Sunday, October 29, 2017

Thoughts on Sewing with Children

by special request, meaning that more than one person responded to this query:
"Would you be interested in hearing a few thoughts on teaching children to sew?"

Please note that I did NOT oversell this concept.  If you were expecting a full blown tutorial from start to finish you are about to be bitterly disappointed.

A few thoughts are literally ALL I have to offer.  I do, however, think that they are important things to consider when teaching children anything.  But before I get around to that, let me meander around the background.


I'm back from California where I spent time with four of my favorite human beings on the planet.  Two of them are seven years old.  Last year I took each kid a Singer 99 hand crank and we made tote bags on them.

Since then Nellie and her mom have done some sewing and Nellie wanted to do more.  Yay!  The YSIP (Youth Sewing Indoctrination Program) is working!

So the idea is that we will make zipper bags.  Yes, you heard that right.  ZIPPERS.

The master key to teaching kids to sew  

I took one educational psychology course in 1967 and I had 3 kids.  So I'm an expert, right?   (Hint:  none of them wanted to learn to sew when they were kids).


1.  Let the kid pick out the fabric.  There are so many incredibly cute fabrics in the fabric stores.  If, like me, you have a giant stash, preselect some appropriate to the project.  All of this made more difficult by the fact that my fabric is here and the kids are in California.  So I posted a bunch of photos for them to make their choices, samples below.

2.  Chose a simple and quick project.  A bean bag can be done in a sitting.  This is a perfect first project because the kid walks away with something she or he has made.  And making stuff is really, really fun and satisfying and one of the best things in life.  I know you agree because you are reading a blog like this one.

The tote bags we made last year took a couple of sittings.  How long is a sitting you ask?  SO glad you asked, because that is point 3.

3.  Know when to quit.  The lesson has to stop BEFORE the child gets bored.  You have to stop while they are still having fun.  Break up the project into steps and check with the kid before starting the next one.  Kids can have amazing attention spans if they are enjoying something and there is nothing wrong with a long lesson if it remains fun.  In the end you just have to judge when to quit.

When my pre-teen niece wanted to make a dress, we did it all together, from selecting and prewashing the fabric, to laying out, pinning and cutting the pattern, to the actual construction of the dress.  And she enjoyed all of it.  The fabric got washed after one visit, but on the next visit she made the whole dress in one day.  I took a nap in the middle of it.  She was absolutely absorbed and determined to finish.  It was a beautiful thing to see.

I really don't think it would work that way with the 7 year old crowd though.  So

4.  To keep the project moving along at a snappy pace, prepare as much as possible in advance, especially with young children.

For last year's tote bags I cut all the fabric and straps, finished the edges, and folded over and pressed the top hem.  So I arrived with tote bag kits and all the kids had to do was sew up the sides, sew the top hem, and sew the straps on.

This year I made kits for the zipper bags, for elastic waist skirts, and for reversible aprons (more on those later).

5.  Learn to love threading the machine yourself
You do NOT teach someone to sew by insisting that they master threading the machine first.  Your home ec. teacher HAD to do it this way because she had 30 girls to teach all at once and could not spend time re-threading 30 machines over and over again.  (Back in the day.  Home ec.  All girls, and no one ever questioned the gender division of home ec. vs. shop).

So you are going to re-thread the machine over and over until the day that the child's passion for sewing has ignited to the point that he/she wants to get on with things without waiting for you.  And they will then learn to thread it themselves in 30 seconds flat.  As Nellie did.


I told Nellie how many grown up women I know who fear zippers AFTER she had successfully installed one.  She was delighted by this and even more delighted when my guild buddies praised her to the skies on Facebook.  Which was no more than she deserved.  Remember, 7 years old.  And this increased the fun factor for her.  Thanks, Alamance Piecemakers!

The zipper inserted.

and a lined zipper bag completed!

We tackled the zipper bag first because I knew she had a burning desire to sew and was really looking forward to it.  So, challenge first and the reward of conquering something.   I guessed this was right for this kid at this moment and I was right.  Plus, she's not a newbie.  YMMV.

We then moved on to a simpler if not necessarily quicker project:  elastic waist skirts, something her mom had identified as a wardrobe need.

Prepared in advance:  five fabrics, cut to rectangles the right size (there is a chart online of basic sizes).  In some cases I could cut the width along the selvedge, and this formed the bottom of the skirt.  Hence, no hem.  I folded over and ironed the casing at the top of the skirt.  I took a roll of elastic.  Thus making skirt kits.

