The Great British Sewing Bee

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So last week we were treated to three episodes of the Great British Sewing Bee for Children in Need. I love the Sewing Bee. It’s informative, the people are always really nice, and that haberdashery? I just want to jump straight in! It’s different from a lot of other things on television too – no sniping competitors like ‘the apprentice’, no talk of the ‘journeys’ people have been on like the big talent shows, no special favours given to age or beauty, and no ‘life-changing’ sums of money up for grabs, just a humble token prize and some lovely new friends. Do I sound jealous? I think might be.

The reason that I say it’s different from ‘most things’ because it is quite similar to the Great British Bake Off. Let’s face it, they couldn’t even think of a unique show title! As with GBBO we’ve got a male and a female judge (with the same initials), there are three challenges, the judging is somewhat subjective, and frequent attempts are made to ‘educate’ the audience throughout both shows. One interesting difference between the two is the setting – GBBO is in a tent in the grounds of an English manor house, GBSB in a gritty old London textile factory. Whereas GBBO gets pretty bunting and meadow flowers (plus the occasional squirrel), GBSB gets bare brick work and strip lighting. I sort of get it. But I sort of don’t. I’m just not really sure why anyone would bake intricate pastries in a tent, I think that’s the problem.

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Bake off – lovely meadow and pastel kitchen stations

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Sewing Bee – Gritty urban warehouse and exposed brickwork

The thing that does bother me about both of these programmes (but particularly the sewing bee) is the issue of time. In each episode participants (I just can’t get on board with ‘contestants’) are given a very specific time slot in which to make their garment – ‘You have 2 hours to make a skirt!’, ‘1 hour to modify this shirt!’, ‘5 hours to make a coat’, ‘GO GO GO’.

Arrrrgh!

The sociologist Richard Sennett once commented that:

in contemporary capitalism, production is based on speed; fast, short-term transactions; and constantly shifting deadlines and tasks – it is world where ‘craftsmanship sits uneasily’ (2006: 105).

For me this tension really comes to the fore in the Sewing Bee. The craft of sewing is about applying skills, learning to work with a variety of fabrics, stitches, materials, and other notions. And yet, good craft – well executed skills – take time. They take time to develop, and more often than not, time to do well. Now, I supposed the assumption behind the sewing bee is that participants have already put in the time to develop a library of skills which they can in some way just extract and ‘apply’ to the task presented to them. As those of you who read our piece on skilled practice will know, I’m really not a fan of this continual reinforcement of a mind-body divide. But that’s a topic for another post. My specific gripe here is with the way Sewing Bee participants are allocated the minimal amount of time for each challenge, and thus have to work as fast as they possibly can. Each task ends with a countdown, often forcing sewists to leave raw edges on their work, or parts of the garment missing. I remember being particularly cross about this in the first series of the Sewing Bee when Tilly Walnes didn’t get enough time to finish her beautiful blouse (from a self-drafted pattern!) and was (in my opinion) unfairly ejected from the competition. It just all seems to go against what craft is about.

Craft, for me at least, is about taking the time to exercise care in the construction process. It’s not simply about an active human subject imposing her will onto a piece of wood, fabric, or metal, but instead cooperating with, co-producing if you like, a finished article. The maker needs to get to know the material, listen to what it wants. A sewer, for instance, needs to know the drape of her fabric, know what its strengths and limitations are, work with grain lines, work around (or incorporate) imperfections… Even if on paper it is ideally suited for making a specific garment, in practice it might not want to be that. Knitters often talk about waiting for their yarn to tell them what it wants to be, and I think the same is true of materials other than yarn as well. Such a process of communication takes time – just as you get to know people, you need to get to know the materials with which you work.

The fingers that craft can only go as fast as they can go. There is no switch to flick for full power, no gears for them to move through. And yet rather than feeling like they are failing at being efficient, or desperately trying to shave a few minutes off of making time, most craftspeople learn to accept and inhabit this slow space in which things grow logically and methodically – one stitch, one cut, one piece at a time. Particularly for those of us who craft for personal pleasure (rather than a for-profit business venture), craft is about finding joy in the process of making rather than a focus on reaching the finish line. It thus becomes intensely personal – finding what works and what doesn’t (whether someone does an hour here, 20 minutes there, or a huge 7 hour crafting binge, what methods are effective, what shapes and colours suit), creating something that is valued for its absolute uniqueness and being able to take the time to do it as you want.

