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.


  1. Thank you kindly for fulfilling the request of talking about sewing with children.

  2. We worked with some middle school kids, making blocks for some Quilts of Valor quilts (after school class). I took 2 vintage machines (hand crank and a Kenmore). One boy was nervous around the electric Kenmore, but, did really well with the hand crank. After a couple of sessions, they decided to switch machines, and had a ball. It was funny, since the boys loved swing on the machines, but, the girls just wanted to watch. I only worked with the boys.

    1. Cheryl (T2Q), I coached my daughters' soccer teams as well as my son's for almost 20 years after I had helped coached the men's LX team at UNC-CH while in grad school. Based my experience coaching both, middle school girls do not like to look like they don't know what they are doing in front of middle school boys. Middle school boys until about the eighth grade can be pretty clueless if they are having a good time. Work with the girls without the boys around and they will be more comfortable doing new things.

      John Thomas in NC

  3. Thanks, Cheryl (DP), for your thoughts on hand cranks for kids learning to sew. Great suggestions on keeping it fun and knowing when to quit.

    John Thomas in NC


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