Brixton resident Tilly Walnes, who appeared on first series of The Great British Sewing Bee, waxes lyrical about sewing, blogging, Brockwell Park and her first book, Love at First Stitch
Even in Brixton Village Market – where everyone looks cool and individual and interesting – Tilly Walnes stands out. She’s in a navy, red and white palette in the form of a jaunty striped jersey dress, a cardigan and wool coat. As someone who honed her personal style during a year in Paris, she’s got the French New Wave look nailed. Put it this way – a charismatic poodle (maybe a white one on a red leather lead) wouldn’t seem out of place.
As it happens, this style blogger and veteran of The Great British Sewing Bee is too busy juggling needles, thread, cameras and computers to have any fingers free for holding onto a dog. And recently her load has grown even further, with the release of her debut book Love at First Stitch.
This beginners’ guide starts with the most basic of the basics – how to thread a needle, how to cut fabric – and takes the reader step by step through bigger challenges. There are seven projects that build in complexity, ranging from the Brigitte Scarf to the Lilou Dress. But unlike so many other sewing books, Tilly’s emphasis is on ‘creating clothes that you’d actually love to wear’ – as opposed to frumpy aprons, simplistic cushion covers and the like.
This approach is very much driven by her own journey from clothes-loving novice to accomplished threadsmith. ‘When I was a child I was really creative – drawing, painting, making little magazines, designing little fashion collections,’ she says. ‘But when I was 16 I was pushed toward more academic subjects that would help me get a job, so I completely suppressed that side of myself – until four and a half years ago when it just burst forth!’
Emphasising the point by flexing her fingers, she explains that she was working in a desk job in the film industry when she had a sudden yearning to do something with her hands. ‘At the time I didn’t really care what I did – I thought I was going to start doing ceramics or something. But I was at the cinema to see the Jane Campion film Bright Star,’ she says. ‘The opening shot is a needle going through some fabric. And I just thought, “Ooh! Maybe I could just try sewing!”’
She signed up for a short course and supplemented this with a keen reliance on books. Meanwhile, having spent nearly a decade of her career designing learning programmes, she quickly saw that educational materials for sewing were sorely lacking. ‘I realised that traditional sewing resources were so outdated, written in this jargon. They’re full of conventions that people who are learning to sew now just don’t understand.’
Believing that she could improve on the existing offering, she launched a blog – Tilly and the Buttons – in 2010 with the aim of sharing her learning with other fledgling clothes makers. Things took off, and it was in part due to her growing presence in the blogosphere that she landed a place on The Great British Sewing Bee.
With the book now published and on the shelves, today she’s hard at work on her line of sewing patterns. These borrow from the book’s formula for simple directions combined with super wearable results. ‘The instructions are very different – they translate all the jargon, are written in plain English and take the head scratching out of sewing,’ she explains. ‘And quite crucially – because a lot of people are visual learners – they show you every step in pictures so you’re not trying to guess.’
This growing portfolio means that she’s recently been able to leave the day job behind to sew, write and teach full-time. She’s commandeered a spare bedroom of her Brixton flat where she’s set up an adjustable-height work surface and two Ikea Expedit bookcases crammed full of fabrics organised by colour. Anytime she needs a break, she heads out the door. ‘I live really near Brockwell Park. It’s absolutely beautiful, the best park in London. It lifts my spirits every time I go there. I also love the Ritzy, Franco Manco – the best pizza I’ve ever eaten – Lido Café and Brixton Food Centre, a wonderland of really lovely fruit and veg and about 20 different types of chickpeas.’
Notably absent from her list of local faves are any clothing stores– and that’s because she rarely wears anything she hasn’t designed and sewn herself. ‘As a society we’ve just forgotten how to make things; we rely on the shops and factories,’ she observes. ‘I just really hope to inspire people to make stuff themselves and not have to rely on experts to make it for them. Actually we can take back that power, that feeling of agency in the world.’ And if we can look as stylish as Tilly while doing it, so much the better.