From modifying ammo bags to making wedding dresses, Lt Col Neil Stace is about as handy as you can get with a needle and thread. The ‘Sewing Soldier’ shot to fame by reaching the final of the BBC’s Great British Sewing Bee and since then, he’s been inspiring creative projects across the country. Army&You caught up with him to find out more…
NEIL’S love for textiles dates back to his childhood in seventies’ Hong Kong when, as a remonstration against his primary school’s policy, he joined the sewing club.
“They allowed girls into the football team, so a friend and I protested – it was as simple as that,” he recalled. “I remember making clothes for my Action Men. I still have them somewhere.”
He hails from a ‘crafty’ family and always spent summers on his grandparents’ canal boat where he and his sisters crocheted bobble hats for something to do.
As a teenager, he admits his stitching prowess served him well when it came to chatting up girls. “We’d go to parties and I’d talk to them about fashion and offer to make them clothes,” he explained. “I used to knit Aran jumpers for girlfriends – but the relationships never lasted long enough for me to finish them!”
Sitting in the clubhouse knitting was a useful method for Neil to calm down after rugby matches too, and when he joined the army, he always had a project on the go. “I was stationed in Dortmund in the late nineties – my hobby went in fits and starts. In the summer, people would need ball gowns and I’d be working like a lunatic, then I wouldn’t do anything for ages. In those days you’d go on exercise in Germany for months, but even then, I’d be knitting.
“I got stick for sewing but no different to anyone else. When I deployed to Bosnia in 1998, I made a wedding dress for my driver. The soldiers thought that sewing was just ‘what I did’. Lots of them asked me to make curtains so they could cordon off their little areas in the accommodation blocks.”
When he got married, Neil made the bridesmaids’ dresses, and it was his wife Kate who encouraged him to apply for the Great British Sewing Bee.
“I hadn’t even watched it,” he said. “I’d assumed that there was no way I would be good enough because I’m self-taught. I’m an engineer that makes things out of material, so if you ask me what type of seam to use [throws his hands up in the air] I don’t know.
“The application form asked what I’d made and I was able to put things like sniper suits in Afghanistan, women’s underwear and ski suits. I sent it off for a bit of a laugh and within 20 minutes I got a phone call asking whether I was making it all up!”
After a rigorous selection process which included a sewing test which he describes as ‘horrendous’, Neil was given a psychiatric interview.
“I was asked whether I’d ever been in a stressful situation, which sounded barking having been on operational tours, but looking back you need it, because the whole reality TV thing is pretty brutal.
“I went along to the first episode thinking, as long as I get through the weekend and don’t look like an idiot, then I’ll be fine. I was picked up at seven in the morning and didn’t get back until midnight – filming for 15 hours – and I realised that it was about making a TV programme.
“They could find a thousand quality sewers, but they needed a group of people who could interact, and who had a bit of a back story.
“The group needed gelling, so on day two I started with a rugby scrum to get them together and the banter started. I’d end up leopard-crawling across the room to help others.
“There were six episodes, each one had three challenges, and I won nine out of 18, so I’m still bitter and twisted that I didn’t win!” he joked.
Neil admitted that it was satisfying to know his appearance on the show had inspired others in the military, having received feedback from young soldiers on their newly-found confidence to give it a go.
However, this didn’t rub off on his own two boys. “They were totally embarrassed by the whole thing,” he explained. “Except when the show aired and their boarding school cancelled prep, bought in pizzas and all the children sat and watched – for six weeks the boys were very popular.”
Since then, Neil has been involved in SSAFA’s 100 Hearts project, running workshops in schools to make pin cushions as a mark of remembrance for the First World War.
More recently, he’s spearheaded ‘Flags of Thanks’ for the homelessness charity Alabaré, bringing together thousands of miniature handmade flags for an exhibition. They will eventually be made into quilts for homeless veterans.
Neil’s workshops on military patches, in kids’ clubs and in veterans’ shelters, have made a big impact in terms of mental health and tackling isolation.
“It’s just being able to sit and have a natter whilst learning a new skill,” he explained.
In some instances, learning to sew has even been life-changing. During Neil’s last tour of Afghanistan, he worked with female engagement teams to set up sewing workshops for Afghan women in small villages.
“I had to stand almost out of sight with a hand-wound sewing machine, instructing a female US Marine, who was then going through an interpreter, who was teaching the women. It was a challenge.
“I wish it had been filmed because it would have been magical to see how it empowered them as they grew in confidence. By week three they’d appear in multi-coloured leggings and blue burqas. In some villages the odd store would spring up, selling what they’d made.”
Knowing how sewing has benefited both adults and children is something that Neil is keen to harness as he turns his attention to life after the army.
“When you put a child in front of a sewing machine it’s amazing, their level of concentration is fantastic. I call it ‘the power of creation’,” he said. “When I leave the army, I want to do something with that.”
Follow Neil on Twitter @sewingsoldier, look for #FlagsofThanks on Instagram or visit alabare.co.uk