Teach Your Geeklings to Sew

Clothing and Cosplay GeekMom

My daughter is busy sewing her third quilt in this picture, using her Hello Kitty sewing machine.

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?

The purple ribbon winner.

 

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36 thoughts on “Teach Your Geeklings to Sew

  1. Any advice for someone who wants to learn to sew themselves? I have a sewing machine that had been my mom’s, but I’m feeling intimidated.

    But I’ve been hand sewing my costumes and would love to be able to use my machine. And I’d love to learn how to read patterns but they are just gibberish to me right now.

    1. Many fabric or sewing machine stores ofter classes for adult/teen beginners. That’s a great place to start. Community colleges also sometimes ofter classes in sewing and patterns, but they’re typically longer courses, so it depends on the time commitment you have.

    2. To get started sewing…just sew. The fear of screwing it up is the worst part. If you’re hand sewing, Mandy, you’re totally capable of using that machine! Just google the instructions of your machine for the manual if you don’t have it. Watch youtube videos on how to do the bobbin and thread things. And then just do it until you feel comfortable with it. Sew some simpler things first, like a patchwork quilt and then I’m sure you’d be ready to sew your costumes.

      I hate patterns though. I, for some reason, have the worst luck with patterns. I just measure and use trial and error. (Perhaps it’s a mistake on my end! But I found a way that works for me.)

      1. Much of the problem with commercial patterns is in the pattern and not you. The instructions are often lousy, and sometimes the pieces don’t even match. I’ve had better luck with patterns that weren’t from one of the big sellers.

        1. I agree! Start with easy to read and understand patterns and work your way up to the complex and ridiculous ones – if you get the general idea of what most patterns are trying to tell you, you might be able to overlook what a poorly written one says and figure out what it actually MEANS without “following” the directions! 🙂

          Start small, though! Pajama pants are an easy beginner project, and if you run across instruction in a pattern that you don’t understand, you can go on youtube and type in the direction and usually find a video of someone showing you exactly how to do what you are trying to do! DIVE IN! Good luck! 🙂

        2. It’s sad that the Big 4 pattern instructions have gotten so bad. I collect vintage patterns and was surprised that they used to be sooo good. They taught you step by sew, including the basic sewing steps.

    3. If night courses won’t work for you… then google the internet for super easy projects. Sometimes just taking the bull by the horns and jumping in is the best thing. (I need to do this with my serger!)

      My first project was a cover for the body pillow my husband owned. I grew tired of its drab plain appearance. so I just went for it with some fabric I had in the house.

      FWIW, I love a lot of the beginner tutorials on the internet (again google beginner sewing tutorial) because they give simple step by step instructions that are in plain English written for the non-seamstress! 🙂

      Good Luck!

    4. This may sound weird and unnecessary, but if the machine was your mom’s and hasn’t been used in a while, find a service guy to give it a tune-up. Trying to learn to sew on a machine that is all gunked up or needs even minor mechanical adjustments will frustrate you. I promise it is worth the cost of the tune-up.

      As for learning to sew, think about what kind of learner you are. A kinetic learner will enjoy a hands-on class, a visual learner may prefer a book, an auditory learner might do better with a video they can watch over and over. Although my mom taught me the machine basics when I was little, I’m a visual learner and I do best reading the instructions and then trying it on my own. I don’t have a particular book to recommend, but I suggest one with pictures or good drawings.

  2. One thing you might get, if you don’t already have one, is a sewing awl. You can get them from Tandy Leathercraft. Tandy doesn’t have a lot of chain stores anymore, but they have a website and mail-order operation. They are mostly oriented to selling stuff in bulk to schools. This tool is of course primarily designed for saddle stitching, but you can use the smaller needle with ordinary thread, winding it yourself on a spare reel. It gives you a lot more fine control than a sewing machine does, in places where one stitch matters.

    http://www.tandyleatherfactory.com/en-usd/home/home.aspx
    http://www.tandyleatherfactory.com/en-usd/home/1216-00.aspx
    http://www.tandyleatherfactory.com/en-usd/home/1198-034.aspx
    http://www.tandyleatherfactory.com/en-usd/home/1204-035.aspx

    It’s always best to learn a craft with hand tools, because that gives you a more fundamental understanding than you gain with a power tool. That’s equally true of carpentry, of course.

    I learned to sew at a New England prep school, oddly enough. Those places are sort of like the Army, they’re big on teaching you self-reliance, and if you need something done, you do it yourself. They also make you work at maintaining the school grounds and buildings, and what not, pulling KP in the dining hall, etc. So I got a sewing needle, and thread, and started mending my kit on an ad-hoc basis. Eventually, years later, I got a sewing machine.