Skirt construction consisted of Nellie sewing the side seams, me pressing them, Nellie sewing the pre-ironed casing seam (leaving an opening), us measuring the elastic around her, Nellie using a bodkin to pull the elastic through (a large safety pin would do), Nellie sewing up the casing opening, and on some of them sewing the hem.  Lots of straight lines, none of which have to be particularly straight.  Just turn down a wide enough casing to accommodate some wobbles.

She completed two skirts and started a third, which I finished for her before I left.  These photos show the joyful moments when the skirts were completed, popped on over whatever she was wearing at the time.

Last year Clinton was interested in the mechanical operation of the machine but less interested in actually sewing.   Same story this year, he was totally absorbed in building giant but doomed steamships out of Legos.    (Titanic in the background, SS Alexandra in the foreground).

But he recently joined Cub Scouts and got his first Scout uniform.  We used his Singer hand crank to sew the patches onto the sleeve of his shirt.

So that's cool too.  He doesn't share his sister's passion for sewing but he owns a useful tool and knows the basics of using it.

Another bright idea of mine did not work out as planned.  I made kits for reversible aprons, but after skirt No. 2 Nellie's requests to sew slowed down, and we did some other things.  I sewed them up myself, and I had underestimated the amount of time they took. So, just as well.  Because, back to the main principle, the child must have fun at all times, and it is not fun to get bogged down in a project that lasts longer than the child's interest.

In another situation, like a child spending a week with grandma, the apron thing might work out very well.  So I'm going to tell you about them.

Reversible Aprons

Why reversible aprons?  Because there is no need for edge finishing.  When I make aprons for myself I LOVE a funky bias tape around the edge.  I love to make my own bias tape too.  But applying bias tape is not a simple easy task for a beginner.  Much tougher than zippers.

An adaptation to the apron pattern: a fairly heavy grosgrain ribbon for the ties.  Not making the neck and waist ties.  This saves time.

Each side of the apron has a pocket and I not only cut these out ahead of time, I pressed 3/4" hems on all 4 sides and used 5/8" Stitch Witchery (fusible web) to secure these hems.  Part of this overkill was because I was packing the kits in a suitcase.  If you pressed then sewed right away you wouldn't need the fusible web.

The child will sew down the top hem, then pin the pocket to the apron and sew down the other three sides.

In my experience kids love having their names on stuff.

Child and I or Mom/Dad will pin the ties in place and pin the apron front and back together.  Sew around all sides, leaving a substantial opening along the bottom edge.

Turn right side out, press, including pressing up the remainder of the bottom hem.  Topstitch around the whole thing.  Topstitchng will not only secure that bottom hem, it will extend the life of the apron greatly by making the waist ties much stronger.

See?  Do the fiddly or tricky stuff ahead of time, but have the child do the major assembly.  Therefore the child really is making the apron themselves and will have that thrill.

Or, in my case, I had the thrill and the kids got the aprons.


A Sewing Play Date

My daughter, her friend, and the friend's six year old daughter came over recently for a sewing play date.  This was little Anna's first time on a sewing machine.  I have a trusty Singer 192 Spartan hand crank standing by for just such an occasion.

This is the machine I take to public demonstrations

We took almost-blank white aprons and sewed on decorative pockets.  I embroidered their names on their aprons beforehand.

I set out baskets with rick rack, bits of lace and vintage embroidered thingies and ribbons and suchlike.  And pointed out the fat quarters (for pocket material).

We had a wonderful time.  I set up 3 sewing machines:  the hand crank, a Kenmore 1040 and a Singer 223.  Anna's mom needs a sewing machine, and I wanted her to have a chance to test drive those two.

This did not go as planned.

What happened that WAS supposed to happen was that all three of us knew that the sole purpose of the play date was for Anna to have a wonderful time.  And she did.  And she took every bit of my attention, leaving absolutely none for the two adult ladies.  Who did not have extensive or recent sewing machine experience.  And things went wrong with both of those machines.

Never fear, no vintage machines were harmed.  It's hard to kill the beasties.  But nevertheless, they got jammed up and were abandoned.  By the end of the afternoon everyone was taking turns with the hand crank, the simplest machine in the room.

I know you are not surprised.

In the end, Anna had the fanciest apron, having chosen a vintage piece of embroidered and crocheted linen for a pocket with a lace flounce underneath the pocket and fringe around the bottom.  She turned the hand crank and I guided the fabric.  This is a good collaborative experience!

