When we last saw Clare Bradley, she was ironing immaculate pleats into a child’s kilt. While her fellow Great British Sewing Bee finalists fretted about complicated tartan patterns and leather straps, Bradley calmly completed the task as if she was in her own living room, not under the lights in a television studio. “I quite like the idea of the systematic pleating and the tidiness,” she trilled, barely seeming to break a sweat as she methodically stitched and folded, chatting away. “In my flat, all the books are arranged by genre and alphabetical order.”
She would go on to create a glorious carnival outfit, and a cherry red satin evening gown that wouldn’t have looked out of place on Keira Knightley in a period drama. She won, of course, much to the delight of the legion of fans watching the final last week who had fallen in love with her jolly demeanour, eclectic style (she is most comfortable in 1940s tweeds and dresses), and her wonderfully supportive mum, Jane.
If you’ve never tuned in, Sewing Bee is Bake Off’s rather more sedate cousin. Presented by comedian Joe Lycett and still firmly on the BBC, you’re more likely to find someone shedding a quiet tear over a broken needle than throwing a baked alaska in the bin.
Bradley, 37, was crowned champion at the end of filming in October and, until the series aired, that was the end of her television story. But eight months have passed and, it’s fair to say, an awful lot has happened. As a consultant lung specialist at Portsmouth Queen Alexandra Hospital, Bradley has been working on the frontline of the crisis, between Covid wards and the lung cancer clinic. She has been slightly embarrassed by the tidal wave of support and concern from fans all wanting to know if she is safe, insisting it has been a manageable if strange time.
“Lots of people have been sending me very lovely messages, saying ‘Oh, it must have been terrible, it must have been so hard’, and actually it hasn’t been that much different from normal for us,” she says, typically matter of fact. “We’ve been doing longer days, more on-calls. Because I work in respiratory medicine, we tend to have conversations about intensive care with our patients – we’ve just had more of them.”
When she isn’t on the wards, Bradley works in the lung cancer clinic, where she is often to be found asking patients about their latest knitting project. “I quite often have conversations with them if they’re knitting by the bedside. ‘Ooh, that’s nice, what are you making, what pattern are you using?’”
There has, she admits, been “a little bit of fangirling from a couple of my lady patients” since her TV appearance, and her colleagues (one of whom modelled for her in the final) were all thrilled when she won. “They knew how far I’d got because I’d obviously had to take days off work. But I managed to keep the outcome secret from them and they went bonkers. I came into work on Thursday and my desk was covered in glitter and Haribos.”
I imagine Bradley might seem a bit of a dark horse to her fellow doctors. The only sign when she is in scrubs of her sideline as a sewing pro is a hand-stitched headscarf that holds her victory rolls in place. It “goes quite well” with the masks they’ve been having to wear, she says, ever practical. Today, as we talk over Zoom, she is sporting the duck egg headscarf with little pin curls, and wearing a pair of 40s-style denim dungarees with a white shirt, both of which she made herself. Behind her is the immaculate bookshelf (complete with alphabetised Ordnance Survey maps – she is a keen hiker), while the walls are covered with wallpaper that looks as if it might have Spitfires on it. “No, it’s pre that,” she corrects me. “It’s a reprint of a 1930s design from a concept house called House for a Woman Aviator, which was never built but I really like the design and the little silver planes.” Of course it is.
Bradley has always been fascinated by history, but her passion has only begun to extend to her wardrobe more recently. “The biggest problem I’ve had as an adult is finding trousers that fit me, because I’ve got quite a big difference between waist and hips, and a lot of modern trousers if they fit on the hips they’re massively baggy in the waist, or you have to lie on the floor and get into them.
“When I discovered some nice patterns for wide-legged 1930s trousers, that started me off. [Then] you start to go into shops and touching the fabric and looking at the insides and going this is really badly finished. It puts you off buying high-street stuff.”
While the rest of us have been wearing yoga leggings and old T-shirts in lockdown, Bradley has settled for comfortable “cords and tweedy trousers” on a day off, which she tends to spend sewing, only dressing up properly if she goes out. “Usually, there’s a really nice market in town once a fortnight and I will quite often put a nice dress on, and maybe even a hat, to just go into town on a Sunday if it’s a nice day.”
She is refreshingly authentic and has loved getting messages from children who like dressing in period clothes as much as she does. “There was one little girl who said: ‘I really like history, and I had a 1936-themed birthday party last year!’
“I have tried to reply to children saying ‘Make things that challenge you, and wear things that make you happy’. It’s something I only came to in my 30s. In my 20s, I dressed really boringly. But then I stopped giving a damn what other people think, and I make and wear things that make me happy, and if other people like them, too, that’s lovely – and if they don’t, they can push off.”
It may have something to do with her down-to-earth mum, Jane, who it’s plain to see is her hero. In the final, Jane (herself a retired respiratory consultant) paid tribute to her only daughter’s “wonderfulnesses”. “Everything she does impresses me amazingly, and I think back and I think: ‘Well, yes, alright, I, too, was a doctor, but I didn’t do all these extra things.’ I remember the first time she beat me at Monopoly, and I realised that she was cleverer than me.”
Indeed, when she won, Jane had viewers in bits when she proclaimed: “I would love her just as much if she was completely useless.” (“Don’t get all mushy,” her daughter chastised.)
Bradley, who lives alone, has little interest in her success spiralling into a TV career. “A few people have said would I promote this charity or that magazine or whatever on social media,” she says. “But my Instagram [which, during the series, shot up from 250 followers to 14,000] is like my diary of stuff I make. I do it for me, and if people want to look at it, that’s grand, but if they don’t, then that’s also fine.”
I imagine producers might be knocking on her door whether she likes it or not, but for now Dr Bradley is content to keep her hobby just for herself. In fact, she says, she has to sign off as she is on a day off from Covid wards and the Victorian corset she is making for an 1890s-themed ball needs some attention.
The Great British Sewing Bee is available to watch on BBC iPlayer