    At any rate, at the age of eighteen, when I was going on to college, I was visiting at my maternal grandmother’s house, and I was mending a pair of trousers, not thinking particularly about it, when my mother and grandmother came in, and saw what I was doing. Delightedly, they began to speak of my great-grandfather, the Jewish tailor from Riga, in what is now Latvia.

    1. That’s very cool, Andrew. I did teach my kids a little bit of hand sewing, since I have them help out with the binding on my quilts and sew the binding on their own quilt, and then any pillows or stuffed animals get the end finished by hand. The problem is that it’s so much slower that they get frustrated before completing a full project by hand. I’m too impatient to do a full hand project by myself! I hadn’t thought about explaining the process of sewing using a sewing awl, though. That’s a very good idea.

    2. Sewing awl… this apparently is what my sister meant when she said “leather needle”. She took in a pair of leather pants for me a while back; apparently you cannot sew leather with a machine.

      1. You can most definitely sew leather with a sewing machine. Not the super thick stuff (like saddle leather), but jackets or pants.

        You need 1) a strong enough needle, and 2) a non-stick machine foot.

  3. One last point. I started sewing with my now 10 yr old when she was 5-6-ish…. she has kept on going. It is totally worth while! 🙂

  4. Wow, I love this article! I learned how to hand-sew as a girl scout, and a little machine sewing from my mom by high school that I mostly forgot. When I was 21 I taught myself to sew, and now at 26 I have a closet full of costumes, and my 2 and a half year old has some handmade dresses and costumes as well. I can’t wait till she’s old enough that I can start teaching her! Until then, I’ll make stuff for her =) (And others, to sell on my etsy shop)

  5. One technical point I might add about my previous post. Find a large, heavy blunt-tipped sewing needle with a big eye (I think they’re intended for use in macramé, or something like that), and then use that as a kind of bobbin. After you put the first stitch through the fabric, tie the thread through the eye of the blunt-tipped needle with two-half-hitches, and, thereafter, once you’ve put the needle through the loop, just let it drop to take up the slack.

    Also, there are some semi-circular hand-sewing needles I find useful. They are intended for sewing carpet, where the other side is physically inaccessible, but they tend to make conventional sewing easier as well. If you have to push the semi-circular needle through heavy fabric, use a small pliars instead of a thimble.

  6. Thanks for the pointers. My five year old is asking to learn how to knit, but since I’m still learning, I want to teach him sewing first. You’ve given me confidence to teach.

  7. If I may be so bold as to post yet a third time, I should like to discuss pinning. After the manner of Field-Marshall Suvorov, I might say, “pin hard, sew easy.” The trick is to get everything located properly, before you start running the sewing machine.

    Consider the use of the paper clip and the safety pin. A paper clip is good at holding material flat. You cannot machine-sew over a paper clip, of course, but you can hand-sew a tack in the center of the paper clip, in such a way that the paper clip can be subsequently removed without breaking the tack, and in such a manner that the tack is on the centerline of an eventual seam.

    Safety pins have a different quality. You can pin a safety pin in such a way as to take a large pinch of the top layer of cloth, and a small pinch of the bottom layer. This means that the two pieces of cloth can slide over each other, along the axis of the safety pin. By putting down a line of safety pins, you can locate two pieces of cloth in one axis, while leaving them free to adjust in the perpendicular axis, sliding up and down the line. This is useful for setting waistbands, for example. It is probably best to insert the safety pins parallel to the eventual seam line, rather than on it, because a pin tends to pull the cloth out of the flat, and you want to minimize the distortion at the sew-line. Again, once you have located everything, you hand-sew tacks, and take the pins out.

    Your hand-sewing will not be fast and furious and fatiguing– it will be slow and thoughtful, figuring out where everything is supposed to go. When you start using the sewing machine, you should be running from tack to tack, connecting the dots as it were. What you have done with your hand-sewing is to reduce the big problem into a series of little problems.

    There is a saying that a carpenter’s most basic tool is a pencil. The starting point to do a good job of carpentry is to scribe everything out on the wood, before cutting anything. The same principle applies, in a more complicated way, to sewing.

