Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Help! Teaching a Kid to Sew?

I'm pretty sure it will not turn out this picturesque. From here.

My students, who are high schoolers, all know of my professed abhorrence of children, especially the littlest, tiniest babies. The older they are, the more tolerable. When they can have reasonable conversations with you, oh joy! Although one might argue that high schoolers are hardly reasonable, what with the raging hormones and underdeveloped frontal lobe and all. But in all honesty, it's because I never know what to say to kids (My repertoire is exhausted after "What's your name?" and "How old are you?"). I'm not one of those magical Mary Poppins types who walk into a room and suddenly all the kids flock over because they sense a kindred spirit. Despite the goofiness of my wardrobe, I'm more likely to be found staring awkwardly at a small human being. Telling myself "They're more afraid of you than you are of them!" doesn't really help either.

So it is with some trepidation that I agreed to teach an eight year old how to use her brand new Christmas sewing machine. Her mom, who goes to our church, says that she wants to be a fashion designer when she grows up and is really excited about making her own clothing. She's been waiting to open up the machine for a month, waiting until someone can show her how not to sew through her fingers. Well, my desire to enable others to engage in this awesomely creative pastime trumps my fear of children. That said, here are my areas of concern:
  1. She's eight. Despite majoring in psychology, I have no idea what that practically means about her maturity level and attention span.
  2. I don't know what kind of machine this Christmas gift is? I'm afraid it will be one of these. To that end, I am going to bring my own, just in case. 
  3. Will she be expecting to whip up a dress right away? When I teach people to sew, after practicing stitching on scraps, my standard first project is a drawstring bag. And then maybe a zippered pouch. Maybe then, a gathered elastic waist skirt for a third project. Will she be bored if we start there?
  4. How much should I tell her about details, like say, pressing seams or the parts on the sewing machine? Should I just call it the little thingy that holds the bottom thread and how much space you leave at the end, or the bobbin and the seam allowance?
I'm supposed to go over to their home on Wednesday afternoon. So those of you with small human beings in your homes, help! I'm looking at you, Tanit-Isis. How does one teach a kid to sew? 


  1. I think it's going to be great. When a kid wants to learn something it always goes smooth. I promise. If she has never done any sewing start her out on a piece of paper with the machine un-threaded so she can get used to the speed.

  2. That Mini Rex thing looks like an awesome weapon.

    Other than the great idea Lady Danburry put forward, I'd say put things in lamen's terms. Explain that it's called a bobbin, but you can call it the thingy that holds the bottom thread because you might fry her brain with your t3chn1cal j4rg0nz. [That actually took ages to type!]

    I started teaching my ten year old niece how to sew when I was living nearer [after me and her had to fight my sister's screams of "YOU'RE GOING TO MANGLE HER LITTLE HANDS" everytime she touched the machine], and it was only tasking because she's a brat, but that's family for you.

    Other than that, you'd probably be surprised how excited they get over drawstring bags. My niece made five more once she'd finished the first, because aside being a brat, she's also a brag.
    I'd say, should she get upset that you won't be making dresses off the bat, tell her that she'll need to do something really easy to start so she knows everything she needs to for when you teach her how to make clothes. It also might be an idea to take along some pictures of some of things you've made, and if you made any drawstring bags yourself, bring them along to let her know that everyone's got to start somewhere before they make Superman dresses..

  3. Hi! I haven't commented here before, I'm even a pretty new reader, and I still don't know how to use my TWO sewing machines... but I do have 3 kids, one of which is a 7 year old girl.

    ooooo, I like what the other comments have said! In fact, I think I'm going to have to remember the paper thing for myself!

    I would not expect an attention span longer than about 10 minutes for any one task. That will be a different pacing, so definitely make a lesson plan!

    Maturity, of course, depends on the child- but a fashion designer is not the most fanciful occupation in the world (my 7 year old girl wants to be a Ballet Ninja when she grows up...), so she may be mature enough to understand that one does not just start off making clothes right off. In fact, I'd want to sit her down seriously and tell her how you'd teach someone older to sew and not pussy-foot around it. Treat her with respect and she will likely return it. See what all she wants to make that is smaller than a garment- including doll clothes (hoping for American Girl rather than Barbie here). If she picks the project (from choices you set for her), and picks the fabrics, she is much less likely to be bored. It helps if she knows WHY she is doing what she is doing, and what she should learn from it that she can use in garments.

