About a year ago Lucy asked me to teach her how to sew. I wasn’t ready to tackle the machine with her (but this summer we’re jumping in) so I said we’d start with hand sewing—because I think it’s important for every sewer to understand the basics. And because truly, there are few things more relaxing than sitting on the couch creating a little something with your hands. I hope she feels that too.
Her very first project was this simple pink heart. She drew the heart on paper to create the pattern, then I traced and cut out the pieces from felt, then she stitched and stuffed it together with crochet thread.
And she was hooked. And wanted to make more! So she tried a star with a face. She designed the face and I sewed a bit of twine to the back piece so she could hang it on a doorknob (similar to the monogrammed ornaments)
And you know what? Sewing with kids is really fun! if they—and you—are ready for it.
So if you want to jump in, here are some tips:
[and if you've taught your child to sew before, please share your tips and advice in the comments!]
1. Teach concepts, not rules.
I’ve always loved the parable about teaching a man to fish, rather than handing him a fish. And the same is true for sewing. If a sewer understands the concepts and recommendations, rather than memorizing a list of do’s, and dont’s, she’s more likely think outside of the box and have wonderful make-it-work moments.
So take time to talk teach the basics while also presenting options, since there are multiple ways to sew any project and it’s always an adventure.
Here are some basic items to discuss:
• Sewing Basics: There are two layers of fabric that you’re trying to hold together. And just like gluing or stapling two pieces of paper together, the thread is going to hold the two fabrics together by going in and out between the fabrics. Each time you go in and out from the front of the fabric to the back of the fabric, you’ve created a stitch.
• Stitches: You decide how tightly the fabrics are sewn together by the length of your stitches. Small stitches make a very tight seam (a seam is the line the thread makes as you stitch in and out). Wider or longer stitches make a looser seam and your fabric is more like to pull apart….or if your project is filled with stuffing, some of the stuffing might come loose between the wide stitches. You’ll learn over time what stitch length (and stitch style) you prefer. I mostly stick with a basic running stitch but you can learn about a whipstitch, blanket stitch, slip stitch. Check out this list.
• Layers: When you sew, you work in layers. And sometimes you have to work backwards. If you’re going to make a little Peace Sign pillow like Lucy’s working on here, you need to sew the peace symbol to the outside layer first and then sew the two pillow pieces together. So when you start a project, cut out all your pieces first, then arrange them on the fabric how you’d like them to look, and then decide which pieces need to be sewn first and work your way backwards.
• Style: Think about the overall look of your project, beyond just the fabrics. If you want the thread to be camouflaged and hidden on the project, use a thread color that matches your fabric. If you want the stitches to show up and add a bit of style to your project, use a thread color that “pops” on your fabric and contrasts with the fabric. You can even use embroidery thread or crochet thread to make the stitches look chunky. You can also make the stitches show up more by using wider stitches on the outer fabric layer—or the “right” side of the fabric—and then use smaller stitches on the back, or “wrong” side, of the fabric.
2. Work Together.
When your child is just getting started, it helps to give them some ideas as a jumping point. This doesn’t mean you’re taking over the project, you’re just helping to pull the creative spirit out of them. And your initial ideas will then evolve into their own ideas as they understand how sewing works. Lucy’s first project went something like this:
“Well, why don’t we start by sewing a little pillow, like a fun shape?”
“Ooo. That sounds cute.”
“We could do a circle, or a heart, or a star, or we could make an ornament…”
“Let’s make a heart!”
“Okay, why don’t you pick out the fabric and thread colors you want to use.”
After sewing some simple shapes, I mentioned that we could try some more detailed shapes and she thought of the peace sign. She picked the colors and fabrics and then we found a peace sign image online which we printed and cut out and used as our pattern. Your child can also draw their own image and use that as the pattern. Both methods are great. Lucy actually prefers printing images and letters because she really wants it to look precise; she loves a good clean line.
3. Use simple fabrics, supplies, and shapes.
Stick with fabrics that don’t fray at the edges so kids don’t have to worry about sewing the wrong sides together or tucking edges under.
• Fabrics – Felt, Flannel, and Knit fabrics are all fantastic but felt is probably my favorite—very user friendly for all ages. Read more about felt here.
• Thread - standard sewing thread, embroidery floss, crochet thread, and lightweight twine are wonderful as well. Just use a proper needle size to accommodate your thread choice.
• Stuffing – you can buy a bag of batting from the store, or cut open an old pillow and pull out the insides, or use fabric scraps, or cotton balls. Be creative and use whatever you have on-hand.
• Shapes – of course your child doesn’t need to start with little pillow projects like I’m sharing here, but simple shapes are helpful as they learn to sew in one continuous line around something. Start with a circle, square, triangle, heart, star, octagon, oval, etc. Then bump the project up a notch and turn the triangle into a slice of pizza by sewing red pepperoni circles to the top.
4. Don’t underestimate your child’s abilities.
Something I love about school is that my kid’s teachers push them to learn things that I might not think they’re ready for or they might not understand because they’re too young. And then they come home telling me about metaphors and minerals and the life cycle of this and that. Our kids are capable of cool things. So don’t hold back! Teach them more than you think they can handle. Use the correct terminology for sewing items, explaining them as you go. They might surprise you by teaching you something in return. I often ask for Lucy’s input on my projects because she really has good insight, even in her 8 year-old body.
5. Be Patient.
This bullet point is for everyone in our family. I need to be patient with Lucy, she needs to be patient with me, and we all need to be patient and remember that there’s a baby (or ghost?) in the house, which makes it difficult to find good one-on-one time for teaching and working on projects.
I often feel bad for Lucy and Owen that Clara gets a big chunk of my divided time because she’s younger and more needy (and the least patient of all of us, right?) But such is the life of a mom and her kids. If you guys have good tips for balancing one-on-one time with your kids I’d love your thoughts.
And lastly, be patient with your child’s attention span. Don’t become frustrated if he or she starts a project and leaves it unfinished for months. This peace sign was 3/4 of the way completed and then sat in a bin for 9 months….until just last week when Lucy picked it up and decided to finish the thing off. I guess she’s no different that you and I, when we get fed up with a project and set it aside till we feel creatively ready to tackle it again. And how exciting it is when we get our mojo back!…and we want to sew the stars and stripes out of everything.
My favorite projects are when I’m creatively inspired, rather than pushed.
So have fun with it!
And let the sewing begin!