Local resident Raph reveals all about his time on the recent series of BBC One’s The Great British Sewing Bee. Elizabeth Atkin writes…
Avid watchers of The Great British Sewing Bee’s seventh series, on BBC One, will recognise Raphaël, aka Raph.
But they may not know that the self-described queer textile artist, who more than earned his place in the final three, is one of Waltham Forest’s own!
Before his brush with TV fame, 34-year-old Raph, originally from France, made the move from bustling Whitechapel to leafy Leytonstone with his partner in 2018.
“We absolutely fell in love with the area,” he tells the Echo in a chat. “It feels like a village with the shops, a sense of community that’s quite strong – and [it’s] quite eclectic. It’s so near the forest, as well.”
He worked (and still works) behind the scenes on Hollywood films such as Assassin’s Creed, Annihilation and Jurassic World 2, as part of the costume department. His undeniably-cool role of textile artist is, he explains, to do with “dyeing and printing the fabrics, before they are made into costumes”.
So, he wasn’t completely unfamiliar with a sewing machine when he decided to brush up his skills during the first lockdown in 2020.
“People tend to think I’ve never touched a sewing machine before [Sewing Bee], but I have… because I work in costume, I’m often around sewing machines, but I’d never learned to use one properly before.
“So during lockdown, I took a sewing machine and actually made myself some masks, and then started to learn how to reverse on a sewing machine, how to use different stitches and how to make proper garments.”
He applied for The Great British Sewing Bee on a whim, “just for fun” he says, while watching series six.
“I was watching it, and some of my friends were like: ‘Oh my God, you should totally go for it.’ Eventually I sent my application and went through the whole process… I never thought about the consequences or what it could potentially be!”
His application was successful – and he was soon whisked away for Covid-testing and shooting the show in September/October 2020.
“It’s funny because when I went to the show, and we went to the hotel [where contestants stay], I said goodbye to my partner and my housemate, who said: ‘How do you feel, like you’re going to be on national TV?’ – I don’t think I realised how big it would be. For me, I just did it for fun.
“Honestly, I thought if I go through the first week adequately – whatever happens is a bonus on top.”
Each Sewing Bee episode follows a set format. On day one, there’s a pattern challenge: contestants are given up to four-and-a-half hours to follow instructions for creating a garment, choosing their own fabrics.
On day two, they take on a transformation challenge, requiring them to create something new and inspiring out of old clothing and materials in just 90 minutes.
Then the judges – Patrick Grant and Esme Young – offer their feedback. It was often “supportive”, according to Raph – adding a “wholesome” feel to the show.
His favourite pattern challenge, he says, was to make a baker boy cap. “It was nice and unusual to make something that was more of an accessory.”
Though Sewing Bee makes for lighthearted reality-competition TV, it wasn’t always fun and games on set. Challenges, under tight time pressure, meant there were some stressful days.
“There was one week I didn’t do well at all. I think it was men’s week,” Raph admits. “I think some of the people on the show who have been sewing for many years, with quite a big experience behind them, still find it stressful mainly because of the time, but also various techniques.
“The show is all about trying to challenge people. You eventually come across something… and you don’t know how to make it.”
But there was some light relief in the middle of filming – from comedian and show host Joe Lycett.
“It’s often awkward,” Raph laughs, describing Joe’s humour. “He wants to catch you out and make you wonder: ‘Is this funny or is not?’ You never know what’s coming.
“There’s that one scene where he’s wearing a polystyrene head on top of his head, and a cloak around [his body], and he’s pretending to be Gary Barlow. I did not see that coming at all. It was quite nice in a way, it takes you away from the stress, makes you laugh a bit, and then go back into it.”
Raph soared to the final three – alongside runner-up Rebecca and eventual winner Serena. Watching her winning moment, the entire room appears elated, genuinely happy for Serena – and Raph shows no sign of disappointment with his placement on the series.
“In my head, I wanted Serena to win, because she’s got a good story,” he says humbly. “She started sewing when she was younger… this has been part of her life for a long time. I thought she deserved it. It made sense to me.”
“I never expected anything back from it,” he shares, speaking about the whole experience. “I think that’s why I come across as relaxed and happy to be there.”
Now the finale has aired, it seems Raph’s enjoying post-Sewing Bee life. He’s racked up over 28,000 Instagram fans – and is back to work as a textile artist, now managing a small team on a Marvel movie.
And he wants to encourage everyone to give sewing a go – for its sustainability benefits as well as the personal ones.
“It’s something very easy to do, that you can learn and that’s so good for your mental health,” he says. “It’s what helped me cope through lockdown last year.”
Keep up with Raph’s post-Sewing Bee journey on Instagram: @raph_sew_and_so