A Dressmaker with the X Factor!

Cherilyn LeesonThis is the first in a series of unique interviews with a select few super skilled sewists who also happen to be Sew Essential customers. These super sewers have turned their favourite pastime into a successful career and we’re sure you’ll enjoy having a peek into their world, hearing their stories and seeing their makes as much as we did!

First up an incredible young lady called Cherilyn Leeson. Full of energy and an insatiable passion for sewing and dressmaking she is currently building and growing her bespoke dressmaking business ‘English Country Vintage’ using her experience and skills gained from a glittering career in the world of costume making.

You’ve had an amazing career Cherilyn, how did it start?

One of the first things I can remember making me want to sew was a blue Princess party dress my Mum made for me when I was a little girl and by the age of nine I was sewing myself. The first thing I made was a dress out of my Grandma’s kitchen curtains! By 14 I really had the bug and started to take after school sewing lessons by which point I knew I was born to sew! I was obsessed with the Lord of the Rings trilogy and fascinated by the costumes designer Nyla Dixon created for the films and was always doodling designs of my own. I thought I would like to become a fashion designer, but when all of my sketches were medieval themed I realised this wasn’t the career for me! One of my Teachers suggested costume design and I thought ‘I don’t want to do fancy dress!’ but I soon discovered it was so much more than this!

Once you decided on costume design what happened next?

After reading the Bournemouth University prospectus on their costume design course I knew I’d found my calling. I had to complete an Art Foundation course, knuckle down and work incredibly hard on my portfolio to stand a chance of being accepted onto arguably the most prestigious costume design course in the country. At one point my Art Foundation Lecturer looked at my work and suggested I applied for some less competitive Universities! Luckily she was basing this on my art work, which isn’t my strong point, and hadn’t seen my making work! I made a medieval outfit complete with sleeves, underskirts and corsetry for my AS level and was accepted onto the course.

And what happened after Uni?

My University arranged work experience for me on the West End theatre production ‘Wicked’ and also put me forward for my first couple of jobs after graduating. I worked in a series of roles in theatre and TV production and was either asked back by previous employers or recommended by friends.

We love the West End theatre production ‘Wicked’! Tell us about your work there!

I worked for five months as the assistant to the supervisor in the costume office in Stratford Upon Avon sourcing fabrics, organising fittings, running fittings and making sure the makers had what they needed. I also had to create a hat bible! The show had been running for several years and gradually the hats had deviated from the original designs. My job was to create a step by step guide to create identical hats to the originals including every last detail so a complete novice could pick it up and recreate the hats.

The other job we can’t wait to hear about - the X Factor! Tell us everything!

It was the most amazing and the most stressful role I’ve ever done. I was one of three seamstresses employed on the show and it was the year when Rylan Clark, James Arthur and Jermaine took part. On a Friday morning we would be given the brief and asked to create costumes for 12 dancers for each of the performances plus make alterations on three or four costumes for each contestant. On Saturday afternoons the dress rehearsal would run and if the stylists decided it wasn’t working we had to sew 12 completely new costumes ready for the show that evening! We would literally be sewing them into their outfits and running the costumes off the machine and onto the stage!

X-Factor

What was the most challenging moment?

We had to make panda heads for a Rylan Clark Madonna performance and it was the only sewing task that has ever made me lose my temper! Panda ears were sewn onto wigs for this costume, but it wasn’t until the dress rehearsal that we realised the ears were too big and heavy. The dancers started swirling their heads around and the panda ears went flying! Needless to say it threw everybody into panic. Everyone had a suggestion to make and it was a case of too many cooks spoil the broth! The Head of Hair and Makeup suggested cutting the top off the ears and sewing them back on, which worked, but the frenzied teams around us hadn’t caught up with this idea yet. People were starting to unpick ears and making suggestions until I finally lost it and shouted out the solution, which cleared the stage!

Who’d ever have thought panda ears could cause so much trouble?!

What did you do when you weren’t at the X Factor studios?

In the week I worked at a British made tweed company called Maude and Fox as the Production Manager, Head Maker and Designer. I worked promoting the company and selling at shows and also in the administration and customer service side of the business. I love the ethos of this company - British made using British tweed and fabric wherever possible. I would design and cut out the garments and send them to women who worked making the garments from home.

We’re guessing these tailor made British made garments are quite pricey?

You would pay £189 for a tweed hoody and up to £750 for other items.

What is your favourite make at Maude and Fox?

I made some Union Jack plus fours for a Lord, which were pretty cool!

What about your role on Seven Brides for Seven Brothers?

I was the UK tour wardrobe mistress and worked on over 250 shows standing side stage, dressing the lead actress Helena and keeping my kit belt at the ready for any repairs. It was hard work, but a lot of fun and I never got to see the show properly!

Custom Dress

And your job on the cruise ship?

I was wardrobe supervisor for the shows on the Norwegian cruise line. They flew me to their head office in Tampa Florida for seven weeks and then off onto the ship. I did everything from washing and repairs to dressing the performers side stage. Anything and everything to do with the costumes was my job and it was a rare job with only a handful of cruise lines worldwide employing an on board wardrobe supervisor.

(Disney do it too if anyone fancies it?!)

Is there anyone famous who has been particularly fun to work with?

I recently worked on the Tommy Rock Opera in Blackpool featuring Joe McElderry and Anthony Costa from boy band Blue - they were the nicest people and, my God can they sing! Joe McElderry is something else and I never thought I would say that!

What is your most challenging make?

Making a Margaret Thatcher female suit for a male actor for a production at Finsbury Park Theatre in London. Sewing and fitting a woman’s suit onto a man’s body and making it look convincing is tough, even with lots of padding!

Any top tips for budding dressmakers out there?

It is a cliché but practice makes perfect! Also never be afraid to have a go - you don’t know unless you try and ask for help if you need it. I don’t think I’ve ever turned a project down, even if I don’t know how to do it I can learn! The first time you try it might be awful but you could become the world expert!

Items in your sewing kit you couldn’t live without?

A sharp pair of snips, a thimble and pins.

Wedding Dress

Your proudest sewing achievement?

My interpretation of Star wars' Padme Amidala's wedding dress. It took me two weeks to hand sew all of the lace! It started as toile, I cut and placed appliques on it and hand sewed all of the edging.

Why do you use Sew Essential? What do you like about us?

I needed a new machine and visited the showroom for a demo and bought my Janome coverstitch machine. Now I keep coming back - you’ve always got what I need in an emergency too!

Cherilyn’s business ‘English Country Vintage’ is a luxury vintage inspired clothing company. Cherilyn designs and makes her own ready to wear clothing with ranges in day wear, special occasion and evening wear including mother of the bride and groom. Bespoke outfits for any occasion, and customised versions of her own designs are also available. English Country Vintage is a growing business with lots of exciting plans for the next year! Visit English Country Vintage on Facebook for more information and to contact Cherilyn.

Cherilyn Leeson
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