If you have the ability to sew, it’s a skill you should pass to your kids. If you don’t have the ability, you should learn together. I had a girl first, so we taught her first, but we are teaching my son sewing as well. In my case, by “we,” I really do mean me and my husband. He’s got a degree in textiles, and he tends to teach all the clothing projects while I handle the quilts.
Why sewing? It’s creative, and it teaches a variety of other skills your children may find handy later on, even if they don’t end up with a textile degree. For instance, you learn to read and design plans and follow instructions in sequence. You learn geometry and engineering skills, and it’s one of the first power tools I’d let my kids near. Yes, there’s a risk they could sew their finger with the thing, but that’s actually less of a worry to me than getting burnt, setting the house on fire, or sawing off a limb.
What you feel comfortable with is up to you, but we started our kids around age six. We started with careful, hand over hand projects, and my daughter was doing the bulk of the sewing herself by age seven. We chose projects carefully, so she’d be doing things that weren’t beyond her skill level. The cutting took a bit longer, but after we got our southpaw a good set of left-handed scissors and now a left-handed rotary cutter, I’m less of a helicopter about the cutting.
Some basic tips for the beginner:
Don’t get a toy sewing machine. This was a piece of advice a friend gave me, and I pass it on to everyone else. If the machine costs $20 new and is labeled as “chain,” avoid it. It will only frustrate you and your child and teach everyone to hate sewing. Yes, I know that’s a Hello Kitty machine she’s using, but believe it or not, it’s not a toy. It’s the Sewing Pretty with Hello Kitty REAL Sewing Machine by Janome, which we bought at an after Christmas clearance sale.
You can find basic machines at sew and vac stores or just let your child use yours. You know, like a normal person that doesn’t have to start counting on their fingers before they can tell you how many sewing machines they own. (I’d blame my husband, but we’re both to blame on that one.) It’s important to find a model that sews reasonably well and it’s even better if it has a setting that allows you to slow the maximum speed down. (Update: someone in the comments pointed out that the Hello Kitty machine does not allow you to slow down the stitch speed. True, but it doesn’t sew terribly fast, either.) Don’t worry about fancy stitching options. You only need straight and zig-zag for most projects, and extra knobs are just confusing. This model looks like it’s the same as our Hello Kitty machine without the branding, for instance. Six stitches and a buttonhole, and the stitches are all visually represented on the side of the machine.
Pick small, forgiving projects to start. We started with drawstring bags and just sewing scraps together and learning how to move fabric through the machine. My son is still at this stage. We moved on to sun dresses from pre-shirred fabric with my daughter. This is a really basic project, because you just sew one seam down the middle and add straps. You can usually find fabric like this locally. You can also buy yardage with patterns for things like stuffed animals and aprons printed directly on the fabric. Then you can move on to pillows, and finally quilts from pre-cut fabric squares.
Now my daughter makes quilts, costumes, purses, dresses, and a variety of other projects. You want to start with something that can be done in an afternoon, and then you can get to the complicated projects later.
Patterns come second. The first step is to learn the sewing machine. Learning to read and follow patterns is an important skill, but it just adds a level of frustration if you throw it at a child all at once. There’s the added complication that some commercial patterns are just plain wrong. They were printed with errors or the sizes were off. If you already know how to sew, at least you know it wasn’t you.
Most errors are recoverable. This is important. Every sewer makes a lot of mistakes. Kids will make bunches, too, and they need to learn that it’s ok, and that seam rippers were invented for a reason. This may be hard on the little perfectionist, but they’ll love the final product.
We’ve been fortunate enough to not sew any fingers. That lecture about needle safety was taken to heart, but we have had a few broken needles and snarled thread knots. It’s frustrating, but you show them how to take it slowly and problem solve the situation. Buy good quality thread, don’t sew over pins, and keep extra needles on hand. If you keep running into problems, try rethreading or changing the needle.
Sneak away slowly. You need to supervise everything at first, but after a while, you need to just leave the room, grab a book, or otherwise make yourself less available as a crutch and micromanager. (I’m not talking about a six-year-old here. ) One of my favorite moments with this quilt was after I’d snuck out of the room to let her finish piecing the top. She finished up and then ran into my room shouting,”I did it! Come see my quilt!” That sort of pride is priceless, and a kid won’t have it if they don’t feel like they did it themselves.
Speaking of which, here’s her finished quilt on display at the county fair. Think she might still be a little proud?