    I would definitely try to teach proper terms for things- it will only help her if she needs help from someone else in the future, and it tell that person that she is more serious about the hobby. My guess is that she won't want to do the detail work like pressing seams (plus her mom may not want her using an iron!), so that is something you may have to play by ear. Certainly tell (and show if possible) WHY she should press seams. If this is the first of multiple lessons that may be all you need for now.

    Let her ask questions, and answer them straight. Ask her questions, even about what might come next or why you'd do something that way- get her thinking. (Just no yes/no questions, you'll never get a longer response!) Give her things to do, too, rather than just watching you. It'll help keep her engaged with the lesson. :)

    Do not be worried or distressed if you lose her attention after 10-15 minutes, especially if this is after school. Give her a drink break and then come back to it. It'll be ok.

    Oh, and definitely bring your own machine- it will be good and will help you to have a known quantity in this equation!

    Hope this helps! :)

  4. My son (and I) sewed a ninja costume when he was 5. He did all the layout, pinning and cutting, while I did the sewing, because it was jersey and we all know how easy it is to sew your finger when that needle is zig-zagging back and forth. I know because I did it. Last year. When I was 40.

    I'd say let her pick something she's enthusiastic about, rather than dictating the project. My kids will do anything if they think it up themselves (i.e. we made dinosaur poop, wood cookie sculptures and felt Totoros this weekend because that's what THEY wanted. I wanted to make a pencil skirt, but do you think I had a minute to myself? Noooooo.....end motherhood rant.)

    If she gets stuck or bored, she'll tell you and ask you to do it; kids don't filter their thoughts, they just tell you exactly what they're thinking.

  5. So I have no kids, and I've only taught adults how to sew so far. But I did go to sewing lessons when I was a kid, with other kids as young as 8. I had two different sewing teachers, the first had a very regimented system of moving up into more complex projects. First you HAD to make a drawstring bag, then you HAD to make elastic waist shorts, then you HAD to make a boatneck blouse, so on and so forth. I probably would have quit if it had gone on like that too long.

    My second teacher let us pick our own projects (within reason). I clearly remember sewing a giant foot shaped pillow, complete with red toenails. She helped us lay everything out, giving us pointers the whole way (pin parallel to the cutting line, use weights to keep the pattern piece down, use long even cuts, etc). She had us sew everything, and press everything, unless we got super frustrated or we had already picked something out 500 times. It's good to have the kid pick out their own stitching, but if they're getting too frustrated, I would help them pick it out. I remember her refrain of "butterfly fingers!" when trying to get kids to let up on their death grip on fabric.

    The kid will help set the pace, and at least you have something very concrete that you're working on together, so it won't be terribly awkward to interact with her. Good luck!!

  6. Obviously others are probably more qualified to give you advice since I don't have children. But when I was little my mom helped me make simple elastic waist skirts, I think that's a good starting point because it's just as simple as a drawstring bag but maybe a little more exciting for her.

  7. I teach a seven year old to sew so here are my tips:
    -You should first start her off with something as easy as cross stitch, sewing my hand is the best place to start. She could make something like a book mark or something tiny if she is desperate to use her sewing machine or doesn't have much patience.
    -Then show her regular hand sewing techniques and help her make something. It could be a bow to put in her hair for instance.
    -Asses her ability and see what sort of things she would like to make. Take a pattern over to her and show her how much you have to do-but don't blind her with science! A lot of people think you can just whip something up in a few seconds and you just sew down both sides and voila!
    -Talk to her mother and ask her about the sewing machine what make e.g. and check it out.
    -When she is ready to go on the sewing machine, do the foot action for her at first-you don't want her putting a needle through her fingers because she is going to fast!
    -Draw some straight lines out on calico for her to sew on and as she gets the hang of it draw curves, zig-zags, any shape really. This will help her get the hang of it.
    -When she is ready you could either choose a clothes pattern with her or if you don't think she is up to that yet, you could show her how to make something small that she could use-like a pin cushion.
    -It may take time to teach her and patience and just take her through the steps.You don't want it to feel like a chore or like homework.
    Let us know how you get on! Hope this helps!

