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. (Read our Great British Sewing Bee episode guide for all the show's gossip!)
As the 2022 Sewing Bee is nearly on our screens, we couldn't miss the opportunity to chat to 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 her favourite challenges from this year's show. But first we're going to do a little fact file about Esme so you can know all the basics about her...
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The Esme Young Fact File
How old is Esme Young?
Esme is 73 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.
We are literally looking from different perspectives. I see the high-up bits and she sees the low-down bits.
Now over to you Esme!
Lovely to meet you, Esme! 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.
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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.
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.”
Right, let's talk about the 2022 Sewing Bee! What is the standard of the sewers this year?
Oh, really good. Really good. They were very impressive. We’re really testing them with some of the challenges this year. Some of them are a nightmare. Trainers in Sportswear Week… that was a bit of a shock for them. It came out of left field. That was quite interesting because it was all flat sewing until you had to put the top into the sole. That was what made it really tricky.
There was a Lingerie Week, too. I do an underwear course at Central Saint Martins and I've got an amazing collection of underwear dating from Victorian times to the modern day. Knickers, bras, petticoats, all sorts. Not that I wear them! I have them in boxes and I show my students. The sewers were making more modern styles, but it’s quite hard – that combination of elastic and trim and lace.
What were your favourite challenges?
We had a 1930s Week and I love the 1930s. They had to make a bias cut dress for the Made-to-Measure Challenge and that can be really tricky. It was supposed to be an evening dress for a Hollywood star and all the models looked like they were off to the Oscars. Well, most of them did.
Every week there's somebody who finds it tricky because it's something they've never done. They can be really good at sewing one particular item – or quite a few things – but if it’s something they’ve never done before, it's an absolute challenge. Their brain goes into panic mode. They were asking each other for help and it’s so brilliant they help each other. That’s the nice thing about shows like this – they’re not going to sabotage somebody. They all learn from each other and it’s quite special because they make friends for life.
And the sewers had to turn school uniform into something a kid would want to wear outside school. Tell us more…
I did this little film for The One Show and they wanted me to say which school uniforms were the best made. When I looked into it, the thing that was absolutely shocking was the price. Absolutely shocking. There’s the fabric, the haberdashery, the shipping, people having to be paid to make it… how can it be so cheap? And none of this stuff is recycled. So it was good to do something to try and persuade people to re-use school uniform rather than just throwing them away or having them languishing in a drawer.
In Party Week, The Pattern Challenge was to make your iconic Swanky Modes creation – the Amorphous Dress…
It was fabulous to do that because it has such meaning for me. It is an iconic dress. Absolutely iconic. The Amorphous Dress is a dress that's cut in one piece. It looks a bit like an amoeba when it’s laid out – that’s why it was called an amorphous dress. It has shoulder seam and a dart and, when it’s all sewn together, you’ve got cutaway bits down one side that you do up with D-rings. Somebody who bought it from us in the late 1970s or early 80s said she went into a restaurant wearing one and everyone stood up and clapped because she made such an entrance in this dress. It’s made from a Lycra material. Swanky Modes was one of the first design companies to use Lycra in clothes other than sportswear.
Was everyone who was anyone wearing them at the time?
Lots of people did wear them. We sold them to a shop in New York and the guy who owned the shop said Cher had bought one. It was also in the film Crocodile Dundee – Linda Kozlowski wore a red one. Also the Amorphous Dress is in the V&A.
The Amorphous Dress in the Victorian & Albert Museum! That's quite something.
Oh God, I should say! There was another Lycra dress we did called the Padlock Dress. There's a picture of Grace Jones wearing it. That's in the Museum of London… which is pretty amazing.
Talking of famous people, you did a David Bowie inspired made-to-measure in Music Week…
Well, that was interesting. When you think about it, all Bowie’s looks were so different, weren’t they? From Ziggy Stardust to when he used to wear suits, so – in a way – it’s quite a difficult thing to decide what to make. Some of his stuff was quite androgynous. Certainly, early on. It was very interesting to be influenced by Bowie and update it, so it didn’t look too much like a costume. It looked like garments you could wear. That was a very interesting challenge and there was quite a range of different styles. There were a few flights of fancy in the sewing room that day. People took from him and turned it in to something you would wear nowadays.
You once met David Bowie…
I did meet him, yeah. I sat on a window ledge with him at the Notting Hill Carnival. I can't quite remember what year it was – the early 90s or late 80s. A lovely memory. Some friends had a party and one friend of mine had produced some David Bowie records, so he was there. I went upstairs to look for someone and David was with various people sitting on a window ledge, so I went and sat beside him and had a little chat.
What was he like?
Very, very nice. He was very down to earth and chatty. Not at all snotty. The carnival was happening in the street below and I remember somebody looked up and saw him and said: ‘Oh, my God. It’s David Bowie!’
Can you remember what he was wearing?
I can actually… because I asked him. He was wearing an Italian tailored suit and we had a discussion about Saville Row and Italian tailoring and the difference between them…. which was appropriate for me.
What does new host Sara Pascoe bring to the proceedings?
She’s great, Sara. First of all, she’s really friendly, really funny and really fun. And she’s very good with the sewers. She was supportive of them and made them laugh when they were having a stressful time. She’s not one of those people who stamps her foot and says: ‘I want this!’ or ‘I want that!’ She’s not a diva. One thing about Sewing Bee is it really feels like a little community. The sound people, the producers, the camera operators… most of them have been there since the first series I ever did, so it really does feel like a community. And that’s really nice. Sara slotted in well.
You and your fellow judge Patrick Grant come from very different parts of the fashion world. Do you find yourself learning from each other?
Definitely. It's a good combination because we both bring something different to the table. It works really well and we get on really well. He's a very charming man. It’s very easy working with Patrick. We can discuss stuff. We don't fall out if we disagree.
Do you ever disagree over the person that should go?
Yeah, we do, we do. Sometimes it’s tricky. It’s not very often – mostly we agree – but occasionally we don't. Then we go off into our little room and have a discussion. We don't scream and shout at each other.
You’re in charge of the music in the room you share with Patrick, I hear…
I’ve got a 1960s and 1970s playlist I play in our room when we’re not on set. I’m singing along as I make a dress on my sewing machine. There’s a lot of soul music – Aretha, Marvin Gaye – and a few by Frank Sinatra. I have modern things as well – I like Arlo Parks – so I do have a mix, but it’s a lot of soul and 1970s stuff. I love soul music. The 1970s music I listen to… I had friends in the bands: Betty Bright, Cliver Langer and the Boxes, Deaf School, Teardrop Explodes, Echo and the Bunnymen. And reggae I like as well. I like Peter Tosh and Bob Marley and all that. If we have a wrap party, Patrick and I both like a bit of a dance. We quite often dance together. He’s a good dancer.
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.
Esme Young appears on The Great British Sewing Bee which you can keep up to date with on Twitter.
There's a whole bunch of sewing patterns for beginners here on Gathered that are just waiting for you to make them! Before you get started, take a look at our how to use a sewing machine guide and beginner's guide to sewing.
First image courtesy of BBC/Love Productions/Mark Bourdillon
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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