Wendi Gratz from Shiny Happy World has shared a number of fun and easy tutorials here at Sew Mama Sew, including Monster Hand Warmers and the Tin Can Carrier. Learn about Wendi’s work in her introduction and visit Shiny Happy World for lots of video tutorials and more.
Wendi has a book coming out this fall, Creature Camp, all about helping kids learn to sew their own softies. (It’s available to pre-order now!) Today she shares some fantastic tips for sewing with kids.
I love sewing with kids! I’ve taught more Sewing Camps and Sewing Classes than I can count. Even when it’s not a sewing class I sneak in some sewing; kids in my Harry Potter Camp sewed stuffed owls and their own Hogwarts cloaks. My next book– Creature Camp, written with my 10-year-old daughter– is written especially for kids, teaching them how to sew (and design) their own softies.
Kids can sew! And here are ten tips for sewing with them, and having fun while you’re at it.
1. How young can they start? Start when they start asking to sew. A lot of people ask me what’s a good age to start. It depends on the kid, and especially on how much experience they have using their hands. My daughter got her first sewing machine at age 4, but I usually recommend starting machine sewing with help at around age 6. Eight year olds can often sew without supervision. Let your kid be the guide.
Some kids think they want to start on the machine, but then they get pretty nervous about it after we have a safety talk. A good solution is to steer the fabric while they work the pedal. It lets them get a feel for how they can control the speed, without having their fingers near the fast-moving needle. If you do this be very sure they understand to take their foot completely off the pedal the second you say, “Stop.” Make sure they’re looking you in the eye and paying attention while you explain this. I’ve done this with dozens of kids and they’re always ready to steer themselves after a few minutes.
2. Let kids use a real machine. I’ve never worked with a toy machine that wasn’t a complete piece of junk; they are extremely frustrating for kids to use. They don’t always fail spectacularly (my daughter’s went up in smoke– very exciting) but they always fail. Kids can use a real machine.
3. Sew slowly! Kids need to understand that fast sewing isn’t better sewing, and you need to pick a day when you’re feeling patient! Some kids will sew more… slowly… than… you… ever… thought. . . your. . . machine. . . could. . . go. Seriously. It can be painful to just sit back and watch, but don’t rush them.
4. Let them choose. Let them choose the pattern, the fabric, the notions, the thread color– everything. They will choose outlandish fabric combinations and bold prints, and they always want to sew with contrasting thread. Always. And why not? You love picking out fabrics for a project– let them feel that joy too.
When I pointed out to my daughter that the strong black and white print she chose for this bunny would make it hard to see its face, she replied that she would be able see it just fine when she was holding him and that was what mattered to her. Of course, she was right.
One exception to this is steering them away from complicated patterns or fabrics that are tricky to work with. If a kid wants to use velvet (oh, do they love to use velvet) I make sure they’re using a dead simple pattern and I often recommend that they make it first in an easier fabric like fleece or quilting cotton. So help them choose when it’s a question of difficulty, not when it’s a matter of style or taste.
5. Let them make the same thing over and over again. If they have fun making a snake and want to make a snake for everyone they’ve ever met, that’s ok! Their comfort level with that one pattern is going to help all their other skills improve. Plus they’re going to start adding variations, which is extremely fun to watch.
These are just some of a horde of snakes made by a couple of kids in one of my sewing camps. By the time they were ready to move on to something else they were masters at cutting fabric, sewing straight lines, turning corners, sewing on buttons, embedding things in the seams, turning tubes right side out, using a funnel to fill them and sewing up the stuffing opening. That’s a lot of skills from one very simple pattern! (The snake is a free pattern and kid favorite; you can get it here.)
6. Avoid flimsy pattern tissue. Trace all the pattern pieces onto cardboard (cereal boxes are a good weight) and let kids trace around them onto the fabric, then cut the fabric out on the traced lines. Punch holes where they can mark for eyes and other things.
It’s very hard for kids to accurately cut two layers of fabric at once, and very, very hard for them to cut around a pinned or weighted pattern. They need to be able to move the fabric around to get at it with their scissors, so tracing onto the fabric works best.
7. Give young kids real lines to sew on. It’s very hard to sew on imaginary lines. Watching the edge of the fabric to keep it lined up with the throat plate markings is nearly impossible for kids under 8; every instinct is telling them to keep an eye on the flashing needle. For those younger kids I usually draw the stitching line right on the fabric. Kids as young as 4 can sew (slowly) right on that line without any wobbliness at all. It’s amazing. By the time they’re 8 most kids are comfortable using the edge of the presser foot as a guide, and then they easily move on to the throat plate guides.
8. Help them cut fabric efficiently. Have you ever made rolled and cut cookies with kids? You know how they always want to cut the first cookie right out of the middle of the sheet of dough? They do that with fabric too. Every time I teach a class I come home with one very large piece of fabric, with a small pattern piece cut right out of the middle of it. Every time. I’ve found that this is something you can’t simply explain; you have to show them how to position the pieces right at the edges of the fabric.
9. Use thick thread for hand work. Use hand-quilting or upholstery thread for hand sewing. It doesn’t tangle as easily as regular thread, and it’s much easier for kids to thread their own needles with the stiffer, thicker thread. I also use embroidery needles instead of sharps; they have larger eyes that are easier to thread. Size #5 works great.
I know this will be controversial, but I don’t tie the thread to the needles or use doubled-up thread – it’s very difficult for kids to fix their mistakes that way. If you thread it like normal they can simply slip the needle off, unpick the bad stitches, re-thread the needle and start sewing again. Show them how to hold things so they don’t pull the needle off the thread, and let them re-thread it themselves when they do. They’ll get the hang of it in no time.
10. Have fun! Their stitches will be crooked and their buttons will be loose and there will be unbelievable snarls of thread hidden inside their first projects, but if you let them do it themselves they’ll have loads of fun and they’ll be so proud! If they have fun, they’ll want to keep sewing, and the more they sew the more their skills will improve.
Are you looking for more even more ideas? We have a lot of good resources, articles and tutorials focused on sewing with kids.