Many will recognise Stuart Hillard from the first series of the BBC’s Great British Sewing Bee. But little did he know the show would change his life. Catherine Scott meets the avid quilter.
It was an inspirational art teacher at primary school which gave Stuart Hillard the confidence to pick up a needle and start sewing.
“I couldn’t paint and I couldn’t draw, but Miss Jenkins was into all sorts of crafting and made me feel like I had some sort of artistic talent because I could sew,” says Stuart, who became an instant star when he took part in the first series of the BBC’s Great British Sewing Bee, due to return to our screens later this year.
“She introduced me to the idea that art and design goes beyond being able to draw and paint and that there are other ways to express your creativity.”
But Stuart never considered his love of crafting, particularly knitting and weaving at that time to be little more than a hobby.
“When I left university where I studied psychology I bought my first house,” he explains.
“I also bought my first sewing machine and started making curtains and cushions. When I had made all of these things I had strips of material left so I made them into a quilt and that’s where my obsession with quilting started.
“To begin with it really was very much a hobby. I joined a few craft groups and ran a few workshops and I would love to design new things.”
Thanks to his appearance on the Great British Sewing Bee last year, Stuart now spends his life quilting, teaching others to quilt and has just written a book, which he hopes will inspire others to get crafting. He also writes for a number of craft magazines. It is all a long way from his chosen profession as a primary school teacher – although Stuart says they aren’t completely opposed.
“I have always loved teaching and really that’s what I am doing now. Teaching is about passing on your knowledge to others. I never thought that I would be able to make a career out of my love of quilting but it is just how things have worked out and I couldn’t be happier.”
It may also have been in the example of Miss Jenkins that inspired Stuart to become a primary school teacher.
“Everyone needs someone to inspire them and having a good teacher is so important,” says Stuart, who still lives in North Yorkshire with his partner Charles.
He decided to apply for the Great British Sewing Bee, which followed eight finalists through a series of sewing challenges over four weeks, after seeing an advert for the BBC show.
“I thought it sounded like a bit of a laugh. I never thought they’d even ring me.”
But ring they did and Stuart started on the gruelling audition process and screen tests for the series presented by Claudia Winkleman.
“I still kept on thinking they won’t ring and they kept on ringing. Then one day they rang and said, ‘We want you on the show’. It felt amazing, but a bit of a double edged sword. You have to be careful what you wish for.”
Stuart had originally been told that the series was going to focus on all different aspects on sewing.
“But in the end it was all dressmaking and tailoring which I didn’t know anything about. The only thing I had ever made was a pair of pyjamas and it’s still an area I don’t do. I really was the novice of the group.”
Despite his inexperience, Stuart impressed the judges.
“They could see I was improving and taking on board all their comments, and making fairly rapid improvements. But there is only so far you can get in a few weeks. The other people had been sewing for years.”
Although sewing in front of the cameras was a challenge Stuart thoroughly enjoyed the process, which saw the nation take him to their heart.
“There was nothing negative about taking part,” he says. “I have made some great friends who I keep in touch with. People have been incredibly kind and generous,” say the 42-year-old.
Now crafting, particularly patchwork and quilting is Stuart’s world. As well as writing for a number of crafting magazines, appearing at this year’s Stitchtopia in Berkshire, he appeared on the Christmas special of the Sewing Bee and has just completed his first book, Sew Fabulous, which is due to be published by Orion this summer.
“It is very exciting,” he says. “I have wanted to write a book for a while, doing the show really raised my profile and led to a number of offers. The book is about getting people making things for themselves.
“There is a huge trend in people wanting something a little different, not something mass produced in a factory. I want to give them the tools to be able to make something for their homes which reflects their personality.
“Where the Great British Bake Off has got more people baking, I really hope that the Sewing Bee has got more people sewing. The great thing about crafting is that it is so diverse and can be done by anyone, no matter what their ability or their age. It can really bring people together and that’s one of the things I love about it.”
Stuart says he is never happier than when he is sewing.
“One of the questions I get asked most about the Sewing Bee was, ‘Wasn’t it stressful?’ There were times when things did go wrong, but for me when I’m sewing I’m in a happy place. I am so absorbed in what I am doing, I am oblivious to what’s happening around me.”
Stuart says he is excited about a new, longer series of the Great British Sewing Bee due to be screened this Autumn.
“I am really looking forward to it. There will be a new team of people taking part and I gather some new challenges. But my main hope is that it just gets more people crafting.”
Masterclasses at Stitchtopia 2014
Stuart Hillard will be appearing at Stitchtopia 2014; the annual event promises to deliver even more from the worlds of crochet, knitting, cross stitch patchwork and quilting with top masterclasses from leading names in the business.
Stuart will be running his own patchwork and applique sessions. Festival goers will also have a chance to chat with Stuart after his evening talk on his time on the Sewing Bee, and discover how he’d never even made a skirt before he became a part of the show.
The festival, which runs from February 17-20 is held at Wyboston Lakes, Bedfordshire,
All of the nine experts are offering workshops where craft-lovers can make anything from a Fair Isle mobile phone case to lace trimmed cuffs.
Stitchtopia regulars will also be on hand including, knitting and bead work expert, Debbie Abrahams; knitting and crochet specialist, Jane Crowfoot and patchwork and quilting professional, Karin Hellaby