Beginning Sewing

How to Help Little Quilters Learn to Sew!

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CAN I DO THAT?

I learned to sew when I was 5 years old.  My paternal grandmother moved in with my family when I was 2 years old; so I grew up playing under her quilt frames.  One day, while I was still young enough to be carrying around my blankie, I remember looking up, watching Grandma’s needle going up and down through the quilt- and wanting to do that!  So, I asked and she took the time to stop what she was doing, thread a needle for me, and teach me to sew on my blankie.  I remember seeing those stitches on my little blanket for years.

“THE LITTLE SCIENTIST”

Around the same age, my mother taught me to knit and crochet.  Knitting at that age was easier than crocheting.  I remember crocheting at least a skein or two of just chain stitch and rolling it up into a ball slightly larger than a softball!  Now, as a professional educator, I have some reference for what I was doing.

When a child is learning something, they will repeat it over and over again until they understand it and are ready to move on.  

It was good that my mom didn’t push me to go beyond the chain stitch before I was ready.  I remember exactly where I was sitting on a pale blue bean bag in the basement when I started to experiment with the chain stitch, pushing myself to do more.  At that point, I showed my mom what I was doing and she taught me the next steps. I moved quickly from crocheting a ball of chain stitch to a queen-sized afghan, all because I was ready to learn.  Author of “The Psychology of Intellegence,” and a leader in cognitive development in children, Jean Piaget once noted that children are “little scientists” testing and exploring every aspect of their world as they mentally map it out.  When you see a child engaging in repetitive play, it is likely that this is what they are doing.

AGE 5-6

Teaching a child to quilt, sew, knit, or crochet is entirely feasible at around age 5.  How fast they progress depends on the child.  Not too many years ago, it was very normal for a child of either gender to gain those skills at that age and be required to help contribute to the family’s cottage industry.  There are a number of journal entries of mothers helping a fidgety child finish the number of rows that they had to knit before they were allowed to go out to play, indicating that children were part of the home’s economy at a very early age. (For a full and very interesting history, read No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting)

HAND CRAFT IMPROVES READING AND WRITING

Waldorf Schools teach various knitting and crochet skills as part of their normal early childhood curriculum.  They have found that learning these traditional arts contributes to the child’s reading, writing, and fine motor skills.  Extensive research also shows that participating in these activities negates the stress of modern life from a fast paced schedule & too much screen time, as well as teaching the participant patience & persistence. (Reference: “Teaching Kids to Crochet and Knit: Why Waldorf Schools Incorporate Crafting Into Their Curriculum”)

IT’S KIND OF LIKE HUGGING A CAT…(you might need stitches afterwards)

So, we know it’s possible.  The real question is, “Where do you start?”  As an educator with K-12 Art certification, I have taught folk arts, like hand sewing and quilting, to summer campers as young as kindergarten.  No- I’m not crazy…  Okay- well, maybe I was by the end of the first session.  I had to bring in several reinforcements for the needle threading session.  And, I almost got stabbed several times, but hey- we all survived!  And, the kids had an absolute blast!  In fact, it was the most popular class that year at camp.  I have pictures of the kids lining the hallway in between each class working on their quilts every time they had free time.  I was soooooo excited!  They really loved it!  One of the younger kids opted to take private lessons after the camp and went on to open her own sewing booth at local festivals at around age 10.

Sewwww- Besides Patience…

  1. Teach them how to thread the needle and tie the knot.  This will take lots of practice but it’s an absolutely essential starting point.  It’s okay to do it for them at first, but each time you do make it a teaching moment.  Show them what you’re doing and ask them to try before you do it for them.  Try making it a challenge or a game.  They’ll want to master the challenge if you make it FUN!
  2. Use a large eye needle that’s easy to see and loose-weave cloth that’s easy to push a large needle through.
  3. Draw dots or lines on the cloth with a fabric pen or pencil for guidance- the same as learning to write their letters on dotted lines!
  4. CELEBRATE every right- or almost right- step!  Improvement comes with practice and we all start somewhere!  Encouragement goes a long way to ensuring that kids- or adults keep practicing until they get it.
  5. Focus on the absolute basics and make sure you set them up for a win first!  Sewing 2 squares together along one seam is totally a win!  If they’re 2 bigger squares, that can count as a blanket for their doll.  Double win!
  6. Making something they can have an immediate use for- even if it doesn’t look beautiful and amazing to you, will make them SEW proud of their work and SEW much more likely to continue to progress. A doll blanket, a barrette, a yo-yo that they can sew on their favorite skirt, are all huge wins!
  7. Pick a project that has a few simple steps, like a 4 patch square, a yo-yo, or hemming the ends of a scarf.
  8. Let them go at their own pace.  If they’re stuck on one particular project, repeating it over and over again for several months, don’t fret!  They’re instinctively working on a skill.  Once they get it, they’ll move on automatically and the speed at which they move forward will be much faster than if you had hurried them through to the next steps before they were ready!
  9. Try out different types of sewing.  Embroidery, patchwork, cross-stitch, & machine sewing all require slightly different skill sets.  Your child might love one kind and absolutely hate another- or grow into a task at a different age.  (I didn’t get into making clothing until I was an adult, but I have always done hand-sewing.)
  10. Have a sewing themed Birthday or Slumber Party & invite friends to learn!  It’s never too early to start a sewing guild- even if you aren’t old enough to drive to the meetings.  Ha!

