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Editorial blog

Blue Peter’s Janet Ellis talks children’s TV and the Button challenge

21 Mar 2018

As shocking statistics show that one in five of us is unable to sew on a button, former Blue Peter presenter, Janet Ellis MBE, talks to Angela Sara West about her love for crafting, her Blue Peter days and her collaboration with Hobbycraft to offer free buttons to schools to help skill up the next generation

When she’s not busy crafting, Janet Ellis is busy writing books, having her say as a panellist on Channel 5’s The Wright Stuff, undertaking culinary challenges on shows such as Channel 4’s Come Dine With Me or popping up on the BBC’s Cash in the Attic, Bargain Hunt or Antiques Road Trip, which took her on tour with her pop star daughter, Sophie Ellis-Bextor.

Recalling countless cherished childhood crafting memories, the former Blue Peter host tells me craft has always been a big part of her life. “My sister and I were always sewing wardrobes for our dolls and making furniture for doll’s houses. Our dad was a keen model maker. He was in the army until I was in my teens and then worked for the BBC in Visual Effects. So, he turned his hobby into a career.”

And Janet followed in his footsteps… although she actually trained as an actress, appearing in shows such as The Sweeney and Dr Who, before turning her talents to presenting. Her impressive acting and presenting skills on the children’s puzzle series, Jigsaw, caught the eye of the Blue Peter production team and she joined the much-loved show’s line-up in the early 80s.

Affectionately-known as a “national institution” and significant part of British culture, the longest-running children’s TV show in the world first aired in 1958. Janet’s fellow presenters included Peter Duncan, Simon Groom and Mark Curry, and, as the BBC’s flagship children’s show, Blue Peter has served as a launchpad for numerous other TV presenters, including John Noakes, Anthea Turner, Matt Baker and Helen Skelton.

The award-winning series has been a cornerstone of children’s lives for generations, becoming best known for its arts and crafts “makes”, with kids keeping a ready supply of toilet roll tubes and sticky-back plastic to hand while watching. Showing viewers how to make things using supplies found at home, the popular phrase, “Here’s one I made earlier”, was coined early on, as presenters produced perfect and completed versions of the object being made.

Blue Peter highlights

How does she feel about having played such a huge part in inspiring children with such innovative and imaginative craft ideas? “Lucky!,” says Janet. “Blue Peter set out to inspire by stealth; you didn’t have to follow the programme slavishly or be interested in every item, but the ‘makes’ were universally loved. All hail Margaret Parnell, who developed them. We used to stress that your version of the ‘make’ didn’t have to be perfect, but having a go would be fun. And when people remember them fondly with me, it’s a lovely moment to share.”

Her favourite memories from her Blue Peter days? “Exploring the British Isles, and meeting a succession of people who were really enthusiastic about what they were doing and excited about sharing that enthusiasm. I also became really good friends with my fellow presenters.”

There are many memorable craft projects. “I once made a tool kit from an empty bleach bottle - probably hard to find an empty one lying around! And I loved making Christmas decorations. It’s my favourite time of year.”

Along with demonstrating crafts, Janet’s Blue Peter role entailed all sorts of adrenaline pumping activities, including throwing herself out of aeroplanes. She also embraces her adventurous side when experimenting with crafts. “I’ve tried lots! From mosaics to tapestry… I love collage (I make assemblies of photos and cards) and rescuing and decorating cast-off bits of furniture. Sewing is still a favourite pastime, too.”

Button up for the Great British Button Challenge!

Janet’s currently championing The Great British Button Challenge, having teamed up with Hobbycraft for their ‘Free buttons for schools’ project to teach the next generation of crafters how to sew.

Following the findings of Hobbycraft’s first ever Craft Report last month, it’s clear our children need help with their sewing skills… Sew much sew, Janet hopped straight on board to help encourage kids to skill up.

Shockingly, the Report reveals that one in five people in the UK are unable to sew on a button and how there is a ‘missing generation’ who were never taught to sew. The study polled over 10,000 UK adults and details the state of the craft industry, exploring how crafting impacts and enriches lives and outlining the crafts on the up and those which are, sadly, dying out.