Not for the Sewing Bee contestants though. It’s all about that finish line, trying to please other people, and direct comparisons. It has to be watchable television, yes, but it needs to have substance too. If it’s supposed to be about racing through life as quickly as possible then I guess it succeeds. But if it’s supposed to be about craft and crafting a lifestyle, well, it’s not a craft that I recognise.

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‘Craft’ is everywhere

So maybe it’s just me, and maybe it’s something to do with the fact I’m in the midst of writing-up my thesis, but I keep seeing ‘craft’ everywhere. So much craft that I’m not even sure I know what craft is anymore, or what I even thought it was in the first place. In many respects this is a strange gripe to have with the world; I adore all things crafty, and it’s great that other people seem to share that interest too. Besides, one huge justification for choosing craft as the main focus for my thesis was its increasing ubiquity. But it’s the way in which craft is being taken up by advertising and corporations that I’m finding particularly interesting at the moment. I’ve got three examples that I’ve spotted this week to illustrate what I mean:

1) Fat Face clothing

Fat face

I walk past the window of Fat Face every morning on my way into uni, and this sign appeared in their most recent window display. Pyrographic techniques have been used to construct the wooden sign, which actually is quite a beautiful piece of work. It’s a crafty double-whammy – the sign itself being crafted, and the writing talking about crafting clothes. But why? ‘Craft’ has become something of a charged word in recent years, seemingly to imply a careful and considered process which is conducted slowly and respectfully. For many people it also still stands for the notion of ownership over an entire process – from designing, through to making, and eventually selling. But Fat Face don’t do any of these things. The designers design, the garment workers sew the clothing, and retail outlets sell the items. Furthermore, I very much doubt that any of these processes (especially the middle one) are conducted slowly and respectfully. It seems more likely that there will be targets to meet and standards to maintain. For although they rank as one of the more ethical high street brands, Fat Face’s CSR policy is somewhat vague. There’s no mention of living wages, or the environmental impacts of production, and the cotton currently in use is not sourced organically. In fairness, Fat Face have signed the ethical trading initiative (ETI). This has to be taken with a pinch of salt, however, for although it’s a step in the right direction it is far from a guarantee of truly ethical practices – indeed companies such as Primark and GAP have signed it too.

To me the sign is also trying to get across the notion of a Heideggerian ‘authentic’ life, one in which the wearer of these garments can go out and experience the world in its raw reality. They’re not clothes made for lounging around the house in whilst watching television, but clothes made for going on ‘adventures’ and generating a more authentic relationship with the natural world in.

2) Kettle Chips

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Apparently they’re ‘lovingly crafted’. I first saw this advert, with a crisp packet having been carved from wood, in a magazine. A little online research reveals that there are three designs in total – one ceramic and one glass. I must admit, it made me think. Can crisps really be crafted? Apparently all of their crisps are hand-cooked, so perhaps that’s why they felt the word necessary – as a sort of nod towards William Morris’ distrust of mass-production. Still, I’m not convince ‘crafted’ is the right word here. Nice advert though, and a beautiful carving.

 3) Specsavers

Specsavers

Slightly different take here with the company not using ‘crafted’ in their product description, but featuring some pretty snazzy knitted hats instead. Spotted when reading the metro one morning. To be honest, pretty much anything with knitting catches my eye, and these hats were no exception. There’s also a shark and a bear in the series. I want the shark one.  Unlike the other two ads I don’t think this campaign is claiming too much with its use of craft. The fact they’ve used knitted hats does give a nod to the wearability and fashionability of wool at the moment, but it doesn’t strike me as having the undertones of authenticity, slowness, or care that the other two adverts seem to. But it is an example of craft literally following me everywhere. I’m sure there will be more examples to follow soon!