Both ladies went with plain pockets, but in dramatic colors that match the embroidered name on the top of the apron.

It was a wonderful afternoon.

What tips do you have for sewing with children?  What ages have you taught?  How did it go?


UPDATE.  I can't believe I wrote all this and forgot to talk about the sewing machines themselves!  I mentioned hand cranks in the discussion above.  Here's why they are perfect for teaching sewing to people of any age: 

The sewing person is in total control of the situation at all times.  It literally will stop on a dime.  The minute you stop turning the crank, the machine stops.  Much less scary than pushing that foot pedal and having the machine take off. 

Hand cranks are also perfect for paper piecing because of that control which gives you real precision.  Also good for doll clothes.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

It's TOBE Time!

What, you ask, is a TOBE?

Treadle On Block Exchange

Treadle On is an online community of treadle and hand crank sewing machine users.  It was founded to encourage the use of these wonderful machines.  To provide support to folks who buy or inherit one and want to get it sewing again.  It's a wonderful bunch of helpful folks and in the first couple years of my obsession I learned everything from them.  Look for them on yahoo groups. 

1920 Davis New Vertical Feed

So we have all kinds of exchanges:  quilt blocks of a variety of types, mug mats, pincushions, bags.  Lots of stuff.  I only participate in one, and that is a rail fence block.  It comes up regularly in the rotation because it is super easy for a beginning sewing person to do.  Some treadlers only learn to sew because they fell in love with the machine.  We love this!

I've been in this exchange several times and have a big bag of rail fence blocks from all over the US and even as far away as New Zealand.  Eventually I will make a quilt from them.  Really fun to read the names, locations and sewing machines of people I "know" online.

But since I don't have their permissions to show you their full real names and towns, I am only going to show you mine!

I prepared a set last year on the Singer 27 known as River Song (blue and sparkles in the sunlight) in advance of a TOGA that I did not then attend.  Treadle On Gathering and Academy.  Swap meet and sewing fest and general reunion of folks sharing this obsession. 

Up until now I have tended to go with florals, calicoes, stripes, and other things that seemed harmonious with the old machines.  Although I have recently fallen down the rabbit hole of vintage fashion and costume blogs and the fabrics of yore can be quite eye opening.

This time I unleashed the inner me.  The inner me is a brand new box of crayons, hand me all the brightest shades, please.

I almost sold my Davis New Vertical Feed recently but the deal fell through.  I really should keep it because the needle feed action is fascinating and it really does the job of keeping layers from shifting.  It is literally impossible for them to do so.

There is a mill outlet nearby that has all the best stuff which you may recognize.  Sold by the pound.  I went insane the two times I was there and I dream of going again but so far have restrained myself. Serious fabric addiction problem.  I have run out of space to store it and I have a huge studio.

There are a certain number of block in each set, and each participant can send in up to a certain number of sets. Each set uses different fabrics.  I AM BEING DELIBERATELY VAGUE ABOUT THE DETAILS because people sometimes read my posts YEARS after they were written and each TOBE has its own requirements. 

You ship them all off to a hostess and there are more details about how to do this correctly so that your return postage does not expire!  The hostess magically sorts them all out (I always imagined little Disney fairies floating them gracefully through the air) and sends back to you the same number of blocks you sent in, but from all those lovely treadlers sewing on all those lovely machines in all those lovely places.

Apparently, though, the ACTUAL sorting process does NOT involve little Disney fairies, but does involve a lot of hard work and attention to detail.  So a hostess gift is a nice idea.  In the past I have sent a hand-dyed fat quarter, a pincushion I made, stuff like that.  On the off chance the hostess reads this blog I'm not showing you what I am sending this time.  Surprise!

Don't get used to the post-a-week thing, btw.  Two weeks in a row is an anomaly, not a trend.  Actually the distribution schedule is largely random, as faithful readers have undoubtedly guessed by now.


Do you have a favorite online group that feeds your (sewing-related) obsession? Let us know in the comments below!

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Twined Rug Weaving. And two tips.

Here it is, by popular demand!  (Meaning a couple of you emailed me after an earlier post and said that you WOULD be interested in seeing rug weaving.  Thank you.)

I have always wanted to weave rag rugs and even bought a table loom right before I moved down here 30 years ago.  It sat in my attic for 25 years and then I gave it to Heather.  She hasn't used it either, lol.

Then twined weaving bumped into me on Pinterest.  I love Pinterest.  If I were still working I would hate Pinterest.  But retired people have time for Pinterest.