  8. Every child is different. If her parents think she's capable of caring for her own sewing machine, then she's probably mature enough. Also, as with virtually anything you can teach a child, the correct terms are always best. If she doesn't understand them, keep reviewing until she does. It'll be awesome!

  9. I would third the "practice following lines on paper with an unthreaded needle" first -- I taught sewing to college students and by far the hardest thing for them was keeping an even seam allowance, especially on curves, which I think could have been alleviated some with this style of practice.

    The other thing they found difficult was controlling the needle speed -- either very very slow or SUPERFAST. For a little kid, very very slow is probably better.

    Also, I would put it out there that doll clothes are not automatically easier than people clothes -- same basic techniques, just on a teeny tiny scale! (In fact, they might be harder just because it's harder to not accidentally sew things together you don't want to sew together!)

    The idea of giving her a selection of first projects to pick from is a great one: you get to pick the skill level, she gets to pick the one she likes. A gathered waist skirt probably isn't too hard for a first project (they're usually all straight lines, anyway), and a successful, inspiring first project is the best way to make her want to keep sewing!

    Good luck!!

  10. You probably have lots of good ideas here already, but having an eight-year-old sometimes-sewist, I thought I'd throw in my own :)

    1)Kids aren't cool. Meaning, they're all pretty socially awkward, so just don't worry about it. You guys have a topic to discuss---sewing---so it's not like you need to make small talk about Hannah Montana or anything (fortunately!) (I totally found kids older than my own intimidating for the longest time.)

    2) I would teach her the proper terminology. It doesn't have to be a long list or a spelling test, just refer to things by their names and remind her if (when) she forgets.

    3) The sewing on paper (with no thread) trick is a good one---you can also cut shapes along the paper to help her practice watching her seam-allowance and maneuvering curves etc. Although, start with straight.

    4) How much she'll be able to accomplish will depend on her attention, focus, and motivation. My eight year old is actually better at watching her seam-allowance than my eleven year old is...

    5) Syo's favourite projects at the moment are purses. I started out making (very simple rectangular) Barbie clothes. I think going along with what she wants (within reason) is probably the best idea, once she gets the basics down. Elastic-waist skirts (rectangle or handkerchief) would be some nice simple clothes projects. If she really wants to design clothes, you could even help her take some sketches to design, but that's a ways down the line.

    6) I never really know what to say in terms of teaching because I taught myself---all my mom showed me (probably at about your pupil's age) was how to thread the machine, backstitch at the end of a seam, and not sew over my fingers. Not saying this is the best way to learn to sew, but it's certainly adequate. :)

    Good luck and have fun! I hope she's as motivated as it sounds like, as she'll be a pleasure to teach. :)

  11. I'm like you with kids... I really don't get them and mostly would rather be hung by my thumbs than have a class full of them... There's always one or two in the class who don't want to listen, just want to cause problems and say stuff like "You're not my mom, you can't tell me what to do" or "My grandma said you have to sew it this way" (my response? "Is your grandmother here, my little angel?" with a Mary Poppins smile..)

    But this kid sounds like she's a nice little girl who is keen to learn. And extra points because it's one-on-one... A herd of them gets out of hand quickly. DEFINITELY teach her the right words and techniques for everything. You're not helping her out in the long run by teaching her words like "thingy". Just start super simple and build from there. And I think mostly kids know when you're not telling them the full story, if you know what I mean... But even smart kids have to be told the same thing over and over again, most of them get there in the end.

    Insist that she keep calm in her work and focus... Kids tend to start sewing a seam and then look up and out the window or at the ceiling while their foot is still on the pedal. Until you develop her "focusing" abilities, she'll need you to stand over her. Probably. Use your "calming a scared horse voice" and gently remind her to look at her work when her eyes wander, remind her to pull out pins as she sews, etc. It might take a while, but if you're calm and patient she'll be building skills she can use until she's a little old arthritic lady (and she'll be hearing your voice in the back of her head every time she sews a seam...).

