The Ministry of Craft finds inspiration in the Great British Sewing Bee

Ministry of Craft

Ministry of Craft - Credit: Archant

Mairead Mahon embroiders a story about the great sewing revival gripping the region.

Alison Leese

Alison Leese - Credit: Archant

Gone are the days when sewing was associated with maiden aunts and the economics of making do and mend. It’s back on trend, with a recent survey suggesting younger people are driving its popularity. That is certainly the case here in the North West, where sewing groups are multiplying almost on a monthly basis.

The Ministry of Craft, though, has it all stitched up when it comes to running successful workshops. Its workshops in Manchester’s Northern Quarter and Chorlton have attracted thousands since its formation eight years ago. During that time it has been involved with designers such as Wayne Hemingway and Laura Ashley and one of its tutors sewed up a semi-final place in the BBC’s ‘Great British Sewing Bee’.

That was Deborah Simms who was cheered on by both staff and students from The Ministry of Craft. ‘The year before I had made my own wedding dress, so I thought why not give The Great British Sewing Bee a go,’ she said.

‘It was huge fun. Both the judges, Patrick Grant and May Martin, were lovely, even though it was terrifying waiting for their comments. I was dreading the challenge that involved making children’s clothes though as I had never even tried that before. Mind you, necessity drives us all and now that I have six-month-old baby, Evelyn, I would say that I’m fast becoming an expert in baby clothes!’

Janine Lund using the sewing machine

Janine Lund using the sewing machine - Credit: Archant

As well as getting on with the judges, Deborah also found great rapport with her fellow contestants. ‘Sewing is often a solitary affair, so it is great to be able to share it with others. If something isn’t going quite the way you’ve planned, other sewers are on hand to help or at least commiserate,’ she said.

Alison Leese tutor and owner of The Ministry of Craft is in complete agreement. ‘We want sewing to be fun and it is. Of course, people want to learn new skills but doing it alongside others, stitching and chatting, means that it is a really enjoyable thing to do. We sit at long tables facing each other, having cups of tea and at the end of the course, not only have you made a piece, you’ve also made new friends,’ said Alison, who is an expert seamstress and fully qualified teacher of textiles.

Some people arrive with friends though, especially when they have something that they want to celebrate in style. ‘Many ladies like to do something just that little bit different for their birthday or hen night by coming along and having a creative session, making fascinators, flowers or even bunting. These are always good fun: laughter hits the roof and some people add to the carnival atmosphere by bringing along a drop of champagne but it hasn’t led to any crazy seaming unless of course, that effect is desired. Sometimes people say it is! Seriously though, everyone gets to go home with something that they’ve made, as well as having a really happy time,’ added Alison.

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Some clients have even created new ventures for themselves, including a lady who had inherited a sewing machine and, beyond being able to identify it as one, had no clue what to do with it. However, after attending courses at The Ministry of Craft, she developed the skill to form her own business selling her handmade items such as lampshades. Another was a 40-year-old man who came along to learn how to make curtains and blinds for his new flat, got the sewing bug, undertook dressmaking courses as well and now makes and sells clothes for women.

Of course, most people want to be able to make items for themselves. They can decide what course they want to do according to their skill level – the beginners’ course leaves nothing to chance. There is even a segment on how to master the sewing machine, including threading it in the first place, not always as easy as it sounds, as many a pricked finger can testify. Lots of people decide to go further than this though and they can learn advanced techniques and pattern cutting.

‘We can show people how to use or adapt a commercial pattern, as well as making one from scratch or even how to copy an existing garment or make a pattern of your own choosing. Once pattern cutting has been mastered, there is no need to trudge around the shops looking at rows of clothes that just don’t grab you,’ says Alison. ‘Vintage is a big inspiration today, both in home furnishings and fashion and I think that has made people think about their individuality in these areas.’

It’s not just individuals that want to work with The Ministry of Craft. They have been invited to work with The Women’s Institute, as well as to talk on BBC Radio 4. Laura Ashley have also asked them to show what can be made with their new range of fabrics and the designer Wayne Hemingway was very keen that they be involved with his Vintage Festival.

When Kirstie Allsop, queen of television crafts, recently visited Manchester for her Handmade Christmas Fair, it wasn’t a surprise when she asked the Ministry to come up with some hand crafted Christmas stockings. Everybody wants to be involved with sewing.

For details of classes:

Don’t lose the thread

The popularity of sewing has led a Blackburn sewing machine manufacturer to open its own sewing machine museum. Based in Hobkirks, it was opened last September by the Great British Sewing Bee judge, Patrick Grant, who was very interested in its 200 full size and toy machines. They range in age from 1860 to 1960 and are the personal passion of Peter Hobkirk, whose grandfather started the firm in the early 1900s, when he would travel around Blackburn, on his bike, mending sewing machines.

Hobkirks is a Lancashire name closely associated with sewing machines and when Coronation Street producers were looking for a top of the range machine to be provided and installed in the soap’s factory, they knew just where to go. The machine, known as The Silver Stitcher, was given a starring role - it was at the centre of a story that caused the factory workers to down tools!

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