Twined weaving requires only a simple frame loom, and a ridiculously easy over-and-under weaving by hand technique.  There are lots of instructions online for building the loom but I bought mine from Libby Lula  It makes a 25" x 42" rug, and is adjustable for smaller sizes.  One of the keys to its wonderfulness is that there are metal rods on each outside edge.  You weave around these as you go and take them out at the end.  These keep the rug absolutely rectangular.  You can see one of these rods in the photo below.

I bought a couple of books to learn the technique, but YouTube videos are more helpful.  The books did tell me that a rug takes about 15 yards of fabric and I found this to be roughly true.

I spent a couple of hours on Pinterest just looking a pictures of twined rugs and deciding what I did and didn't like.   I REALLY recommend doing this!  I'm NOT going to try to give you a tutorial on weaving (see YouTube for that) but I will share my aesthetic decisions with you here.  

  • No solid or works-as-solid fabrics.  The technique requires you to knot the strips together as you weave.  Knots hide in patterned fabric.  Knots visually leap off the rug at you and bite you on the nose on solid fabrics.  Granted, this is not obvious in the photo above, but it is obvious in person.
  • I like a color scheme rather than total randomness.  But I am saving all the leftovers and will probably use them in a random rug sometime.
  • I like a stripe at each end.
    • 24 rows of the assortment of colors, then
    • 12 rows of the stripe color, then back to assortment
    • on my first rug I cut 2 yards of the stripe fabric (36 strips) and that was enough.  On my second rug it was not quite enough and I had to cut 2 more strips.  I could, of course, just have made one of the stripes a bit shorter, but I had the extra fabric.

You begin at one end, work your way to more or less halfway, and then flip the loom over and start again from the other end.  So you finish up in the middle.

The last couple of rows are the hardest because you have to work in a very tight space.

These photos show the back side, and these rugs are definitely NOT reversible.  While you are working you can poke some of the knots to the back side.  Which ends up looking like a hot mess.

At the end you tie the strips together.  See directions in a book or on YouTube.

Rug #1, the back

Rug #1, the front

Now here is one of the best things about this loom.  When you are finished you pull out the metal rods on the sides and then slide the rug off the pegs.  And it is DONE.  As in COMPLETELY FINISHED.  No binding.  No further fussing around with it.  DONE.  Throw it down on the floor.  I love this moment.

Rug #1 went to a daughter but didn't really fit where she wanted it so it is coming back over here and she will get Rug #3 in the correct size for her bathroom.

Got a bit ahead of myself there.  Before I dove into weaving the first rug, I began with a small sample mat of 2.5" strips (because I have a bazillion of them). The strips were too fat.   Not the only problem (obviously) but that was what the sample was for:  to discover all the ways I could mess it up.  As you can see, I was VERY good at discovering ways to make it look horrible.

ha ha ha ha ha.  O, en espaƱol, ja ja ja ja ja

But by the time I had finished I had learned a lot, including how to go around the corners at the end of the rows.  Ridiculously simple, but it still took me quite a while to figure it out.  And amazingly, all problems were solved by the end of this one little mat and Rug #1 shown above turned out very well.

So I ended up cutting my strips 2 inches instead of 2.5.  Here's what I cut:
  • One yard each of SEVEN light to light/medium fabrics
  • One yard each of SEVEN medium to medium dark fabrics
  • Two yards of the stripe color (could also be one of the light or dark fabrics)
  • Yes, this gives you SIXTEEN yards rather than 15.  Wouldn't you rather have a bit left over than come up short?  
This quantity worked out fine on the first two rugs. On the third (and the one in progress now) I used up some of the leftovers from the first two, and some half-yard cuts. 

On each row you are weaving with two strands, which is why I suggest sorting them into light(ish) and dark(ish) colors.  The idea is to have some contrast going on.

You start by stringing the warp around the pegs.  You can use lots of different things, but I like polypropylene cord.  The first rug this took me an hour and a half to warp.  After you get it on there, you go back to the beginning and start tightening it up.  This means that it is REALLY loose by the time you get to the other end.  And it kept leaping off the loom and that's why it took an hour and a half.  And quite a bit of, ahem, LANGUAGE.

This photo is from Rug #2, and by that time I had it figured out.  A simple matter of tying twine around the top and bottom of the loom to persuade the warp to stay in place while you tighten it up.  This is one of my two tips if you try your hand at twined weaving.

Rug #2 was for the other daughter's kitchen, which will soon be freshened up with paint in tones of green and yellow.

