Heather Jacks bursts into conversation apologising for our rescheduled interview, ‘I’ve been at pony club all weekend,’ she tells me, and we quickly begin swapping equestrian tales. Selling her last horse a year ago, Heather now spends her days training friend’s horses and competing when she can. Like dressage, sewing is a discipline that runs on precision and perfectionism. Yet this is not the subject of our call and as the conversation moves from stables to sewing, it is easy to see why she won The Sewing Bee crown.
Far more than just a competition winner, for Heather, sewing is a lifelong hobby and ‘pretty much a necessity’. Following the death of her father forty years ago, from a young age Heather made her own clothes and accessories to sell to her friends. Rather like a patchwork quilt, the pieces of Heather’s story fit together into a jigsaw puzzle and the end result looks pretty impressive. Using her childhood dressmaking skills to win The Great British Sewing Bee, like the show Heather has gone on to reinvent sewing and inspire the younger generation. When speaking to The Sewing Bee judge May Martin a few weeks before, it became clear that learning the basics and having fun are important. Horse chat aside, Heather was more than happy to share her story, her top tips and her advice with those thinking about learning to sew.
So Heather, when did you learn to sew?
I learnt to sew very early on at a very young age, my aunt gave me a sewing machine when I was nine or ten and then I started learning at school – we had sewing lessons all the way through to aged sixteen. When I was twelve my father died; he left us with virtually no money and the only way I was going to get any clothes for myself was to make them. I used to go into Northampton to all the leather factories and ask the chaps at chucking out time if I could have the leather scraps. I would make belts and pencil cases and with the money I made from selling these I would go out and buy fabric to make clothes.
Would you say sewing was always a hobby rather than a career?
Yes, it has always been pretty much a necessity to me.
Is this what made you enter The Great British Sewing Bee?
Well I’ve always loved being creative, making anything out of anything really – this has always been a passion of mine because I am also an artist. I’ve also always had a big interest in fashion so love creating my own clothes. I watched the first series of The Great British Sewing Bee and thought, ‘I could do that’. My husband Andy was late home from work one evening and something popped up on the screen with a form asking people to apply for the next series, I was just going to read the questions but ended up filling it in, pressing the button and hey presto I was on the show!
I bet your husband was surprised! What was it like being on the show – is it exactly like it seems on TV?
Well I think after the first half hour you don’t even see the cameras anymore, you’re just focused on not looking like a complete idiot in front of three million people that you just forget about the cameras.
What was the hardest part about actually being on the show?
Oh god the time limits! Definitely the time limits! I’m a fairly slow sewer, unless of course I’m making something to wear to go out in the evening, in which case I’m demonic, but normally I sew quite slowly. If I get to a difficult bit I go and have a biscuit and a cup of tea, or take the dog for a walk, but this was not an option on the show. The time limits were agony, absolute agony.
What was the highlight of the show for you? Obviously winning, but if you had to pick a less obvious one!
For me the highlight was meeting everybody – it was just brilliant! We all came from different backgrounds and we all just got on, that was the weird thing. We just hit it off and everybody would have a different creative take on a task and it was lovely. Sewing is something I have done alone for years and years, so it was really special to be able to talk about it to somebody. There was never a moment where I thought I was going to win. Every challenge had its own ups and downs and we all had our different strengths so all I focused on was getting through each challenge – you have to.
What is your favourite thing to sew?
I love dressmaking and I love doing creative things with the fabric, like the fan pleat I did on the show. I enjoy playing around with the fabric, particularly creating evening dresses as you can do interesting finishes. In fact the evening dress I made in the final was my favourite garment from the show; it was the only time that I could really be creative. Finishing that was probably another highlight – it was absolutely me really.
What advice would you give someone who was a complete beginner who wanted to learn how to sew?
I would say the most important thing to learn first is the very basics. I think this goes for anything you do in life, if you learn the very basic stuff and get the building blocks of what you are trying to do. In sewing, the foundation is simple tasks like perfect seams, perfect darts, being able to put zips in and being an absolute stickler for measuring. Make everything as perfect as possible no matter how simple it is and stick to what you are supposed to be doing, so if you’ve got darts make them exactly the same – same angle, same width, same length and you won’t go wrong.
What would you say is a common mistake new sewers need to look out for?
Trying to be a little too ambitious in what you are doing, taking on something that is more difficult than your learned techniques – this can be difficult and disappointing. Also, if you are not completely accurate in your cutting out it can also be disappointing, sewing is like a fabric jigsaw puzzle and if all the pieces aren’t the right size then they won’t fit together.
So what’s in the pipeline for you in 2014?
Well I’ve started a children’s project called the GoSew project, which involves setting up free tuition for children through the school holidays. We’re just starting it now in Lutterworth and we’re drawing in several schools. The project runs every Wednesday and I’m hoping by the half term we will have three schools involved. It has proved really popular and as I pull in more and more schools I am making plans for the future – I really want to do an interschool challenge next year so we can give the kids really interesting things to do and make a fashion show at the end of it for them.
Are you teaching yourself or overseeing the project?
No I’m teaching as well, I’ve got a band of volunteers but still go in every Wednesday. I train riders of all ages, so for me teaching sewing is no different to teaching riding.
Finally, if you could do your whole time on The British Sewing Bee again, what would you do differently?
Oh definitely my alteration challenges!
And with that Heather went back to her GoSew planning and responding to sewer’s questions on her Twitter page. If Heather has inspired you to get behind the sewing machine, or make your own unique dress, why not take a look at the sewing courses listed on our site?