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. (Read our The Great British Sewing Bee episode guide for all the show’s gossip!)
As the 2021 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 incredible necklaces 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), 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. 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 72 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.
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.
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. 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.
Right, let’s talk about the 2021 Sewing Bee! Was it lovely to get back with Patrick and Joe after lockdown?
It was really great fun, we all get on so well. So good to be with people again who I have known over every series, we are a little community and I really enjoyed seeing them again.
How would you rate the sewing expertise of this year’s Sewers?
There are some amazing and talented sewers this year, of all different ages and from all over the country. Obviously, some have more experience than others. Quite a few of the men hadn’t been sewing long at all.
Would you say the level of difficulty in the challenges has increased and can the Sewers cope with it?
I do think the Challenges over time have got more difficult, but that is to match the Sewers expertise. Also, they learn a lot on the Sewing Bee, and that’s really rewarding for me and Patrick to see them accept our tips, and they learn from each other as well.
Any sewing disasters in this series?
There are always some disasters along the way because they are sewing garments that they might not have ever sewn before. You tend to sew at home in your comfort zone, so they are then thrown into this new sewing environment.
What are the most difficult fabrics to work with on this series?
The fabrics that are the most difficult to work with are satins, particularly drapey satins. The darker the material the better the mistakes get absorbed. It’s more if a sewer hasn’t worked with a new fabric that they haven’t used before. Stretchy fabrics can be really tricky, you have to use a different technique for each fabric.
What do you think is the most difficult sewing challenge?
The challenges really do get more difficult as we progress through the series, the sewers need to be tested and it’s interesting to see how they cope.
Is it always about timing with the Sewers, or what is the common mistake they make?
To work against the clock is difficult, and you have a camera in your face and Joe asking questions, so quite often they don’t finish. It’s the sewing of the buttons at the end, or fastenings, buttonholes that become unravelled, as that’s the last thing they do.
As Judges you work so well together, why do you think that is and what do you have in common … and what are your differences?
We come from very different backgrounds of sewing, and we do have a different view of what we are expecting from the Sewers, and maybe that makes it a good balance as judges.
What has been your favourite garment to sew/design this year?
On the Sewing Bee every series I make something in between filming in the Green Room, and this year I cut the pattern and made a dress from fabric that was printed by one of my old students. A sort of 50s look with a full skirt, long sleeves, black background with slashes of colour on.
What are your 3 favourite challenges from this series?
In 40’s week I liked the Transformation challenge of making a parachute into a Garment. In International Week – the Made to Measure: I loved the Frida Kahlo inspired outfit – as I have been to her house. And I really loved the 8 piece Baker Boy cap in the Pattern Challenge in Classic Clothing week – it was a really difficult challenge.
The best bit for you from the new series?
This year the final episode is a great one, and we all felt that we had achieved something special, getting through filming during a pandemic, and pulling it off.
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 from the previous series?
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 ‘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.
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 – 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.
Esme Young appears on The Great British Sewing Bee which you can keep up to date with on Twitter. Oh and remember to subscribe to Mollie Makes for more fab interviews and inspirational sewing projects. 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.
To find out more about Esme Young’s new project, Exploding Fashion, visit: explodingfashion.arts.ac.uk.
First image courtesy of BBC/Love Productions/Mark Bourdillon