This time I chose a fabric for the stripe that had more going on.  Not as solid-y.  Better, but could be better still.   At the knots there is a bit of the back of the fabric that is hard to hide, and the back of printed fabric is much lighter or even white.  These disappear in the assorted fabrics but are still kind of obvious on my blue with white fabric in Rug #2. Hand dyed fabric might solve the problem, but in Rug #3 I will be trying a printier print.

And a good way down I discovered that I hadn't been scrunching the rows up hard enough.  It was easy enough to go back and fix (photo below) but it took a while.  Now after every three rows I push the fabric up into the rows above as hard as I can.  It compresses quite a bit.

I'm not sure if this is really necessary, but I want a really dense rug.

BTW, the only tools you need are:

  • the loom
  • a pair of scissors
  • rotary cutter and mat
    • some folks tear the strips rather than cutting, but I would rather spend the time cutting instead of pulling all those loose threads off of a million torn strips.
  • HEMOSTATS.  Incredibly useful for pulling and poking and shifting.

Rug #2
I kept rough track of the time I spent.  Rug #1 took a full 60 hours.  But about 2/3 of the way through I stopped and spent a fair amount of time thinking about technique.  Tightened up my technique and it went much faster.  Rug #2 took about 45 hours. 

60 and 45 wonderful fun filled hours.  In fact, much more than 60 or 45 hours of pleasure, because when I was not weaving I was gazing at them in admiration and adoration.  Seriously.  These are seriously gorgeous.

I am not going to give you a tutorial on weaving, but what else DO I have to offer?  Tips on not-really-random color placement, using up those leftovers and half-yard cuts.

I laid out 18 markers on my large table.  Markers sounds very elegant for what they actually were, which was scraps of painters tape with numbers 1 through 18 written in Sharpie.  Because 1 yard cut into 2 inch strips makes 18 strips.

If I had a whole yard of something, I laid one strip next to each number.  For the half-yards, I matched up similar colors and alternated them.  The strips shown below are from the same fabric line, so they really are going to be indistinguishable in the rug.

For the scraps I just tried to go for a similar value and spread them out evenly.  or almost evenly.  or whatever.

coulda done a better job of distribution!
As I open each of the 18 bags, I sort them into sets of one light and one dark, because you are always weaving two strips at a time.  And when I open the next bag, I have the same or similar fabrics, and I sort them into DIFFERENT sets of lights and darks.  Mixing it up.  Increasing the pseudo-randominess.


My third rug is a custom size made to fit my daughter's bathroom.  Shorter than the first two, but just as wide.  I roughly figured out how much shorter and decided that instead of the 7 darks and 7 lights for the full size rug, that 6 and 6 would work.

So now I have 18 strip sets, each containing 6 dark and 6 light.  Dark and light are relative terms, I just want some kind of contrast.  Each set goes into a plastic bag, and the painters tape number (1 through 18) goes on the outside of the bag.  I use them in order.  And this dear readers, is what ensures that colors are evenly distributed over the surface of the rug and you don't end up with all the greens in one spot and all the oranges somewhere else.

And you certainly could have figured all of that out by yourself!   But I have read quite a bit about these rugs by now, and haven't seen this discussed.


And I'm back from my annual trip to California to see four of the people I love the most.  Here's one of them.

And here's another one, wearing a skirt that she sewed on her pink Singer 99 hand crank.

Nellie loves sewing.  She finished 2 skirts while I was there and started a third, which I finished for her before I left.  She also made a lined zippered bag.

And Clinton wasn't much interested in sewing until he got his new Cub Scouts uniform.  Then we sewed the patches on together, using his dragon-embellished black Singer Spartan hand crank.


I have some thoughts about teaching the very young to sew.  Is anybody interested in hearing them? 

I am aware that most of my followers (love all you guys!  using "guys" as a non-gender specific term) are interested in vintage sewing machines.  There was a lengthy period when working on sewing machines fit the constraints of my life very well.  I have far fewer constraints now.  The people I was taking care of are both gone to their undoubted rewards (Mr. Enabler, and The World's Best Mother-In-Law).

So I can actually leave the house whenever I want to, and do things like go to California, and just generally run riot in the streets.  I actually went to Walmart AFTER DINNER tonight for example.  But I spend far less time with my nose in the innards of a sewing machine.  There will still be sewing machines in this blog, never fear.  Just not as many as before.

So if you are interested in some thoughts on teaching children to sew, leave a note in the comments below.