EARLY LEARNING PRODUCTS I RECOMMEND:

  1. Please, I beg you, DO NOT purchase cheap, no-name thread & supplies just because they are kids.  They will learn more quickly with tools that work.  All of the little sewing kit that you see in craft sections have thread & scissors that are absolutely WORTHLESS!  (They break.  They don’t cut.  Etc.) Buy a pack of needles, DMC Floss for embroidery, and any of the name brand threads for sewing such as Coats and Clark All Purpose Thread.  I prefer to use Dritz Embroidery Needles for all of my hand sewing because embroidery needles have a longer eye and are easier to thread, but you can go with any hand-sewing needle you or your student/child likes.  I also like to use a pair of  Fiscar’s Kid’s Scissors with blunt tip for most of my sewing projects.  They cut fabric as well as thread perfectly for years at a time and they’re safe for everyone to use!
  2. Pick projects that are easy to start and show progress right away!  My FAVORITE first sewing project was a Punch Needle kit that my mom and I got at a quilt fair!  It was so simple to use!  You hold it like a pen, put a section of your jacket or fabric (whatever you want to embroider) in an Embroidery Hoop and simply push the pen up and down on a Design that you have ironed on.  (It’s always great to Make Your Own Iron On Transfer with Coloring Pages!) I will never forget the jean jacket that I embroidered this way & how PROUD I was of it every time I wore it!  Punch needle embroidery is a fast, easy first embroidery project.  However, the needles are sharp; so if you are doing this with a child under the age of 8 I would recommend putting a piece of foam or leather on their lap to keep them from injuring themselves as they do it.  Otherwise, it is perfectly safe & easy!  (Again, I recommend DMC Embroidery Floss.  You can buy it by the Pack with a variety of colors or individually by the Skein.  Cost is usually around .33 cents/skein.)
  3. Some kids craft sewing kits are okay.  Usually not great, but okay.  SEW MANY TREATS is an affordable first sewing kit that provides all of the materials and clear instructions/patterns on how to cut out and sew stuffed play food!  It really does look like SEW MUCH FUN!  Kids would have fun with their creations for a long time after making them and each item they make is a mini-win!  They don’t have to make them all to feel like they’ve accomplished something & to want to make more.  That’s the kind of thing that you want to look for!

PRODUCTS TO STAY AWAY FROM:

There are a LOT of sewing kits and kids crafts stuff out there that is just plain JUNK!  You’ll waste a lot of time, money and possibly contribute to a sense of the child not being able to do something when the problem is in the materials, not the little sewer!

I always pull out my art materials as an example for parents.  They can easily see that there’s a BIG difference between artist quality paints and craft quality that come at a fraction of the cost and simply don’t work the same way because they aren’t the same product.  It’s not just that they are lessor quality.  They literally aren’t the same product.  They won’t do the same things.

That goes for colored pencils, fabric from places like Walmart, and sewing machines that cost $20.  But- they’re still kids; so you don’t want to spend a lot, right?

Here’s the solution:

  1. Start out with simple projects that don’t cost a lot in materials.
  2. You can cave a little on some things.  Material from Walmart isn’t a terrible thing for a kid to start out on- but a $20 sewing machine is.  So, start with hand sewing.  A pack of needles and some good DMC Floss (not the no-name junk!) is worth a lot more than a plastic toy that’s going to teach bad habits and break right away.
  3. You could also purchase a used sewing machine that has been refurbished- or look for one for free that just needs to be repaired.  They’re not that hard to find if you check around a little among neighbors or on Craigslist.  You may also be surprised to find out that you can actually get a very nice Brother Sewing Machine with 100 built-in stitches & sewing table for around $158 on Amazon.  I do recommend going to your local quilting shop and getting a name brand sewing machine there (basic models start in the same price range- I LOVE my BABY LOCK!), but if you do want to start off with something fast and cheap that will still get the job done, the  Brother Sewing Machine is a good option.

THE RIGHT TOOLS MAKE ALL THE DIFFERENCE!  

  1. Because when you purchase something that’s more than just a toy YOU will be more likely to teach them to respect and take care of the materials.  They will feel proud of what they have and more interested in it because it is special.
  2. The wrong tools can either hinder you completely, make you feel like you’re no good at something, or get you hurt.  At the very least, they build bad habits.  It’s better to have quality than quantity!

BINDING MORE THAN QUILTS

Sewing time can be some great bonding time.  Sitting out of the porch on a summer evening, or working on a project during a girls night with some popcorn and a great chick flick will encourage secrets and memories.  Traditionally, many young girls had made 6 quilt tops for their trousseau by the time the were old enough to go courting, which means that they had become accomplished seamstresses by their early teens.  This hints at a lot of mother-daughter and grandmother- granddaughter bonding time where memories, stories, & wisdom were stitched into fabric along with utility and warmth.  Take the time to pass on the tradition and share a few moments together today.

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