In a converted depot overlooking the Thames, amidst the whirr of sewing machines, two women are having an intense conversation.
Twenty-six-year-old Chinelo Bally is carefully cutting through folds of velvet, explaining why she has chosen to use the fabric for a wrap dress.
May Martin, a Hampshire-based sewing teacher with 40 years’ experience, looks concerned, concerned enough to question Chinelo’s method of cutting.
It’s clear May envisages problems with using velvet, but she cannot say so.
Why? Because this is the set of the Great British Sewing Bee, and as one of the judges, May is not allowed to interfere. Indeed, neither can her fellow judge, Savile Row designer Patrick Grant.
Instead, they have to keep it buttoned when it comes to potential issues, skirting around problems by asking pointed questions.
Luckily for Chinelo, her decision to use velvet proved a winner on Tuesday evening, as she avoided elimination from the competition and her dress was chosen as Garment of the Week.
It’s certainly a coup for the Essex-based media graduate, who has little training in dressmaking.
“Everyone always asks me why I make clothes if I studied media,“ she laughs heartily. “But I’ve always loved fashion.
“I’ve always gone to the shops and found it difficult to find tops I really like, so I buy bits and cut them up.
“Nearly three years ago I decided I wanted to sew properly, so I bought a sewing machine which sat on the table for months. Then I called up my auntie who’s a tailor and asked her to teach me the method she uses, which is far more creative.
“As for applying for the show, in fact, it was while fabric shopping in Walthamstow with my little brother I saw a flyer for the competition and thought, I loved the last series, what have I got to lose by applying?“
The method Chinelo’s aunt Bisi uses does not involve patterns. Rather it’s all by freehand, a skill which undoubtedly came in handy a couple of days ago, with her fitted wrap dress.
“It’s really liberating using freehand, it comes naturally to me, because it was the method I was taught,“ she explains. “But I can understand how some people think it’s easier to use a pattern. It’s just pinning to the fabric and cutting around it really.
“When I started the show and was given a pattern to use, I was really perplexed. It took me a while to figure out how to use it. I think Patrick had fun watching my face as I was squirming, opening the packet and trying to work out just what I was doing.“
The format of Sewing Bee is similar to that of The Great British Bake Off – ten keen amateurs are whittled down through a series of tricky tests over eight episodes, in a bid to find the overall winner. Each episode is themed around an era, a type of fabric or a piece of clothing – the humble T-shirt for example, with three challenges testing the contestants’ technical and creative talents. Aside from wrap dresses, so far they’ve reworked a T-shirt, fashioned nightdresses and pyjamas, and had a go at creating skirts.
There’s a lot of pressure involved, admits Chinelo, for this is, after all, a competition.
“You’ve got the time restrictions and the bright lights, the lights are so hot – things that would take you three minutes to do at home end up taking at least ten instead.
“You can’t help looking at the other contestants to see how far along they are, just to gauge how you’re doing. Plus, I was one of the least experienced on the show. When I’d heard how much experience everyone had, I couldn’t help worrying about how I’d do.
“And then there’s the talking. You’ve got to do these interviews while sewing, it’s crazy.
“It’s funny, because when I was watching the Great British Bake Off I was always wondering why Ruby (Tandoh) was crying all the time, I thought she was ridiculous, faking.
But when you’re doing your own work, when you’re under all of this pressure, when your work is being critiqued in front of everyone, it can push you over the edge. And sometimes you won’t agree with the judges’ decisions. You can become very protective, very emotional.“
Chinelo, who lives in Laindon with her husband, says she’s taken great experiences away from the show including, new, firm friends.
“The judges were fantastic, May is a wonderful teacher, and Patrick, who I call the Simon Cowell of sewing, without the high-waisted trousers, was lovely, great looking too. Not that I had time to admire him, I was too busy sewing...
“But the other contestants were great. It was competitive, but never bitchy. We all still speak to each other, and I recently went to V&A with Serena. I’m most close to Jenni though, she’s amazing, she’s my girl.
“It’d be great to win the show, it would be brilliant.“
l Great British Sewing Bee is on BBC Two every Tuesday. The Great British Sewing Bee – Sew Your Own Wardrobe (Quadrille) is now available.
Chinelo's top three sewing tips:
1. When you notch, only snip a little into the fabric rather than taking out the V-shaped wedges that most patterns seem to call for, this saves time and doesn’t weaken your seam.
2. When freehand cutting, the iron is your best friend. But always remember to press out any creases you initially ironed in as references.
3. I love a good gadget but sometimes if you don’t have the “right” gadget then don’t beat yourself up, just improvise. Use a Biro if you don’t have tailor’s chalk (for some fabrics), or a tin of soup instead of a weight.