    Some kids have already been taught how to focus, and in that case give her mom a big hug and a kiss from me. They are MUCH easier to teach.

  12. I learned how to sew from my 4-H leader and some things stick vividly! Now that I was the 4-H leader.. here are some tips that worked for me
    1. Talk to the kids like you would anyone else. yeah drop the technical mumbo jumbo, but don't dumb it down, they know
    2. ask her mom what she is interested in making, then have 3-4 ideas for projects for her to pick from
    3. bring over some fabric scraps and remnants.. along with the sewing on lines on paper, let her sew on the actual fabric to see what it feels like and to have no pressure on messing up.. its a scrap!
    4. once she has picked out a project, help her with fabric selection. even do a field trip to the fabric store, go over what supplies are needed, what is nice, what is a waste of time. What kind of fabric is best for the project? the slinky stretchy glittery sating is probably not good for a bag.
    5. Let her do the work....show her once, let her demo then have her teach her mom.
    6. if there is a mistake.... seam ripper time (I can still hear... " you know, that is not the way it should be, it might hold, but, rip it out and sew it again." My seam ripper is my best friend!
    5. and for you.. HAVE FUN!!!! You will be amazed at what she says and what she is able to make with a little practice.

  13. Oh, Cindy! How exciting! You are such a kind and lovely human being! How neat of you to share your love of sewing with a young girl! Can't wait to hear how it goes!

  14. My nearly 6 year old is desperate to learn how to sew and at the moment i have limited it to hand sewing (my patience is not brilliant) The comments above are all brilliant. My 8 year old son wants to learn how to use my machine and I agree with the above, don't dumb it down. They are sponges and are used to learning all of the time. Unlike most adults they are used to being taught new skills. She will be chuffed to bits with anything she makes as she has done it. Well done and good look. I found your blog yesterday and really pleased i did. x

  15. I agree with many of the comments above, and I have to admit I found talking to kids very daunting until I had my own! I would be very surprised if your friend's daughter is cool... they do have their own funny slang but I don't think most of them feel cool.

    It would be great to work on a project that you feel she can make a success of - and I agree that small doll's clothes would be tricky (and I think initially easier by hand). A few months ago I gave a neighbour's 12 yo daughter an impromptu sewing lesson, and she asked me to help her make a no-zip cushion cover for a school assignment. She seemed to find it challenging and satisfying as she had never tried to use a sewing machine before - and she was already envisaging making herself a new wardrobe. Not only was she thrilled when she completed her cushion cover but her 11 yo brother was so impressed he hung around and eventually asked if he could have it!

    I hope you and your friend's daughter have fun!

  16. First, I'm a new reader to your blog and have been enjoying it a lot!

    Second, you've received some great tips (that I'll use myself!), and I'd like to offer a few things from my experience with a friend's 5 year old:

    1. Leave your expectations at the door. Of course teach her, but be guided by your experience with her rather than thinking beforehand how everything "should" be or what you want it to be. This will allow for tip #2 to come much easier.
    2. Patience. (Nothing needs to be said about this one. )
    3. Select an easy pattern, but then give her some creative freedom even if it's "ugly". My friend's daughter and I made an elastic waistband skirt with 3 silly/unmatching buttons placed at whim on the fabric... she wears it constantly, and even brought it to school for show and tell. It's her pride and joy because she made it with her "Aunt" and she got to pick out the buttons. (It's adorable the things children find meaningful)
    4. After the project is finished, whip up a matching accessory and surprise her with it. It'll help get her excited again for "the next project" and show her that you care. This can be good if you feel a bit awkward around her.

    Good luck, I'd love to read about how it goes!

  17. How exciting! My mother taught me basic sewing skills when I was about six to eight years old. Dolls clothing is a good start. Even better is to start off with quilt squares. They're easy, you can work on cutting, piecing together, and sewing in straight lines. You could do a quilt sampler... maybe 4-6 different squares. That may hold her interest long enough to complete the project (holding her interest is probably going to be the hardest part, honestly). Otherwise, I'd let her dictate. If she's into a quilt, cool. If she wants to sew doll clothes, cool. If she's more interested in her own clothing, cool. Just have fun!


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