Meet The Great British Sewing Bee's Esme Young
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.
As the Sewing Bee is one of our all-time favourite craft TV shows, we couldn't miss the opportunity to chat with Esme Young 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 amazing style too!
We talk to Esme Young about celebs she enjoyed dressing over the years on the silver screen (just don’t mention Leonardo DiCaprio’s shirt), where she gets her incredible necklaces and what she thinks of this year's Sewing Bee contestants and challenges.
But first we're going to do a little fact file about Esme so you know all about her background…
Who is Esme Young?
Esme Young is a renowned fashion designer who has worked with a whole host of celebrities in the course of her long career. She was one of the creators of the iconic Amorphous Dress, which was a popular garment to wear to nightclubs in the 1980s.
Esme first took an interest in art and design at the age of seven and says she was encouraged by her form teacher, Sister Mary.
As a teenager, she continued to draw and became interested in fashion designing. Inspired by fashion magazines, she began buy clothes from charity shops and altered them to suit her own unique style. She went on to attend the prestigious St Martin's College of Art in London.
She teamed up with her friends to launch a fashion brand, Swanky Modes, in the 1970s. They couldn't find the kind of clothes that they wanted to wear in the shops, so they decided to make their own. The London-based brand soon became popular and their dresses were worn by the likes of Grace Jones and Cher.
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In the course of her career, she's worked with a variety of celebrities. Esme designed Renee Zellweger's iconic bunny girl outfit for Bridget Jones and created the Hawaiian shirts worn by Leonardo Di Caprio in The Beach. She had to sew ten identical shirts for Leo to wear in the film for continuity, which she found very challenging!
In addition to her appearances on the Sewing Bee, Esme is currently a lecturer at Central St Martin's College.
On the Sewing Bee, Esme is best known for her love of bows (a guaranteed way to win her over!) and precise sewing.
In 2022, Esme released her autobiography, Behind the Seams, which gave an insight into her remarkable life (order your copy below).
How old is Esme Young?
Esme is 74 years old and was born in February 1949. She'll tell you all about her childhood and college days below so keep on reading to learn more about this incredibly talented woman.
Where is Esme Young from?
Esme was born in Bedfordshire, England and has been sewing since school. She now lives in London!
How tall is Esme Young?
Esme Young is 1.5m (5ft) tall and we can't quite believe so much talent, charisma and energy are contained within such a small height! She's truly a pocket rocket and we love that her punk rocker style was never hindered by her height.
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Now over to you Esme!
Read our interview with 2023 Sewing Bee judge Esme Young
Let's talk about this year's series of The Great British Sewing Bee! What is the standard of the sewers this year? They had a very hard act to follow because last year’s gang were fabulous…
Yes and they were great this year, too. I always go on about this, but the thing I really like is how they learn from each other – just like my students do – and they get better and better.
It's great to see how people develop over the series. The change in what they can do is quite dramatic from week to week. They surprise themselves. You know, there were some who’d sewn for hardly any length of time. They’d started during lockdown, got the bug and had talent. It's a way of being creative and expressing who you are.
Their personalities do come through in how they choose to make garments in the challenges…
Oh, absolutely. I always think what you wear is a way of expressing who you are… even if you want to cover up your funnier, lively side. Do you know what I mean? You’re wearing how you want people to think about you as you walk down the street.
Did you and Patrick find it hard to judge again?
Oh yes, it’s always hard to send someone home and it can be really difficult to choose who to send home. They've invested so much in taking part in The Sewing Bee
Last year, you, Patrick and Sara seemed quite emotional at times sending a sewer home…
Yeah, it is difficult, really difficult. And I always think of the first person to go home… What must that be like for them because they're all excellent sewers to get there in the first place. They wouldn't be there if they weren't talented. It's a contest, but they're not so competitive. It’s not cut throat. Absolutely not.
What were the most testing challenges this year?
They had a lot of testing challenges, actually. The Parka was tricky last year and, this year, there was a trench coat. That was difficult. There's a lot of elements: you’ve got a belt, you've got a facing and it's double-breasted, so it's really important where you place the buttons. Then, you’ve got buttonholes and one of those storm flaps meant to protect you from the rain – a rain guard. It was difficult.
So was the smoking jacket, actually. Lots of people have rarely done any tailoring. They’re not doing tailoring like Patrick's place in Savile Row does, that’s very traditional. And a challenge that surprised them was a backpack. Of course, it’s an item of sewing that you wear. They did find it tricky.
Want to start making your own clothes like Esme?Discover what sewing machines are used on Sewing Bee and start making your own garments like the contestants!
There are new themes including Art and Utilitarian clothing. Did you have a favourite?
Oh, I loved the art. We turned the sewing room into a gallery that week and I loved it. The pattern challenge was inspired by the Modernist movement. And then, they transformed canvases into garments for the transformation challenge. It was so 3D because the texture of the canvas was so stiff. It’s quite difficult to sew.
In Utilitarian week they turned cleaning items – like mop-heads, dusters and rubber gloves – into an outfit, too. I thought that was brilliant. One of the sewers made a whole outfit out of rubber gloves. I loved that. It was quite extraordinary to look at, but it's interesting how they translated them into a dress you could wear.
The challenges get more and more difficult, I reckon. There's so many different things you can ask them to do – no one will have made all the things before, will they?
I imagine even you haven't made a dress out of rubber gloves…
Have you been inspired to have a go?
Yes. I wouldn't want to wear it, though, I have to say. I did years ago – probably in the 1980s –have to make a rubber dress for Jane Asher to wear in an advert.