  8. I’ve taught several kids the basics of sewing. Usually we do a pillowcase first, based on measuring and sewing the few seams, they always love it and and there are so many fun fabric prints to choose from. 🙂 When we are starting to work with patterns we usually make pajama pants because the patterns are fairly simple and also forgiving with quite a bit of ease. Every kid I know who has made pj pants has loved them and my daughters will wear their till they are capri length. My Daughter has that same Hello Kitty machine, she saved her money and bought it herself on clearance, she is very proud of it and it sews very well.

  9. You are a very smart parent and I am sew impressed! It is such a great idea to teach your children to sew at a young age. As you mentioned, it will help them in so many areas!

    love your blog!

  10. I cannot agree enough with this statement. I am 22 and one of maybe 15 kids in my entire college that could sew. Wanna know how I knew the other 15? We all worked together and its actually how I made all my spending money in college. My mom started teaching me when I was 5 and its been an invaluable skill. Oh also for all the moms that want to get their daughters into STEM careers, sewing helps big time. The biggest majors in the costume shop where I worked were in math or science and there is a direct connection between the 2-D to 3-D orientation skills that are taught from sewing and being able to do math later.

  11. You said it’s important to have a machine that “has a setting that allows you to slow the maximum speed down”. I sew a little (mostly quilting) and have a few machines on hand, but I’ve never known any machine with this capability. I looked at the Hello Kitty one linked above, and I could not see any evidence that it can be slowed down… in fact, one commenter said it is either off or fast, which makes it sound like the speed can’t be controlled. So, I have two questions:
    -What indication do you have that a machine can have its maximum speed reduced? (How can I identify this feature in a list?)
    -Does the Hello Kitty machine have this feature? (It seems quite possible that the poster on Amazon just didn’t know about it.)

    This was a great post and I love the comments as well. I definitely want to teach my children to sew, and I love the ideas listed here.

    Thanks!

    1. Ooh, you’re right. Good catch. The Hello Kitty machine doesn’t have a slow setting, but I don’t think it actually sews that fast. I looked it up, and it sews at 550 spm. Compare that to the 1000 spm on a Memory Craft model. I think we must have actually started my daughter off with the Brother, because I remember setting it to the slow setting for her. It’s got a switch on the side that goes for three different speed settings. My 1970s model Elna machine has a slow/fast switch on the foot pedal instead of the machine. I’ve seen the slow switch on other brands of machines, too, but nobody seems to be advertising this feature. Odd.

  12. I’m glad to see the comments about teaching boys to sew as well. My wife hates the fact that I can sew better than her, but I learned how to sew upholstery and she hates the fact that I can do blind zippers and multilayer configurations better than she. My mother taught me how to sew, wash clothes and cook because she though that we boys, I have two brothers, should be able to fend for ourselves. When it comes to sewing some of the more exotic materials used in their Halloween costumes, burlap, canvas and faux-fur .

  13. Great article, I learned how to use the sewing machine after acquiring a family heirloom from 1910. It’s with my parents while I live abroad. I took some sewing classes a while back but never really grasped patterns. I should get back into it someday. Now that we have youtube things should be easier and cheaper..

  14. I’ve taught sewing to lots of kids and I’ve never once had a sewing machine accident. The iron, now, that’s a different story. That’s where I focus most of my time during the safety lesson. 🙂

    One trick for slowing down the speed of the machine – get a couple of those felt bumpers (the things people stick on the feet of their furniture) and stick them inside the pedal so they can’t push it all the way to the floor. My daughter started sewing when she was 4 and I think we took the bumpers out when she was about 6.

  15. Ooooh – one more thing! Sorry – three posts in 5 minutes is crazy – but I’m really passionate about this. 🙂 If you’re working with little kids – draw the actual stitching line on the fabric for them. It’s REALLY hard for kids to follow an invisible line and every instinct is telling them to WATCH THE NEEDLE. So give them a line where the needle is!

    I let them get comfortable with the machine – stopping to pull out pins, learning to control the speed, remembering to lower the presser foot, etc. The I do some projects with 1/4 inch seam allowance so they’re just lining up with the edge of the presser foot, and THEN I start teaching them to use the ruler on the throat plate. And when they get to the throat plate stage I start out with some masking tape where I want them to line up. It’s all about baby steps. 🙂

    1. I’ve taught my daughter to use the edge of the foot as her guide for a quarter inch allowance, but when she first started we would trace out the line for her in washable marker. Good point.

  16. Just a note on machine speed: my old Elna Sewing machine has two speeds, indicated by rabbit icons! One bunny or two lol! The control is on the foot pedal – so I guess it just stops the sewer from pressing their foot down too far. 🙂

    Maybe it’s still possible to get foot pedals like this?

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