April 13, 2014

The week preceding the finals was rather a panic. Our brief was to create a couture inspired gown for the final garment of The Great British Sewing Bee 2014. I was rather excited about this as it was exactly what I love to do in my dressmaking.

My sewing over the years has led me on to create more and more complex constructions and my all time favourite thing is to do this type of dress.
I was looking forwards to really showcase my skills once and for all, no holds barred, hopefully with time to complete a couture hand finish on the dress that would knock the judges socks off!

My tactic for getting to the finals was to focus on doing something really well but not overfacing myself by not being able to complete the task and therefore going on to crash and burn. I knew that if I got to the final then I could really go all out both creatively and technically.

As soon as I received the brief for the couture inspired dress, I knew exactly what I wanted; a little touch of Vivienne Westwood and a swirl of Valentino. The design of that dress took me all of 15 minutes, but the reality of how to make it in 6.5 hours took me considerably longer!

But I digress…..

Lets start at the very beginning, waiting outside the studio doors that morning, for the last pattern challenge of GBSB 2014.

It was a wonderful feeling – excitement and nervous exhilaration. The finals at last, and here I was. No expectations were on me as I had never won garment of the week, so I went into the studio determined to thoroughly enjoy myself

Our first challenge on that day was to make a mans tie. Sneaky. And just the job for this very last pattern challenge. A handmade tie has everything you could wish for when the theme of the week is couture. A quick dash into the haberdashery to get our fabrics. I wanted a really firm silk brocade, which I found, although I had considered a plain twill, but being the finals, I went with a delicious magenta and orange broken stripe.

Tie making is a bit fiddly, especially the tipping process, and having never made a tie before, I was surprised at how many pieces there were, but it was such an enjoyable challenge. I was rather pleased with the results although one of the final instructions had me a little perplexed!

I didn’t realise that Chinelo was having such a difficult time. When I saw her at the end of the challenge, my heart went out to her. She was so upset as she hadn’t managed to complete the tie. She doesn’t normally work from a pattern, so the combination of getting her head around unfamiliar instructions, coupled with immense pressure to perform, and the time limit, it was all too much…..

Tamara, on the other hand, had waltzed into the studio with a tie around her waist! Patricks face was a picture!

Tamara made a lovely job of the tie and beat me to first place with a rather lovely specimen. So, one down, two to go!

And so onto the alterations challenge. Over the weeks I had started to adapt my way of attacking the alterations, learning a lot from my fellow competitors… When we saw that there was a wedding dress to be transformed I was rather thrilled. For a change!!!! The dash for the dresses was on, and I was hoping beyond anything that there was a silk one available to us. Silk is my preferred fabric to work with as it is so alive and expressive, beautiful to the touch and lends itself to all manner of shaping and sculpting. Needless to say, it really captures my imagination!

We were directed to make a childs outfit from the gown, so I started by making the skirt part of what was going to be a dress, then moving on to the top, which I began cutting on the stand. After a little while, I realised that what I wanted to do was not going to be possible in the time, so I had to change plans with only 25 minutes to go. Panic! I opted for a very simple top with a bias neckline, and allowing the fabric to really speak for itself. I cut it with slightly extended shoulders so that I could softly tuck them in and give the silk a plumpness and fullness without competing with the intricate gathering around the waist of the skirt. When making something like this, for a little person, its important to remember that everything should be scaled down and delicate. That means seam allowances, hemlines and topstitching all need to be in proportion to the finished article.

With so little time left to complete the challenge, I surprised myself with how quickly I managed to sew. Move over Lynda! (in my dreams – Lynda sews at the speed of light!)

Tamara and Chinelo went roughly down the same path, doing all singing and dancing outfits. Chinelos dress had some cute little sleeves and lovely organza whilst Tamara made a feature of using tulle. Both were beautiful little frocks.

I had a small panic attack when we lined up the mannequins, as suddenly my efforts looked very minimalist in comparison to the other two. Needless to say, I was mightily relieved to come in second with both judges appreciating the simplicity and attention to detail on mine. Phew! Chinelo won this challenge, as she incorporated some nice sewing processes.

And so the first day of the finals came to a close, we were all wanting to get onto the next days sewing as quickly as possible. Another sleepless night and a long day ahead of us…..

Back to the sewing room for the last time. And look who the models were! Our best friends had been drafted in; how lovely to have them with us – a real confidence boost! Thanks Katie!

Armed with our fabrics (metres of the stuff!) we got down to the final dress of the series. The couture inspired gown. Patrick made me laugh as he was asking what I was going to do with all the fabric and whether the budget had been approved! Do you know, silk doesn’t have to be expensive. My glazed silk chiffon was £6.50 a metre, the silk taffeta £8.50 a metre, and all because I scouted around and bought roll ends of discontinued colours. My dress cost just over £100. Not bad for a one off couture ballgown!

The fan pleated section was hand sewn onto coutile, a corset canvas, as I wanted something substantial to be the foundation of the dress. The bodice was cut then fitted to my model. I then boned it with rigiline, then started the arduous task of hand sewing the pleats into place. This took 3.5 hours to complete. After that, came the construction of the skirts, 10 metres in all; two 5 metre circular skirts attached to a wide petersham waistband which had been previously attached to the bodice. The hemline of the skirts was done with an overlocker and rolled to create a beautiful lettuce hemline, slightly wavy, giving a beautiful fluted effect to the skirts.

Once the skirts were attached, a re-fit to Kate was in order. My chain placement was calculated and the giant hooks positioned. The waistband was fastened with hooks and eyes which were hidden under the chiffon. My next task was to make up the bustle with silk taffeta, a wonderful full bodied, lustrous fabric. Its gorgeous to work with and the results are always so pleasing. The final touches of the bustle was to catch in little stitches throughout the overskirt to create volume and movement, giving it a regal air. The curb chain was attached to the hooks on the bodice, and the dress was almost ready for the judging.

And the final, final touches were the top had and riding crop! What I had wanted to do with this last all out sewing challenge was to incorporate proper couture hand sewing tradition, my Leicestershire roots, and my own equestrian background. This was who I am, and what I love.

With everything done, there was nothing to do but wait for the final countdown. That last judging round kind of passed me by. I had done all that I could, really pushed the boat out and there was nothing more to do. I felt that I had done my very best and whatever the result, I was happy.

Standing in the line up, with Tamara and Chinelo was a very still moment. Our friends and family were there with us, a party awaiting, and massive pride in what we had all achieved. I think I was almost daydreaming when my name was announced. Not for one moment had I expected to win the Great British Sewing Bee 2014 title, and for a second or two, I was paralysed, then beyond shocked, then…… well, hopefully you watched it all on BBC! Lost for words!

I would like to say the biggest thank you ever to my fellow competitors, without whom this would have been no fun at all. Such great team spirit, sharing of knowledge, friendship and kindnesses. It is testament to the fact that we all remain in close touch with each other, still sharing our sense of humour, and interest in each others lives. What an amazing experience this has all been and if any of you out there have thoughts about entering the Sewing Bee – DO IT !

And the very last thanks go to Patrick and May, whose expertise and professionalism have been awesome. I hope we all did you proud!

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