The WI love it, they think it’s hilarious

Jenny Rayment at her machine in Emsworth

Jenny Rayment at her machine in Emsworth

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Sewing is enjoying a boom - and stitching celebrity Jennie Rayment is leading the way. RACHEL JONES met her.

Needlework expert Jennie Rayment stands demurely in a long sensible dress demonstrating the skills of her craft to ladies of a certain age.

She has included the odd funny story in her presentation of stitches and sewing styles, but nothing could have prepared them for what happens next.

Jennie whips off her dowdy frock strip-tease style to reveal a home-made bustier and skirt, fishnets and thigh boots, before explaining how she has made her racy garments.

To say Jennie livens up the world of needlecraft is an understatement. The 59-year-old’s humorous strip shows have become legendary at quilting festivals in the UK and US, and she has even had her act banned from one event.

I like to shake things up a bit and make people laugh,’ says the chatty redhead, who clearly likes to talk as much as she enjoys breaking the mould.

‘And it works. The WI love it, they think it’s hilarious. It’s all very decent, you can’t see anything and I talk about the outfit – you know, I’ll say ‘this has such and such a structure, and no I can’t twirl the tassles.’

Jennie is dressed rather more soberly in jumper and ankle-length skirt as she tells her lively tales at her Emsworth home and fishes her bustier, complete with appliqué flowers and said tassles, from a case.

She decided to spice up her demonstrations after noting that the needlecraft world had quite a staid image.

‘If you can make people laugh and be entertaining, they remember you and learn far more,’ she says.

But two ladies at a Birmingham show didn’t see the funny side and Jennie was asked to stop her performances.

‘I was mortified,’ she says, laughing nevertheless.

‘I thought it was a health and safety issue because I was on the table. But no, two women had complained.’

Most people, however, love this celebrity of the stitching world, who is known as the Queen of Calico in the UK and, rather aptly, the Muslin Mistress in the US. And Jennie is pleased to note that the appeal of needlecraft is becoming more universal.

‘I would says the audiences are mostly middle-aged to elderly, but there are more young people turning up to lectures and workshops. They tend to be into the green angle – recycling and upcycling.

‘It’s a hobby, you can go into a charity shop, buy a pairs of jeans and turn them into a cushion or a bag or something.’

Upcycling is the trendy relation of recycling and has been seen on catwalks all over the world. It is all about turning something used into a new and better garment or accessory.

A new TV website devoted to the sewing crafts has attracted more than 10,000 members and Valerie Nesbitt, the founder of justhands-on.tv, has reported a wider range of ages attending workshops and classes.

And regular TV has responded to this new creative climate with shows like Kirstie’s Handmade Britain. The Channel 4 show has presenter Kirstie Allsopp travelling the UK and submitting entries to the country’s toughest craft shows.

Jennie is a presenter on justhands-on.tv, craft shopping show Create and Craft and has appeared on some of the top programmes in the US.

As a an author of seven books, she is delighted by the growing interest.

‘It will help me sell more copies,’ she laughs.

‘But actually I think it’s wonderful. Since the recession people have been doing more things like this. There’s a great sense of we’re in this together and we have more people coming to workshops, taking time out to enjoy each other’s company and making something nice or useful.’

But she adds: ‘I think the programmes on mainstream telly are all very well, but they don’t actually teach you how to do things – step by step. We need something like that.’

Jennie runs sewing sessions in her spacious but jam-packed workshops at her home, and reassures people that she keeps her outerwear on for those occasions.

As she sits among boxes of material and tape measures, she points to some beautiful wall-hangings she has created and explains how she has become an international name in her craft.

‘Nobody else really uses the techniques that I use, not in quite the same way,’ Jennie says.

‘I’m on the fringes of the patchwork world but you could say I’m a textile engineer. I specialise in material manipulation which is all about folding, rolling and tucking. I like to tell people that I’m a twiddler, fiddler, nipper, tucker, manipulator and manoeuvrer of material.’

In other words, this cosmetic surgeon of the material world creates a textured 3D effect by folding a piece here, tucking a piece under there and scrunching material together. Some of the techniques have been around since Victorian times but Jennie, who also teaches all kinds of needlecraft, explains that she likes to push boundaries and take the processes further.

‘It’s quite technical, a case of if you fold in a certain way that will happen because of the way the fabric is woven and the angle of the fold.’

Her techniques and attention-grabbing style have won her a jet-set lifestyle. She has travelled to festivals and visited guilds all over the world including Canada, South Africa, Dubai, Oman, New Zealand and Australia.

This week she returned from teaching a guild in North Carolina and teaching and demonstrating at the Pacific International Quilting Festival in California.

It’s not bad for someone who took up sewing in adulthood because she needed work. Jennie took a job serving tea and clearing up at patchwork workshops. After watching what they were doing she decided the craft was for her and talked her way into an adult education teaching position.

‘I think I said I had lots of experience, which was actually about four weeks,’ she laughs.

‘But I did go on and get teaching and needlecraft qualifications.’

Of course she never dreamed how far her new-found career would take her. People all over the world love her for her offbeat style and stories. She enjoys telling people about her several marriages (Jennie’s now with her fourth husband) and is full of witty remarks and, she admits, sometimes tall tales. It’s no wonder she finds herself being recognised at airports.

‘Learning new things should be enjoyable and I think you get further if you can make people relax and laugh,’ she says.

‘The trouble is I’m never sure if they remember me for that or my work.’

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