“Sew Essential!” Those two words describe this young woman who calls herself a free hand cutter. Armed with her beautiful smile and her impressive sewing skills, Chinelo Bally has slowly stolen our hearts through her work She has had her face beamed across the UK, thanks to the Great British Sewing Bee and her immense talent. The beautiful 26 year old was one of the least experienced contestants on the show but she didn’t let that stop her. Week after week, she took big risks and worked her way into the finals. Last night, we rooted for Chinelo to snag the title. We empathized with her when she broke down in tears as the first task of creating a couture tie didn’t go her way. But Chinelo came back in the second challenge of making a dress for a child out of a wedding dress. And even though she didn’t win the competition, Chinelo is someone the world needs to watch out for.
Along with the time consuming task of sewing, Chinelo takes classes where she teaches the art of free hand cutting and sewing ( without the use of patterns). During her chat with BellaNaija, she talks about her background, her family, her inspiration and the challenges of being shot to the limelight thanks to the BBC TV show. We’re very glad to introduce you to this inspiring woman.
Tell us who Chinelo Bally is
I am a hard working, passionate woman who believes in dreaming big and making it happen. I am a faithful child of God; a loving and loved wife; and a sister to four siblings. My family is originally from the eastern part of Nigeria; my dad is from Otolo, Nnewi in Anambra state and my mum from Arondizuog (SP)Imo State. I was born in Motayo hospital Lagos and spent the first 8 years of my life in Lagos. I attended St Leo’s primary school Ikeja where I have not so fond memories of a certain Miss Alonge flogging the life out of all her students (I actually found a group for the school on Facebook and people still talk about her. She must have been a real terrorist). Anyway, we moved over to London as a family since 1995 and I have lived here ever since. I studied MCI (advertising, film studies and psychosocial studies) at the University of East London where I graduated in 2013.
What did you do before clothes making?
My parents have always instilled the notion of hard work in all of us; my dad’s focus was always education and my mum was always encouraging us to be business minded. I remember during school holidays my mum will get us jobs at her friend’s businesses so we were never idle. This is as early as when I was 13. She sent my little sister to her friend who was a lawyer and I went to work with a mortgage broker. My older brother was busy playing black sheep and our youngest was still too young. This became our routine every summer holiday, and even during school term my sister and I ran little businesses in our schools. I ran a hair and nail salon during lunch breaks and my sister sold unusual stationary she bought from the pound shop that her fellow students were to proud to enter. This wasn’t done as a necessity, but because the seeds of being business owners had been planted by our mum. I started college and decided to find a job myself, which I did. When I started university, I studied full time and worked full time as a health care assistant at the Newham Hospital A&E. It was also at that point that I made cakes for celebrations as a business. So since the age of 13 I have been busy working.
What inspired you to start making clothes?
I have always loved fashion and my parents always made us understand that appearance matters a lot. There is the saying that you only get one chance to make a first impression; like it or not the first judgement a stranger will make of you is based on your appearance. I have always taken pride in the way I dress, but for me something was always missing. I could never find tops in the shops that wowed me. I would look at clothes and think if only this was like that or if this had this here. Then I started making little adjustments myself. Sometimes I would take my sketches to a tailor and have them made. I did a portfolio full of sketches. There were designs that I wanted to produce and left it at that until a friend interested in studying fashion came across it and begged if she could use it as her portfolio to get into a fashion school in Ireland. I agreed and when she told me the reaction of the assessors it made me feel maybe I had something special to offer.
What was the first thing you did after you decided to go on this path?
I decided to buy a sewing machine. It was kind of on a whim though; I sat in the living room with my husband and his friend and mid conversation I blurted out “I want a sewing machine, I found a shop nearby and I think I can get a good deal there”. My husband’s friend just laughed at the randomness of my request. But my husband, knowing the woman he married, probably felt a new hobby coming on and decided the safest thing to do was to go with the flow. With the machine bought, my first attempt was making a top (how I imagined it would be done). I failed. Then, I decided to go to my aunty who is a tailor to learn her freehand approach to sewing. So I went to shadow her for 3 months and my love affair with dressmaking was firmly established.
