In conversation with Man Yee Woo, The Great British Sewing Bee finalist
Exeposé speaks to The Great British Sewing Bee 2022 finalist, Man Yee Woo. Having graduated from the University of Exeter in 2017 with a degree in Mathematics, Man Yee discusses her time at university as well as her Sewing Bee experience.
Exeposé: To start us off, could you tell our readers when your sewing journey started?
Man Yee Woo: I must have been around 11 or 12 years old. The first thing I made was probably an alteration, like me hemming a pair of trousers. However, my first proper project was a cosplay set I wore for Comicon; my friends and I used to dress up as anime characters. I had a lot of help from my aunt, but it was still quite a challenge back then.
É: Did you find time to sew at university despite the workload?
MYW: In first year, I brought my sewing machine and a lot of my fabrics to uni with me. I barely used them because I wanted to get involved with everything, rather than sit in my room sewing… I did make a couple of projects for end-of-season balls or dinners, though, one of which was a deep V-neck dress. It was very daring and not something I would wear today.
It can be tricky to find the space to cut out your pattern pieces, then lay them out and sew things together. When you’re in a student flat, there’s no space!
É: Did you have a favourite place or thing to do while at Exeter?
MYW: I spent a lot of time in the Harrison building, so I have fond memories of many late evenings there.
I really miss going for a jog down by the river Exe. My flatmates and I would study in the day and then go on a run in the evening. Hearing the river and seeing the swans was great stress relief.
É: Speaking of things to do in Exeter, you mentioned Cheesy Tuesdays in the final (probably the only ever reference to it on national television!). Will we be seeing you on the dance floor in your blue metallic top anytime soon?
MYW: [Laughs] A few people did notice it on social media. I think all my friends have now left Exeter, but we are hoping to take a trip down memory lane soon. Who knows, I might specifically come back on a Tuesday just to go to Cheesies!
É: Have certain elements of your degree influenced how you sew? Mathematics demands a lot of precision, rigorous calculation and attention to detail, which might come in handy when sewing…
MYW: I suppose that the accuracies of mathematical calculations are instilled in me when I cut out patterns and measure models. There are a lot of numbers involved in sewing, and having a background in Mathematics means that I can be confident that my calculations are correct. It also helps with self-drafting, which is when you don’t have any instructions and need to do things from scratch.
I brought my scientific calculator on the show with me and remember having it out on my desk. Patrick (one of the judges) came over saying “I haven’t seen one of those in a while”. Turns out he used to do engineering, which I had no idea about!
É: Interestingly, you won several transformation challenges, which are all about being spontaneous and going with the flow.
MYW: I really enjoyed the creativity of that challenge, and I usually tried to plan things out in the first ten minutes or so. I always felt like I was behind because I would just sit there, thinking. I wanted to have some idea in my mind before I started sewing.
É: Were you involved in any societies during your time at Exeter?
MYW: I wanted to do something out of my comfort zone during my final year of uni, so I took on the role of President of the Fashion Society. We put on a charity fashion show in the Great Hall, which was a lot of organisational work. I remember going to Sancho’s on Fore Street and they provided some of the clothes for the show. We also hosted a second-hand clothes sale in front of the Ram, as I think that sustainability is something we should focus on.
Imposter syndrome definitely kicked in. I wondered: “Why am I the President? Surely there are so many people out there who know more about fashion than me”. Thankfully, I had a group of really supportive friends at uni – I remember coming home after a really long day of rehearsals to them having made me a nice meal.
É: Speaking of fashion, is there anybody you look to for inspiration?
MYW: I use Pinterest a lot, but I’m very open-minded, so no-one in particular. When I’m on the street, I look at what other people are wearing as well. I might think: “This part of their outfit looks really cool, maybe I could pair it with a part of this other person’s garment”.
I also take a lot of sewing inspiration from Japanese culture. I’m from Hong Kong, but growing up I watched a lot of anime, and I listen to a lot of Japanese and Korean music.
É: So how would you describe your sewing style?
