Meet Tilly Walnes

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Great British Sewing Bee alumni Tilly Walnes chats to Shannon Denny about everything from celluloid to ripping seams.

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Midway through our conversation outside a Brixton café, a stranger approaches the table where Tilly Walnes and I sit. “Just in case you know of anybody…” she says, handing us a flyer announcing a new BBC reality series currently casting for participants. Tilly can’t suppress a giggle and suddenly her dimples appear. “Been there, done it!” she quips gleefully. 

In a previous life, Tilly worked in the film industry, and in a rich example of art imitating life, her recent career trajectory does feel a little as though it could be a screenplay. Not very long ago at all Tilly was an office-bound fashion obsessive who couldn’t sew a stitch. Four and a half years and one reality show later, she’s a published author and full-time blogger devoted to teaching other people to create clothes of their own. 

Tilly describes the opening scenes of the drama. “I was sitting in an office feeling really frustrated that I was essentially just pushing information around. All I was doing with my hands was typing. I felt like suddenly I wanted to make something tangible and useful,” she says, flexing her fingers for emphasis. “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. It’s about Fanny Brawn, John Keats’ muse. She’s a seamstress and the opening shot is a needle going through some fabric. And I just thought, ‘Ooh! Maybe I could just try sewing!’” 

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She signed up for a beginners’ course and the plot quickly thickened. While the initial compulsion was to do something – anything – with her hands, Tilly’s fashion fixation propelled her interest specifically in the direction of clothes creation. “I think one of the pleasures of dressmaking is you get to wear your craft, to show the world what you’ve made.” 

Crucially, her appreciation for clothes extends far back beyond her relatively newfound addiction to sewing, as evidenced by an anecdote she shares about her earliest style memory. “I was seven years old and my mum was trying to make me buy some black Mary Jane shoes, and I insisted on getting yellow ones. We had a bit of an argument but eventually she let me get them. And they were awesome. I thought they were the height of sophistication. And actually if I saw them again in my size, I would get them.”

To fast-forward a little bit, Tilly’s unique look – which she describes as preppy Nouvelle Vague chic – really started to take shape when she spent a year abroad after university. “Basically when I was living in France I decided that I would fulfil all of the stereotypes of the Brit in Paris, so I used to wear stripes and neck scarves and berets the whole time. And I never stopped!” Films – particularly French cinema from the 1960s – continue to inspire her wardrobe, and she advises anyone who’s a fan of this aesthetic to see Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious, Plein Soleil (the original film based on the book The Talented Mr Ripley), Henri Georges Clouzot’s Inferno and Last Year at Marienbad.

When not soaking up cinema or sitting behind a pile of deskwork, Tilly kept up her self-directed sewing studies through more courses, lots of reading and an increasing reliance on online sources. Blogs written by other neophyte seamstresses provided particular inspiration, so the next twist in the tale perhaps comes as no surprise. “Basically it was New Year’s Day 2010 and my boyfriend at the time dared me to start a blog.” Tilly and the Buttons was born, with its name partly inspired by the button-stealing seamstress named Tilly in the House of Elliott TV series, and partly inspired by the fact that it sounded like a 1960s girl group.

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At this point, the blog was the hobby while Tilly continued to earn a living in a more conventional way. “I was responsible for professional development for independent cinemas and film festivals across the UK and increasingly in Europe as well. For about nine years of my career I was basically designing learning programmes.”

As it happens, the day job had a direct influence on her moonlighting gig, and this unique area of expertise gave the blog its point of difference. “I’ve always been interested in how people learn things and trying to think of different ways of presenting material,” she explains. “When I learnt to sew 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. They’re designed at people who’ve grown up sewing, whereas now there’s this whole new wave of people who never learnt to sew at school and who are interested in making things. So what I try and do is just break it all down, take out the jargon, take out the head scratching and just try and explain the things that I know really throw people." 

This approach clearly resonated, because the success of Tilly and the Buttons rapidly grew. Then – imagine a bit of a montage sequence here if you will – Tilly’s distinctive take on sewing and style landed her a spot on The Great British Sewing Bee. There were highs and there were lows, but it’s clear that the time on the small screen was an exhilarating experience for our protagonist.

The best aspect was just how much fun we had on the set. It was really long days, really tiring, but we just had such a laugh. It was amazing to be part of something like that – I had to keep pinching myself. The hardest aspect was that sewing for me is a relaxing hobby, but trying to sew with a deadline and talk to the cameras at the same time under hot lights is not how I would choose to make a garment,” she laughs.

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Fortunately when the show finished Tilly was free to return to her more relaxing methods. And in time she shared these with more and more aspiring stitchsmiths not only through the blog but also in face-to-face workshops. “A lot of people said to me that they had a really terrible experience at school with a scary textiles teacher who made them unpick all their seams. So I try to be the antithesis of that scary textiles teacher,” she says. “I always tell people when I teach to keep your seam ripper by your side because it makes you fearless. I think if you know you have the potential to correct mistakes it frees up your creativity.”

This nurturing can-do attitude laid the foundation for the next twist in the narrative, which takes the form of a brand-new book titled Love at First Stitch. “I felt there was a real gap in the market for a book that takes you from absolute beginner – how to thread the sewing machine, how to cut fabric – right through to creating clothes that you’d actually love to wear – not frumpy aprons and things. The idea is to create really wearable, gorgeous clothes and build up gradually step-by-step. It’s a very practical and informative book, but it’s also really fun, encouraging, down-to-earth and upbeat.” 

If that was the intention, the result is a triumph. Tilly herself appears on every page, like a cross between Tinkerbell and a favourite student teacher. There are about a million pictures to take you through each and every step, so that’s her duck-egg blue manicure you’ll spot as you come to grips with how to attach bodice lining in a dress, and it’s the author herself – resplendent in her beloved stripes, spots, navy and red – modelling all the creations.

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This tendency to wear what she’s made herself is true not only on the page, but also in real life. “Everywhere I go people ask me if I’ve made what I’m wearing – so I’m constantly on!” she says. Today’s outfit is a case in point – she’s sporting a jaunty striped jersey dress that she completed only the day before. Now that she’s recently quit her film job, there’s even more time to bulk out the wardrobe and teach others to do the same. With the book out of the way, she’s turned her attention to a line of sewing patterns available to order through the blog. Designed for visual learners, these too are filled with sunny, step-by-step photographs to make things as clear and easy as possible.

Other pursuits on the agenda? “I can’t make knitwear, although I’m hoping to rectify that by next autumn,” she says. “Yesterday I was reading an introduction to knitting and it was explaining what knitting patterns mean. Why do they have to be that difficult to understand? I mean, why!?” I wonder aloud if she might do the same for knitting instruction as she did for sewing – after all, every good story deserves a shot at a sequel. “Well, I’ve only learnt one stitch so far,” she laughs. Which I take to mean, it’s a possibility we’d be wise to not rule out.

Tilly Book Cover 
All images taken from her new book which is out now!
Published by Quadrille Publishing Ltd
ISBN 9781849493659

Tilly also chats to us about blogging, along with three other prestigious crafters, in the brand new issue of Making - out Thursday 22nd May!!

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