experience of,” explains Clare. “Sometimes you end up with something for the scrap basket and sometimes you end up with a really nice garment and a new technique.”
Inspiring with a ‘make do and mend’ approach and handmade wardrobe, eagle eye viewers will have spotted a 1941 Rationing List pinned to Clare’s Sewing Bee board. It’s something she has tried to adhere to over the last couple of years in a bid to shop more ethically and sustainably – buying less, buying well and mending more as she describes, “Like a lot of people, I’ve been trying to cut down on my use of disposable things in general,” she shares. “When you make your own clothes, you see clearly the amount of fabric wastage when you cut something out. Throwing away fabric feels quite obscene. When you know how much work goes into a good quality garment and you think of the ethics of clothes manufacturing, it makes you value the clothes that you have so much more.”
For Clare, applying to appear on the programme wasn’t just about the thrill of new challenges, it was an opportunity to put her own skills to the test.
“I am by nature deeply competitive – in that environment I was mostly competitive against myself and my own expectations. We were asked to do things that I’d never done before as well as use types of fabrics or techniques that I didn’t have experience of. I think the biggest challenge was the speed sewing,” adds Clare. “Normally, because I do it for fun, I’ll do it at the weekend with half an hour here or there and stop for a cup of tea. I do quite often end up finishing things at the last minute though. I’ve been to two of my friends’ weddings where I’ve been finishing my hat in the car on the way there,” she laughs.
Whilst many of us have taken up crafty new hobbies of late, sewing has continued to provide the perfect respite from Clare’s day job. Throughout filming she juggled clinics and would head back to the hospital after each episode, grateful to colleagues for their support and cover whenever needed. It would be hard not to draw comparisons between her professional life and Clare’s calm-under-pressure demeanour and attention to detail in the sewing room – a question often asked during the contest.
“The transformation challenge has the closest link to my job I suppose. You don’t know who or what will appear in front of you and you have to respond to that.”
As the winner was announced, the last lingering shot in the end credits revealed Clare in full PPE on the NHS frontline, and messages of encouragement and well wishes flooded in on social media. Another unexpected surprise, which she has responded to with what seems to be her signature composure.
“People’s responses have been very sweet and touching. It’s been a case of keep your head and get through. My day to day routine hasn’t really changed with the patients in front of me.”
With the Great British Sewing Bee trophy now firmly in residence in Clare’s sewing room above her ‘Rail of Repairs’, her latest project is a corset for a Victorian ball which she and fellow contestant Liz will attend next year. She’s also finished knitting a new jumper with leftover yarns, despite working long shifts and nights over the last few months. It seems that Clare’s ‘keep calm and keep sewing’ mantra shows no signs of waning. The legacy of her time on the programme? The camaraderie between contestants on and off screen, sharing tips and ideas with like-minded people and the knowledge that something she loves doing is something she’s also pretty good at too has been the icing on the cake, as Clare describes, “The ‘Bee’ is a lovely combination of people making beautiful things and the good-naturedness of it. If I hadn’t won, I’d have walked away proud of what I’d made. But the pleasure from the sewing and the pleasure of being recognised amongst a group of really talented sewers was joyful.”