What was the most most challenging part of trying to become a tailor (dress maker?) and how did you overcome?
My dream is actually to become an established fashion designer with outlets worldwide but I believe in crawling then walking then running and eventually flying. I chose to actively go into dressmaking because wanted to understand the actual construction of garments – how they work around the body and what actually works. The most challenging part was learning to cut, because that is where you make or break the garment. If the cut is wrong then the whole garment wont work or will be off somehow. I started drawing everything my aunty was doing and created an illustrated step by step manual for myself, this helped me until I was able to store all the different dimensions, shapes and measurements in my head.
Did you have a lot of capital to start up?
I didn’t have a lot of capital to start up with. In fact, I didn’t need a lot of capital. At the start up point I just wanted to take things as they came. I was still learning and was making free clothes for friends and family because I was eager to have the ability to design and sew for women of all shapes and sizes. My husband bought my first sewing machine for me and he was so impressed with my progress within a few months that he also went and bought my industrial machines for me.
How long have you been doing this for?
I have been doing this for just under 3 years now.
Tell us about The Great British Sewing Bee
The Great British Sewing Bee is a BBC programme that is centred around 10 amateur sewers competing for the title of Britain’s best sewer; amateur in the sense that the individuals involved have had no formal training. Every week the sewers are set progressively harder dressmaking challenges and each week someone is dropped until the finals where the remaining 3 battle for the title.
How did you get on the show?
I was out fabric shopping in Walthamstow with my little brother when he spotted the poster in the windows of one of the shops and asked me to have a look. I instantly recognised the show having been an avid watcher of the first series. I decided to apply secretly and when I got through the first 2 telephone interview stages I couldn’t hold it anymore and told my husband. He was so excited for me. I had to go into central London for a 2-step same day audition which involved me bringing items I had already made. It also involved being interviewed on camera. I got a phone call a week after this inviting me for the 3rd and final audition; this one panicked me a bit because I knew it involved making something under timed conditions and with a pattern (something I had never used before). I was really nervous on set but just kept praying to God to help me and I finished the tote bag we were set to make.
Tell us about how you felt being accepted on the show
I was really excited about being accepted on the show. It was such a long process and some of the talent I met during the auditions really made me question my ability to get a place on the show, but God was faithful and I was awarded a place in the competition.
What did being on the show mean for you?
Being on GBSB for me meant opportunity. I know that I am not a traditional English sewer and I really wanted to bring style to the competition, so this was my major focus. I used my free hand cutting method and created glamorous garments. Sewing Bee offered me a platform to showcase my designs to the British public and I have had a great response.
You made it to the finals. And you rocked by the way! Were you ever terrified that you wouldn’t make it this far?
Thank you! Yes, making it to the finals was a real treat. It proved to me and others that experience can be beaten by sheer determination and hunger for the gold. Heather and Tamara both have at least 40 years sewing experience under their belts and to be competing with such experience gave me a great sense of pride and immense gratitude to God. Whilst making my coat on vintage week, I nearly gave up because I still had so much to do on the coat and such little time left and I was sure that I would be going home if I didn’t finish. At one point, finishing looked so far away that I felt like just giving up and sitting there to wait out the remaining 45 minutes. But something inside me wouldn’t let me do that; not only would I have disappointed myself but also my husband, brothers and sisters and every other person supporting me, so I really fought through that coat challenge and it paid off.
One of the most interesting things about watching you on the show was that you’re a risk taker! How has that worked for you so far? Are there times when taking such huge risks have ended up badly?
I have been told that I am a risk taker but in all honesty I don’t see myself as one. I think this is because I see the cup as half full. However, the suit up cycle challenge was definitely a risk. I knew that making a dress out of an old men’s suit in 1.5hrs was pushing it, but I wanted to push it and I worked as fast as I could and it paid off because I came first with that challenge.