MYW: My sewing style is very varied, and I don’t think it fits into any sort of category. I would describe myself as a chameleon. It will also depend on the mood I’m in. When I want to feel relaxed I’ll make a really simple top. If it’s a special occasion, though, I will go all out, like the deep V-neck dress I mentioned earlier.
I wouldn’t say that I have a particular style. I like trying different things. And besides, if you don’t try different things how do you know which one suits you best?
É: What exactly inspired you to apply for the Sewing Bee?
MYW: I remember watching the Sewing Bee when it first came out. I’d never really thought about applying because a) I didn’t think that I was good enough to go on it and b) I always had a lot of different commitments. The whole show takes a few months to prepare for and film: it’s a long process. I’d already been thinking about it for a while when one of my work friends told me to just go for it.
It was an accumulation of different things that made me want to go on the show. My dad passed away a few years ago, and he was always the biggest supporter of my hobbies. I wanted to do something a bit different that he would be proud of.
É: Could you give us a brief overview of the whole process?
MYW: The Sewing Bee‘s application deadline was at the end of May 2021. Clicking ‘submit’ was very daunting: I sent my application only an hour before the deadline because I still wasn’t too sure.
I was told that I got through around the middle of July. Soon after that, they sent us the made-to-measure briefs and we had to return them within quite a short deadline. I spent all my free time from the middle of July until the beginning of September doing fabric research and searching for fashion inspiration.
In early September, we went up to Leeds to start the filming, and we got driven to the studios every day of filming. Each episode takes approximately two days to film, each about 12 to 14 hours long. It was a very exhausting but also fulfilling process.
É: Preparing the made-to-measure briefs must have been hard, particularly as you don’t know how far in the competition you’re going to get.
MYW: I spent a lot of time on the first one because I thought that no matter what happens, I was going to make my made-to-measure for the first week. But yes, putting an equal amount of effort into all of them was difficult because you don’t believe you’ll make it to, say, week eight.
É: What did it feel like to step out onto the set for the first time?
MYW: Walking in was scary, surreal and definitely overwhelming. It was truly a pinch-me moment, as a lot of things seemed really familiar. The haberdashery, for example, hasn’t changed much over the years. When I saw it in person, I thought “Oh my god, this is actually happening!”
É: How did you manage to concentrate on your own projects and not get distracted by the hustle and bustle of the studio?
MYW: It is tough, but you can’t focus too much on cameras being in the way, otherwise you’re not going to get anything done! Each contestant had a story producer, so it just feels like we’re talking to a friend and there just happened to be a camera filming us. It was a nice environment to be in.
É: Was it difficult to see other contestants being eliminated, particularly if you got on well with them?
MYW: Yes, definitely. When I used to watch The Great British Bake Off and previous Sewing Bee series, I would think “Why are they crying already? They only just met each other!” It turns out that going through the filming process and spending 14 hours a day with each other bonds you really, really quickly.
At the beginning, I remember seeing the Sewing Bee as a competition and the other contestants as my competitors. But after the first challenge, I thought: “I’m just here to have fun now”. There was no competitive side in me against the other sewers: it’s more of a competition against yourself. You want to push yourself to do well and step out of your comfort zone.
The Sewing Bee is known for being a wholesome show, and yet it made people cry twice during this series. When Gill left in week seven, there wasn’t a dry eye in the studio. I think I probably cried nearly every single time someone got eliminated. It does feel like a piece is missing every time someone goes.
É: Talk us through when filming wrapped and you were saying goodbye to your fellow Bees. How did you find going back to your normal life, having to pretend as if nothing had happened?
MYW: What I’m feeling now is similar to how I felt when filming was over. Now that the show has finished airing, the excitement is over, and my memories of the show belong to a more distant past.
It was very strange. I had to take a couple of days off work after finishing the Sewing Bee because I couldn’t bring myself to go straight back into my normal day job. I remember feeling really lost and fragile, because I thought: “What am I going to do with myself now? I’ve just had the best ten weeks of my life, doing the thing that I love the most with a bunch of people who also love this hobby as much as I do”. It was a shame that it all had to come to an end.
É: Is there a particular garment you are most proud of?
