We caught up with The Great British Sewing Bee’s legendary judge Esme Young to find how she started sewing, all the gossip from this year’s show and the Hollywood stars she’s styled for the big screen.
Esme Young has enjoyed a sewing career spanning 50 years, but truly came to our attention when she took over as judge alongside Patrick Grant on The Great British Sewing Bee last year.
With International Women’s Day upon us, we couldn’t miss the opportunity to chat to Esme and find out how she became one of the most inspirational women in sewing. Her passion for unique stitching and design, as well as her drive to encourage beginners to get behind their sewing machines, sets her apart – and we’re huge fans of her incredible necklaces too!
Read on to discover the celebs Esme’s enjoyed dressing over the years on the silver screen (just don’t mention Leonardo DiCaprio’s shirt), the ultra modern wedding dress she created for her niece and the saucy name of the WhatsApp group she shares with fellow judge Patrick and GBSB presenter Joe Lycett.
Lovely to meet you, Esme! As it’s International Women’s Day, we love to know which women have inspired you and your work?
I went to a convent and, at the age of seven, a nun called Sister Mary was my form teacher and she encouraged my drawing. She was quite strict, but she gave really interesting lessons on the history of art. She was a very inspiring woman and a great teacher, and that’s when my interest in art began and designing followed later. As a teenager I did a lot of fashion drawing, inspired by reading fashion magazines. I made all my own clothes to go out in, buying clothes from charity shops and altering them.
When I went to St Martin’s College of Art, I became friends with Willie Walters and even ended up modelling for her. I helped her with her final collection at college. When we both left we decided to open a shop, Swanky Modes. We had such a great time at college, and I loved drawing and illustration, so that seemed the obvious way to go.
Tell us a bit more about Swanky Modes – was it as amazing as we’re imagining?
I guess we were four women that couldn’t buy clothes we wanted to wear, so we started a shop together! It became popular because it was what other women wanted to wear too, but couldn’t get easily. When you’re younger you have a confidence in what you believe in. We did amazing things, we even put on musicals and got all our friends involved. Thinking back I’m amazed at what we achieved. It was real fun, it was hard work, but never felt like it. All four of us had a shared vision and we had such a bond as friends, and still are friends today.
How and when did you first learn to sew?
I learnt at school when we did sewing, embroidery and knitting. I made a gathered skirt when I was seven – it was all hand sewn.
You’ve made so many costumes for films – do you have a favourite?
There have been many, but I’m probably most well known for making the bunny outfit in the first Bridget Jones film. It was a challenge because it had to stay up and Renee Zellweger had to act in it and wear it all day – and she could hardly sit down in it!
And which have been the most challenging?
Leonardo DiCaprio’s shirt in The Beach. The shape wasn’t difficult but the print was, and I had to make 10 shirts with identical prints for continuity. So each shirt – particularly the collar and the top half – all had to look the same.
Who have enjoyed working with the most during your sewing career?
To tell you the truth, everyone I’ve worked with I’ve had a great relationship with. From costume designers to students we still remain friends. I’ve made great friends from Sewing Bee. Patrick Grant, Joe Lycett and I will often go out on the town. We have a WhatsApp called Sew Macho!
Is there anyone you haven’t collaborated with that you’d love to work with?
Actually, what I like doing is working with friends, and I like doing work outside of my comfort zone, so that’s why I said yes to the Sewing Bee. It’s good to stretch yourself sometimes. I never imagined that I would be offered a television presenting role, particularly at my age.
You’ve worked with so many famous faces over the years, is there one that stands out?
I can’t pick a favourite because every single actor I’ve worked with has been charming. I’ve never experienced a difficult celebrity! I did get shy when I met Dustin Hoffman. It was totally unexpected and I lost my voice momentarily, but I got over it of course.
How have you found it working on the Sewing Bee?
Well I’ve only done two series, and this year the standard of the series has been so high. I’ve been so impressed with all the contestants.
Have there been any highlights from filming?
It’s been great to have Joe on this series, he was great with the sewists and brought a breath of fresh air to the show, and with Patrick I think we make a great team. We’re quite different in our styles, but I think we make a good duo probably because we come from different backgrounds. Patrick’s been so encouraging and helpful and he made it very easy for me to join the series.
Do you stay in touch with any of the contestants on the show?
When we did the Sewing Bee Live it was nice to meet up with the sewists from the last series. Also, I follow the sewists on Instagram.
What advice would you give anyone thinking of entering the competition in future?
If you think you can do it, then go for it. Hopefully this series has inspired a lot of amateur sewists out there.
What has been your favourite piece made on the show?
I loved Juliet’s all-in-one in the first episode of this series. When we first saw the fabric we weren’t sure it was going to work, but she made it so well and it looked great. The design, combination of fabrics and the fit really worked.
What are your top tips for novice sewists?
It’s really important how you cut out your fabric and your pattern. Don’t be intimidated, and if you make a mistake you can only learn from it, and you don’t do it again – I know that from my own experience! Cutting on the grain is really important, and also it’s good to take a risk sometimes. Don’t keep in your comfort zone, by taking risks you learn new things.
What are you sewing right now?
At the moment I’m cutting a pattern for a dress I want to wear. It has a fitted skirt, and I’m making several versions of it to then see which design I like.
What’s been your proudest make?
I made a wedding dress for my niece fairly recently. It was pink organza so you could see her tattoos through the top, and it had embroidery on top to echo the tattoos. I don’t normally enjoy making wedding dresses, but I really loved the whole process.
We’ve been obsessed with your necklaces this series – where do you get them from?
All over the world – wherever I go I’ll buy something. Quite a lot are vintage and are from markets; Ridley Road market in Dalston is very good for fabulous necklaces. It’s not to do with the value, it’s more to do with how they look and how I get attracted to them.
What does making mean to you?
It’s therapeutic, it’s creative, you feel like you’ve achieved something. You have a flat fabric that you’re turning 3D. Making makes you feel good! Juliette Binoche once came to watch me sewing as she was playing a character who sews, and said: “Now I understand. Sewing gives you a place to think and to create.”
What other projects do you have up your neatly sewn sleeve?
It’s been a busy time! I’m taking part in a panel for International Women’s Day with Warehouse in partnership with Rosa where, along with three other women, I’ll be discussing what defines us, and celebrating self-expression. I’m involved with a project called ‘Exploding Fashion’ which is a collaboration with other members of Central Saint Martins including curators, photographers, fashion historians and pattern cutters. I’ve been to many museums in New York, Japan, Paris and the V&A looking at their archives. It’ll eventually be a book and an exhibition, it’s about the importance of the pattern cutter in the design process. At the beginning I was slightly terrified as it was quite daunting as a project, but all the museums were so helpful and welcoming. It’s been absolutely amazing.
To find out more about Esme’s new project, Exploding Fashion, visit: explodingfashion.arts.ac.uk
First image courtesy of BBC/Love Productions/Mark Bourdillon