On the show, there was a little uproar about the comment you made about children and children’s clothing… tell us about that.
I really can’t be bothered to justify that comment (or should I say OBVIOUS joke) anymore. The only noise that came from that was from the Nigerian community. It was said in the context of a playful banter between David and I about his twins. The rest of the conversation was edited out. That’s all there was to it.
Sewing takes a HUGE amount of time, skill and concentration. How do you ensure your quality remains top notch?
You are right! Sewing takes a lot of time, skill, concentration and patience. The trick to maintaining quality on the show is to pick your battles wisely. Someone who sews knows that it is impossible to get the highest standards of finishing within the time frames we were given on the show. You also have to bear in mind the the other major distraction of being interviewed. However, being on the show meant I was able to draw on the experiences of the other sewers, especially Heather and Serena. I also learnt a lot from May Martin and Patrick Grant.
Describe the average Chinelo Bally client?
The upward mobile confident woman with a love for style. In my opinion, style is not the latest trends but what best suits the individual. Someone who isn’t afraid to stand out in the crowd and be elegant.
How do you balance the home/work dynamic?
It is a very tricky one. I’m not sure I’m doing it right yet. I am forever going, a real 24hour woman. I just try my best to do what i need to do around the house, attend to my husband and keep my clients happy with beautiful designs and quality finishes.
Would you say that dress making is profitable at the moment?
Oh yes, it is!
What are your thoughts on the influx of fashion designers and fashion buffs on the African scene right now?
I say it’s fantastic. Africa really has a lot to offer the fashion world. The western fashion world has drawn influence from Africa for a very long time, so it is good that we are growing our own and showcasing it to the world as ours.
Do you have any particular fabrics that you like to work with specially?
I love working with really unusual couture fabrics. I love textures and colour .
What would you say stirs the creative juices within you?
I always try to see the beauty in everything so I draw influence from all manner of things. I sometimes sound a bit crazy when I tell people what inspired some of my designs. For instance I made a dress with a certain colour combination because I saw a fly with these colours on its coat and I loved it.
What has been the highest point of your journey so far?
The highest point of my life’s journey so far has been meeting and marrying my husband. I probably sound like a wet blanket but it’s the truth. He has been my biggest fan through out all my endeavours. Career wise my highest point has definitely been going on the Sewing Bee. Two major celebrities have approached me to have garments made for big events, so I’m really excited about that and looking forward to my future by God’s grace.
Describe an average day in Chinelo Bally’s life
An average day involves prayer, work work work, some time with my playmate. I hardly get time to just be me nowadays but I thank God that I’m busy.
Who’s your favourite dressmaker?
I love Tony Ward. I love CoCo Channel’s story, it inspires me a lot.
What advice would you give a young entrepreneur who wants to launch out on his/her own
Be determined, work hard and don’t give up. Don’t be afraid to be you. Be wise when taking advice.
Let’s relax a bit
Describe yourself in 3 words
Friendly, Hard working, passionate
What’s your favourite piece of clothing? And why
I love dresses. I am a real dress girl and I love getting glam’d up
If you had a super power, what would it be?
I would love to be able to read people’s minds
What’s the most exotic place you’ve ever been?
Paris. Hahaha! Not very exotic, I know.
If you ever get stuck on a deserted Island, who’s the one person you’d like to be with?
Three things you can’t absolutely go anywhere without?
My phone. That’s it really
If you were an animal, which would you be and why?
A cat. I looove cats, they are beautiful creatures. I love the way they walk, how they always land on their feet, how independent they are. They are also very intelligent creatures and can read human emotions very well.
Thank you so much for talking to us, Chinelo. We wish you all the very best in your endeavours and BellaNaija is rooting for you!
Check out some videos of Chinelo at work
Episode 5 of The Great British Sewing Bee
Episode 6 – The Great British Sewing Bee