MYW: It’s quite hard to choose, because we made 30 different garments for the show. I was delighted with my trainers, because those were a complete curveball. It was also the first challenge I won!
Overall, I was most proud of my jumpsuit. It was my final garment, so I have many happy memories of making it, even though I was stressed half of the time. My oldest friend, Beth, modelled it: I’ve been friends with her since we were nine years old, but I had never actually made anything for her! I loved being able to create something bespoke for her.
É: A lot of viewers liked your 1930s blouse…
MYW: I was actually really worried that the judges were going to find it too plain, because everybody else was doing something more complex. I remember Esme advising us to keep it simple in one of the previous challenges, so I had kept that in my mind.
É: How did you manage to keep the whole thing a secret?
MYW: We had to keep everything under wraps from May 2021 until mid-April of this year, even during the application process. We were allowed to tell our close family and friends, though.
É: Are you still in contact with your fellow contestants?
MYW: We still talk to each other in our WhatsApp group chat and have met up a few times already. We saw each other for a Christmas dinner, and sometimes a couple of us meet up in London as well. The last time we all saw each other was a month ago in North Wales, when Debra hosted us. We’ll probably have annual reunions here and there.
É: Have you met any of the Bees from previous series?
MYW: Not yet, but hopefully I’ll get the opportunity to at some point in the future. Some of them have sent me encouraging messages, as they’ve also been through the entire process. They’ve also said that they’re here for us to speak to in case the whole thing gets overwhelming.
É: What was seeing yourself on television like?
MYW: Very weird! The scary side comes from not knowing how they’re going to portray us, and what will be shown on TV. We filmed for so many hours per day and they somehow had to squeeze everything into one-hour episodes. But they really did portray everyone in the best of lights.
É: What has the response on social media been like?
MYW: The production company specifically told us to stay away from Twitter and Facebook, particularly pages devoted to the Sewing Bee. There were definitely compliments online, but sometimes people would voice accusations which can be nasty.
During Music Week, I accidentally sabotaged people by telling them how to do a zip and I was cringing so much. My boyfriend showed me a funny tweet that said: “This is where Man Yee’s villain origin story begins”. [Laughs]
É: Have you been recognised on the street or had any memorable interactions since the show started airing?
MYW: I feel like my appearance in the show versus my day-to-day appearance is quite different. I tend to wear glasses a lot more and my hair has slightly grown out.
I was recognised in a group not long ago when all 12 of us contestants went to North Wales to visit Debra. Someone came up to us and asked if we were from the Sewing Bee. They seemed really happy to meet us and have a chat.
É: If you could say something to your pre-Sewing Bee self, what would it be?
MYW: Go for it! Even if you have an hour left before the deadline, just click that submit button. You never know what’s going to happen. I know it’s easier said than done, but if you don’t step out of your comfort zone, you might regret it.
É: Has the show changed the way you look at sewing?
MYW: It took me a while to get back into the swing of things. When I came back from filming, I didn’t touch my sewing machine for a good few months. I ended up picking up knitting instead.
For a while, I felt that my sewing had to be perfect or else the judges might comment on it. However, the reality is that no one is going to look at my projects or care about them anymore, so it doesn’t matter if I make mistakes.
É: By the way, do you have any tips for amateur sewers?
MYW: Always mark your notches and check that all your pattern pieces are cut out correctly. Also, take your time. Sewing should be a relaxing process, and it’s meant to be a hobby as well. You don’t have to be good at your hobby, either; it should just be something you enjoy.
É: What will you take away from your experience on the show?
MYW: I will never forget the amazing memories I made with everyone. Not only with my fellow Bees, but also the production company staff, the judges and Sara (the presenter). We had a lot of fun and, honestly, it was just the best time of my life. I don’t know what could top it! Moral of the story: say yes to everything, and keep looking for new opportunities!
É: Anything you would like to add?
MYW: Congratulation to this series’ winner, Annie. She was absolutely amazing, and improved so much throughout the ten weeks. I admire her a lot, and all three of us other finalists strongly believe that she is the rightful winner.
All episodes of The Great British Sewing Bee Series Eight are available to watch on BBC iPlayer.