Underwear and the Great British Sewing Bee

Lori's attempt at draping on the stand to make a nightdress

Lori's attempt at draping on the stand to make a nightdressWhile at the V&A for a study weekend in conjunction with their current Undressed exhibition, one of the attendees asked if I’d seen the contestants on this year’s Great British Sewing Bee trying their hand at making a bra. I hadn’t seen any of the current series and so, when I got home, headed over to the BBC website in order to catch up and to check out the Lingerie Week episode in particular.

I was first introduced to GBSB last year when a friend informed me that they’d tackled corsets in a 1950s themed episode, which I ended up reviewing. This year’s show is the same format – 10 contestants who have done a lot of home sewing are set three challenges each week, are cheered on by presenter Claudia Winkleman and have their handiwork reviewed by two expert judges. For this fourth series, the ever wonderful Patrick Grant (Director of Savile Row’s Norton & Sons and the menswear brand E. Tautz) is joined by Esme Young who, as well as making costumes for movies, is also a lecturer on the BA (Hons) Fashion programme at Central Saint Martins, UAL.

The first of the three challenges each week is a pattern challenge, where the ‘sewers’ are given a pre-prepared pattern to test their ability to cut, sew and also to follow instructions. This week, fitting with the underwear theme, the pattern they were given is for a stretch lace bra comprising 9 pieces – 3 for each cup, an underband and two ‘wings’ – with adjustable straps and no underwiring. All edges need to be finished with a decorative picot elastic, apart from the top of the cups which need to use the scalloped edge of the lace, stabilised with clear elastic to help it sit against the skin. The judges stress that everyone’s sewing needs to be very accurate for this challenge, as any tiny errors will be immediately obvious. I know this from experience as my one attempt to make a bra was very messy indeed!

Lori's attempt at making a pattern for a made-to-measure unwired braAlthough the bra that was being produced in this challenge was, in my opinion, a very basic and everyday undergarment, the programme makers decided to mention Fifty Shades at the start and snuck in a few cheeky references to this being a ‘sexy’ challenge. As you might imagine, I was unimpressed. However, the most frustrating cliche for me was when Winkleman perpetuated a tired old myth by saying to one of the contestants that this was “the one thing you could make so much cheaper at home.” Even if that type of unwired style offered the amount of support I like from my bras, I suspect that the cost of buying the stretch lace, lining fabric, three types of elastic (including for the shoulder straps), back fastenings and other findings (the metal rings and strap adjusters) would make this simple bra rather more expensive to make at home than something similar from, for example, Figleaves. Bras are not as cheap to make as you might think!

During this challenge, we were treated to one of the GBSB’s little snippets of fashion history but, sadly, this didn’t end up being about bras at all. Instead of a brief history of this fascinating garment, which could easily have been condensed down to some key points and highlights for the segment, viewers were treated to a history of the brand Lucile. However, Lady Duff Gordon’s beautiful early twentieth century lingerie and nightwear actually turned out to be an interesting lead in to the alterations challenge. This is where the sewers are asked to adapt a garment or other textile item to create something new and, hopefully, unique. This week they were each given three silk scarves and were asked to make an item of lingerie in 90 minutes. Pretty much all the finished garments were camisoles or short nighties that had been draped on the stand, but the results were mostly interesting and wearable.

Lori's first attempt at an unwired bra (with fit adjustments) and second attemptThe final part of the show is the made-to-measure challenge. Here the contestants are allowed to practice at home with their chosen pattern, but on the day they have to produce a garment that fits a model, rather than the static dress stands they have used for the other two challenges. This week they were tasked with making a luxurious robe, and half chose to focus on menswear which resulted in some really lovely choices of styles and fabrics. The designs were delightful and included kimono inspired dressing gowns, glamorous vintage loungewear and super stylish styles reminiscent of smoking jackets. Despite the fact that robes are designed to be worn at home and so are usually lumped in the same category as underwear and nightwear, the styles included features that could show off the sewing skills of everyone left in the competition: pockets, collars, cuffs, linings and lace panels which needed to be reinforced to take the weight of the attached satin. One sewer decided to hand finish every edge of her beautiful cotton robe, and the luxurious nature of the finished piece was obvious even on screen.

I was very impressed with the sewing skills on display in this show, and with the now reassuring familiarity of the format. Although there are some frustrating elements to the show’s style if you have more than a basic knowledge of the particular garment they are sewing, the explanation of the complicated elements of each challenge by the judges and the novice perspective of the presenter help to ensure that you will finish the show feeling more knowledgeable that when you started. Even with some previous sewing experience and what I thought was a lot of knowledge about bras, I still learnt from this show. And, of course, I’m now desperate to find out what they’ll be sewing next week.

All images taken by lipsticklori during a lingerie short course at London College of Fashion in 2011.