I got someone else to make it who was a specialist because it's hard to make rubber clothes. It’s how you put the seams together and fitting it.
And there was a transformation challenge inspired by your old designer label Swanky Modes…
Yes, using shower curtains. Years ago, at Swanky Modes, we used to buy vintage fabrics from shops because we didn't have much money. We bought vintage shower curtains, we bought 1950s car upholstery, things like that that people didn't buy.
We were doing reuse and recycle back then, but I think that’s quite a common thing for young people to do… even in those days. We did a whole collection made of vintage shower curtains: skirts, tops, jackets, coats, trousers…. and they were very popular. I mean, obviously we didn’t sell thousands, but people in the know were wearing them. So, it was great to see what the home sewers would come up with for that challenge.
When we first made them, we didn’t sew them, we soldered them together. We didn't want to sew them together because we were worried it would rip. But we found this technique where we’d use a thin strip of see-through fabric and sew it through there. That seemed to work. It strengthened it. I've still got some shower curtain dresses and things in my workshop.
What was your favourite Made to Measure challenge?
Turning crocheted blankets into another garment in Reduce, Reuse, Recycle Week was quite amusing.
When I was a teenager, I went to this dance – it wasn't a disco, it was a quite formal dance – and I turned a crocheted blanket into a long skirt to wear to this dance. It was great to see what they could come up with because I had a big connection to that.
Did you have a lot of fun with Patrick and Sara?
Yes, as usual. We get on really well and I feel like the camera, sound and lighting people… we’re all part of a community. Everyone’s great.
This year, the team were allowed out together after work as well. We went to this gay bar in Leeds and all these guys wanted to take photos with me. It was fabulous.
You’re known for your playlists in the green room. What was on it this year?
Well, as usual, soul music and reggae, but also quite a few late 1970s/early 1980s songs that were around when I was young-ish… in my early 30s.
Patrick and I share the room and Sara has a separate room, but it's next door and all the people in the office could hear the music.
One of them said to me she loved the music I was playing! But quite often someone would come in and say: ‘Could you turn it down?’ It was too loud, basically, but I like to bring a party with me when I film Sewing Bee.'
What are you up to outside of Sewing Bee?
I’m still promoting my autobiography, Behind the Seams. I've travelled here, there and everywhere giving so many talks. It’s fun and – as with Sewing Bee – people are very positive.
I’m back teaching now at Central Saint Martins, too. I haven't worked on any films since COVID, but I’m keeping very busy. I like to be busy.
Finally, what are your top 'Esme Young 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.
Fancy learning more about Esme Young?
Here's a mini bonus interview about her life and work!
We'd 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.
Where do you get your inspiration from? Is it hard to keep reinventing fashion?
I look back to at least 20 years in fashion to get inspiration. I wouldn’t want to look at last season and replicate that – you need a good space of time. It’s not copying it is reinventing, and I don’t find it difficult to come up with new styles. Anything can inspire you from any aspect of life it could be from - nature, architecture, art, anything really.
Would you use a commercial pattern?
No, I cut all my own patterns, rather than working from a commercial pattern. It is harder but it’s more rewarding and innovative.
Do you find sewing therapeutic?
Yes it’s calming and you are creating something at the same time. You are solving problems and you are slowing down and having to be imaginative. I think it works on a lot of levels as you have to focus on a project, and a change from sitting just looking at a screen.
How rewarding is your teaching work?
St Martin’s College is a great place to work, the students are so talented and not difficult to teach. It’s probably one of the only colleges in the world where it’s all about the students, and just trying to make the individual student’s vision happen.
I have been teaching via Microsoft, and it was hard to get used to at first and then became the new norm. It was particularly difficult when you are trying to show something 3D, so I rigged up a tripod that my phone could go in, so I could demonstrate the techniques. It’s not the same as being in a class but I guess we have to just do what we can do.
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.
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.
We've been obsessed with your necklaces – 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.
Meet the Sewing Bee's presenter Sara Pascoe
Since she took over from former host Joe Lycett, Sara Pascoe has been a breath of fresh air in the sewing room. Get to know Sewing Bee presenter Sara Pascoe.
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.”
Why Esme Young is a brilliant Sewing Bee judge
Esme has decades of experience in the fashion industry and is able to scrutinise the competition with an expert eye. However, Esme's teaching background gives her a real insight into the struggles of the contestants.
She's created some of the most iconic looks in British fashion and the sewers are guaranteed to learn a lot from her!
Meet Sewing Bee judge Patrick Grant
Esme and Patrick are the dream team that makes the Sewing Bee work. They get along famously and it wouldn't be the same show without them sharing praise and feedback with the contestants.
Like Esme, Patrick also has decades of experience in the world of fashion and knows quality sewing when he sees it! Get to know Patrick Grant with Gathered's in-depth guide.
First image courtesy of BBC/Love Productions/James Stack
Sarah Orme is a UK-based linocut printmaker, digital editor, feature writer and award-winning podcaster. She's been editing the sewing and art sections of Gathered.how – and before that our sister website calmmoment.com – for over 3 years. She’s the host of Gathered’s We’ve Made It podcast and A Calmer Life podcast. She’s a keen crafter and artist and loves creating DIY tutorials for Gathered. Sarah has previously written features for The Guardian, In The Moment Magazine, Project Calm Magazine, countryfile.com, radiotimes.com and yourhomestyle.uk. She enjoys designing her own unique lino prints and dreams of opening her own online shop. She shares her work @sarahormeprints
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