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TV’s buzz of excitement for UK manufacturing

I am hardly a fan of reality TV and contrived competitions, but The Great British Sewing Bee has me hooked.

The BBC 2 series brings together amateur sewers who each week undertake three challenges under the expert gaze of May Martin from the Women’s Institute Academy, who has been teaching sewing for 40 years, and Patrick Grant, owner of Savile Row tailor Norton & Sons and luxury menswear label E Tautz.

The frontrunners in the mixed bag of 10 contenders are Lorna, a retired air hostess, and, bizarrely enough, Neil, a lieutenant-colonel in the Royal Engineers. They are very impressive, although the soldier admitted that working with chiffon was more stressful than his day job.

Strange as it may seem, I wonder whether this entertaining confection may benefit the revival of the British clothing manufacturing sector. Even allowing for the fact that the programme is entertainment, it does present clothes-making as a creative and challenging activity that requires a high level of skill and dexterity. This is a welcome counterpoint to the received view that being a machinist is dull drudgery.

In 2009 a short fly-on-the-wall series on BBC Four about Savile Row was instrumental in altering perceptions about bespoke tailoring. If The Row was not dying, it certainly had a moribund air about it, but in the past decade it has repositioned itself, with some justification, as the source of the ultimate luxury products. The workrooms are full of young people (male and female) who want to learn a craft and I am sure the largely positive exposure on the telly did it no harm.

It may be wishful thinking to suggest the six-part Sewing Bee (it is the third series) might transform the public’s view of a career in clothing manufacturing, but as I noted recently, the sector does have an image problem. This will not be helped this week by our report about illegal low pay among Leicester manufacturers.

It is a far from simple situation, but employment law should be enforced, not least to assist those firms that do play by the rules in this very competitive sector. Making in the UK is never going to be ‘cheap’ but there are plenty of companies that prove it is cost-effective and viable. Let’s see what happens in Leicester.

I was reminded just how far Italy, for example, is ahead of us in the manufacturing of high-quality womenswear while attending a few shows during the well-organised London Fashion Week. I may be jumping to the wrong conclusions, but I presumed that every slickly manufactured collection came from Italy. Sass & Bide, Temperley London, Matthew Williamson, Vivienne Westwood, Issa, Margaret Howell and David Koma were among those that were beautifully made in beautiful fabrics. (If you know they were not manufactured in Italy, please let me know where they were made.)

The British Fashion Council has done a superb job of moving LFW on from its wild and wacky image of the past to better compete with its grown-up rivals in New York, Milan and Paris. But the odd throwback is still to be seen. The ‘collection’ presented by Ed Marler, part of the Fashion East initiative, was at best amateurish tat. I suggest he watches The Great British Sewing Bee and keeps practising. The gap between the talented and the hopeful is wide.

PS - Patrick Grant is among the speakers at our Next Generation event in London on April 16 at 30 Euston Square, NW1. If you are in your first, second or third job and would like to attend, go to

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