  • The key findings on sewing show:
  • 52 per cent of us were never taught to sew at school
  • Nearly half of those aged 44-54 were taught to sew on a button at school, compared to just a third of those aged 25-34
  • 31 per cent of adults aged between 18-24 cannot sew on a button, compared to just five per cent of over-55s

But it’s not all doom-and-gloom for the humble needle and thread… Hobbycraft’s findings show sewing still appears in the top five most popular crafts, showing many traditional crafts prove to be as prevalent as ever:

1. Drawing
2. Painting
3. Cake decorating
4. Knitting
5. Sewing

Hobbycraft’s also seen exponential growth in searches for ‘how to’ projects and stepby- step guides, with their top online blog searches featuring slime making, seasonal makes and sewing. With the popularity of personalisation continuing to rise, they’ve also seen a new influx of younger customers stock up on fashion accessories to create unique clothing designs that no retailer can emulate, as well as a huge rise in customer participation in store workshops and demo events. Aimed at giving children the opportunity to make for free throughout the summer holidays, their Kids Craft Club saw unprecedented participation last year, with over 20,000 kids crafting in stores over the six-week hols.

A crafty curriculum

Nevertheless, passing on craft skills to the next generation has clearly never been so important… and teachers agree. Polling over 2,000 teachers to review the state of crafts on the curriculum, the study found that teachers overwhelmingly believe that crafting should feature more on the school curriculum; with 66 per cent believing craft subjects should be recognised as much as music and sport.

The creative world of arts and craft can give children the chance to express themselves and enjoy a carefree time of imagination. Letting little ones create a crafty little world of their own will not only boost their self-esteem, but will also allow for creative expression and help them to relay feelings. With the added bonus of their creations becoming treasured keepsakes, it’s time to teach arts and crafts again!

Sew far, sew good!

As a result of their Report’s findings, Hobbycraft is donating free buttons to primary schools across the UK to get kids sewing and Janet’s new craft mission is to inspire the nation’s children with their “Free buttons for schools” campaign.

“Hobbycraft’s Craft Report makes for an interesting read and I’m thrilled to have been involved in the launch of such an insightful piece of work,” she says. “My Blue Peter days showed me how important ‘making’ is for children; using your hands to create all sorts of things to encourage kids to be creative and make a mess!”

The UK’s largest craft retailer will use this new annual research to help shape their business internally and decide on future campaigns, kicking off with the Great British Button Challenge, giving free buttons to participating primary schools to get kids sewing. “It’s exciting to see Hobbycraft launch its Great British Button Challenge, showing kids the joy of sewing,” Janet continues. “Basic skills, such as knowing how to sew on a button, are the foundation to a child’s education and we mustn’t lose these traditional abilities in favour of more technology based skills. There must be a balance of ensuring that the old skills aren’t forgotten in replacement of newer skills.”

Oh sew good at crafting

From parents making with their children through to vibrant crafting communities, Britain has a proud history of design and manufacturing. Passionate about home-grown producers, designers and makers, Hobbycraft helps to celebrate and encourage this through everyday making, as part of their “craft movement” to encourage creativity and get people making.

Last year, Hobbycraft’s sewing ambassador, Miss Libby Rose, taught over 400 people to sew as she travelled to over 30 Hobbycraft stores across the country in her pink bus. Supplemented by the free Sew Simple workshops, offering sewing machine lessons at all stores, The Great British Button Challenge builds on these initiatives as part of Hobbycraft’s mission to empower the nation with essential sewing skills and looks set to successfully engage youngsters and inspire them to get them busy with a needle and thread.

“Hobbycraft is synonymous with enabling experienced and would-be crafters to find exactly what they need, and for inspiring and enhancing what they’re making,” says Janet. “Their vital research shows how important new skills are and equally how much we need to preserve old methods. Sewing on a button should be second nature to everyone, and I’m very surprised that it’s not…”

‘Sew’ it ‘seams’ there’ll be no excuse now not to pick up that needle and thread. “By the time we’ve finished, there shouldn’t be a missing button in the land!”

Hobbycraft craft report

2018 will see the rise of new more specialist crafts becoming main stream as the nation gets more adventurous. Predictions for the tops crafts for 2018 include:
1. Lino printing
2. Candle making
3. Weaving
4. Jungle prints
5. Macramé

The popularity of new crafts automatically results in the demise of other crafts and Hobbycraft reveals the following crafts that are falling out of favour:
1. Mosaics -36.1%
2. Candy Making -19%,
3. Jewellery making-37%
4. Maché crafts -13.2%
5. Adult colouring in -13%.

Crafty hobbies are transforming into jobs as crafters turn their talents into kitchen-table businesses. Report findings reveal that nearly half (44%) of the nation think that if nobody crafted in the UK, it would have a negative impact on the economy, revealing the importance of small craft businesses.

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