Edinburgh Impact

Stitching it all together

Completing the fourth year of a medicine degree during a UK-wide lockdown would test anyone’s limits. Serena Baker managed to win a national televised competition too, claiming victory in 2021’s Great British Sewing Bee.

Serena with the host and judges after winning the Great British Sewing Bee
Great British Sewing Bee host Joe Lycett with 2021 winner Serena Baker and judges Patrick Grant and Esme Young

By Nick Barnes, Deputy Head of Publications, Communications and Marketing

Serena Baker is following her own pattern. Already facing the challenge of continuing her education during the Covid-19 pandemic, including placements at an Edinburgh hospital, a local GP practice and on a specialist stroke ward, Serena paired Year 4 as an MBChB Medicine student with a long held ambition. Taking a shot at the Great British Sewing Bee.

“Once I graduate, I am going to be a busy doctor” Serena explains. “During medical school was my opportunity to go for it, even though I was busy and quite stressed doing both in the same year. I thought, I might as well apply and see what happens – I’ve got nothing to lose! If they say no or I don’t hear a response back, at least I tried, but if I don’t try, I will definitely regret it later on.”

The 22 year old student who grew up in Glasgow before moving to Edinburgh got into the sewing hobby as a teenager and the Great British Sewing Bee was formative.

Serena on Blackford Hill in Edinburgh
Serena on Blackford Hill in Edinburgh

“I started sewing when I was 15. I had different hobbies but none that I was really passionate about. I knew that, so I wanted to try different things. Luckily, my mum had an old sewing machine that I was able to use and one day I just ordered some fabric online and found a YouTube video telling you how to make a dress. I tried it and I knew instantly that, yes, this is what I want to do.

 

Technical sewing

Bridesmaids dresses handmade by Serena for a family wedding
Bridesmaids outfits handmade by Serena for a family wedding

“When I started becoming more interested in it, my mum also picked it back up. She hadn’t done any sewing for years, so we did it together.

"We would go fabric shopping, buy patterns and do projects together. Back in the day, they did a lot more technical sewing in school so she could then teach me the things that she knew as well.

“I’ve always loved watching the Sewing Bee. I was watching It when I was fairly new to sewing and it was quite inspiring because there was a young person on it which was nice to see while I was just learning [Jade Earley, 18, was a series four runner-up in 2016].

“Sewing as a hobby is not that common. Apart from my mum, I didn’t really know anyone else that did it so it was nice to see it on TV. I would always sit at home when they introduced the challenges and think ‘what would I do?’ or ‘oh, I could do that!’.

She certainly could. In April 2020, just after the UK first entered lockdown, Serena applied to appear on the show. The unusual circumstances meant there were months of telephone calls and Zoom auditions but Serena sees the positives: “It meant I had all these little things to keep working towards, which was really nice in lockdown.

"Obviously, lockdown was tough for a lot of people, not really having a purpose as such, but having these little auditions to look forward to and work towards – and also be terrified for – kept me going!”

Emotionally intense

Once on the show, Serena received positive feedback from the judges from the outset but settled into the Sewing Bee as it progressed and peaked at just the right time. She won her first Best Garment accolade with a Christian Dior inspired made-to-measure tailored two piece in the semi-final before claiming victory in the finale.

“Week one was horrible. I was overthinking everything and it was just really nerve-wracking. Usually, for one of the auditions, you go and do some sewing in the studio but when we filmed the first episode that was the first time we had actually been in the studio so it was even more overwhelming.

“You get a bit more used to the filming the weeks go on but, in terms of the challenges, the pressure increases. In talking to the cameras, expressing myself better and talking to Joe [host Joe Lycett] and the judges, I got a lot more confident but I felt more anxious about the actual challenges and getting through to the next week.

"I’d say I stayed at the same level of anxiety and nerves the whole time but for different reasons. It was a very emotionally intense time but there was a lot of happiness and fun since we had all been stuck in lockdown for such a long time and were finally able to do something exciting!”

Serena at work on the show.
Serena at work on the show

Serena watched her final with family and friends in Scotland: “It was honestly such a relief because I didn’t have to keep it a secret anymore. Winning was just amazing because everyone was supportive. All my friends and extended family who didn’t know that I had won were excited and loads of people on social media were sending me nice messages.

"It made me really happy to finally share it because it’s obviously something I’m extremely proud of and I was finally able to talk to people about it.”

 

Sustainable fashion

One of Serena's refashioning projects.
One of Serena's refashioning projects.

One of Serena’s biggest inspirations is sustainability. She once challenged herself to go a whole year without buying any clothes and still prefers making her own clothes, or modifying second-hand fashions, to best suit her personal style.

“Sustainable fashion is very important to me and goes hand-in-hand with my sewing,” she explains. “It’s something I am very passionate about.

“Trying to be a bit more sustainable helps me slow down and sew more interesting things, and sewing helps me be a bit more sustainable because I can make things and even if I buy things second hand I will often alter or upcycle them or refashion them.

“I like to make old things into something that looks new, to show people that second hand clothes and sustainable fashion can still be fashionable. A lot of the time when people think of sustainable fashion they don’t think of stylish and fashionable things so I try and make things that look like they could be bought but are still my style and something that I am excited to wear.”

 

Community

Serena with members of the University's Craft and Sew society
With the Craft and Sew society

At University, Serena found like-minded friends through the Craft and Sew society and worked on its committee during her third year.

She also uses Instagram to tap into a supportive sewing community and share her latest projects. She chronicled her Great British Sewing Bee journey through her @SerenaSews_ account.

“Being on Instagram is really important to me because I don’t know many people that sew and it’s nice to have that community online to have the conversation with about my passion.

"It’s one of the only places I can talk to people about sewing, find patterns to use, see what other people are making and get inspiration from other people.

“It was nice to share pictures of all my Sewing Bee makes and explain my inspiration a bit more. A lot of the time in my captions, I put down what I am thinking so it’s nice to sort of look back on a bit of a mini journal of my Sewing Bee time and share that with other people as well.

 

Focus

“The Sewing Bee has been such a big thing in my life for over a year,” Serena reflects. “It was a dream of mine for a long time and I got to do that, and it makes me so happy to look back on. We will see what the next dream will be and what my next goal is when it comes up.”

For now, Serena’s focus is on finishing the last two years of her degree. A medical career is calling but sewing will always be a part of that life.

“Medicine comes first. Sewing is an escape from the stress of medicine for me. When I sew, I just switch off and I focus on that. I put on a bit of music or a podcast or Netflix and I just don’t think about anything else. Hours can go by just doing that.

“The first few years of a medical career are very intense – or the whole career, depending which route you go down! I want to make sure anything I do with sewing fits alongside medicine.

"Medicine is the stable thing – it’s what I am going to do, it’s going to be my career but I want to always do sewing alongside it because that is my passion. It’s the act of sewing that I like so as long as I am still doing that, I will be happy.”

Serena Baker, Great British Sewing Bee winner 2021.
Serena Baker, Great British Sewing Bee winner 2021

Photography: Courtesy of Love Productions and Serena Baker.