Laura Hensley of The Sewing Class is a sewing and knitting enthusiast from Roswell, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta. When she’s not driving her three children to basketball practice, tennis lessons or ballet class, she teaches basic sewing skills from her home studio, substitute teaches at preschool and answers the phone at a dance school. Laura enjoys all kinds of people, and all kinds of crafts. Her goals for 2016 are to write lesson plans for a knitting class, sew a pair of pants that fit, and finally read all of her book club books!

Laura generously offered to share her experiences running sewing camps for kids. She has had several years of camp in the summer, with week-long sessions for kids in grades 3-6. Learn how to plan for a successful and productive time for all, and stop back later this week for Laura’s easy sunglasses case tutorial. The case is a great first project for camp, and a fun beginner sewing project for anyone! Here’s Laura with everything you need to know to start your own sewing camp this year…

A few years ago, I decided to spend two weeks of the summer sharing my love of sewing with small groups of 8-11 year olds, and Summer Sewing Camp was born! I had never run a camp before, and I’m not a trained teacher, but with some careful planning and a little creativity I pulled together the projects, handouts and activities we needed. I enjoyed that first summer so much that I’ve done a week or three of sewing camp every year since, tweaking and refining my lessons and projects each time. And while providing a Sewing Camp isn’t easy, and it takes time to prepare, you certainly don’t need to be a professional seamstress to share your own sewing gifts with children. You just need a plan, a space and plenty of enthusiasm.

Think it Through:
Choose a week or two in the summer when you can fully dedicate yourself to sewing camp. I typically plan one week in June and one in July, to coincide with my own children’s school break. My camps are four days, for three hours a day, and include time for a snack break and sack lunch, provided by the campers. Three hours of sewing and creating are plenty of time to learn and practice basic sewing skills, as well as to create some useful and attractive projects, without overwhelming your novice sewists.

Choose an area in your home where you are comfortable setting up camp (and leaving it there, in all its messy glory) for the week. I have ample space in our finished basement for my camp, but you might use a large kitchen table, folding tables in a spare room or even an underused formal living/dining room. It’s best if your site is separated from the main traffic areas in your home so your campers can concentrate on their tasks at hand without the distraction of television, family members, and so on. If you don’t have adequate room in your home, consider contacting your community’s recreation center. If they’re not currently offering summer sewing lessons, they might provide you a room (and access to potential students) for little or no cost.

Decide how many students you can comfortably teach. Learning to sew requires a lot of one-on-one attention from the teacher; the younger your students, the more attention and supervision they will need. I limit my groups to four children, and I typically use only two sewing machines, with the children paired up on each one. That way, I have only two children sewing simultaneously, and it’s much easier to oversee their work and correct errors. As they practice each lesson or skill, one child sews while their partner observes (and provides free feedback), and then they switch. The children often learn as much from observation as they do from their hands-on time on the machine.

How much will you charge? Consider how much your time is worth. As a sewist, you are in possession of skills that are valuable. And while a sewing camp is in many ways a labor of love, you need to be careful not to undersell yourself and your knowledge. In addition, you must carefully plan your expenses: not only fabric costs (if you’re unable to raid your stash), but also thread, needles, appropriate scissors, bobbins and so on. Finally, consider the essentials for your camp, such as folding tables and chairs, an iron and ironing board and, of course, several sturdy sewing machines that are in excellent condition. For my first camp, I spent all my profits well in advance; but every purchase proved to be a wise investment over time, and was re-used each summer during subsequent camps.

Plan Your Lessons:
Long before the first camper rings your doorbell, you will want to have each day planned and every duck in its row. Give yourself the gift of written lesson plans. Just like a school teacher, having a lesson plan for every day provides a guideline for teaching, and helps you use your time efficiently. I like to write my lesson plans down to the minute: perhaps 15 minutes for a welcome activity, 10 minutes of looking over the day’s handouts, 15 minutes to demonstrate and practice sewing a straight seam, and so on. I include 10 minutes for a snack time, approximately one hour after campers arrive; and 20 minutes for a lunch break, during the last half hour of camp. Always leave a few minutes at the end of the day for cleanup and some creative time, allowing campers to play with scrap fabrics and design their own small projects. My campers create beautiful doll quilts, scarves with fabulous stitch patterns, and even hair accessories during their creative time.

Purchasing a curriculum for sewing teachers was one of the smartest investments I made. I use the My Sewing School resource pack, written and illustrated by Alison McNichol, who is an experienced sewing teacher herself and the author of several sewing books for children (including My First Sewing Machine: Fashion School). The My Sewing School pack provides a curriculum, tips for getting a classroom set up, sample projects and patterns, plus student handouts. Although I ended up writing my own lesson plans, the handouts provided with the curriculum were written for children and well-illustrated, ideal for reinforcing my lessons. Rather than “reinventing the wheel,” and designing my own sewing handouts, the purchased curriculum allowed me to spend more time planning projects and thinking creatively about camp. I knew I wanted to send each camper home with a reference journal, which would include each skill learned at camp, as well as some directions for simple projects— and the curriculum made that easy to provide. Once purchased, the handouts can be printed out as many times as they’re needed. I bind mine in inexpensive paper pocket folders and they become an excellent take-home resource for my campers.

Seek Out Students:
I live in a close-knit community where word-of-mouth has proven to be the easiest method of finding students. My first year I taught the children of a few friends (and their friends), and it took off from there. I’ve taught students’ siblings, neighbors and my daughter’s friends from Sunday school and dance class. Analyze the potential where you live… Is there a recreation center or an after-school program where you can advertise? Can you post your plans to social media, or use an email invitation application, such as Evite or Sign Up Genius? You might start a blog or create a free, simple website to outline your camp plans. Contact a local scouting organization; you may be able to work with the scout leader to design a project that allows scouts to earn a badge. Identify potential obstacles that might prevent students from signing up. For example, in my neighborhood, many children participate in morning swim team practice; I adjust my camp start times accordingly.

Be Safe, Not Sorry:
Teaching a young child to sew involves an element of risk and potential for injury. Between the sewing machines, the iron and your sewing tools, there are a lot of moving parts and sharp objects contained in a small amount of space. Personal experience with a serious burn taught me that a hot iron must be respected. Take some time to think through a few accident scenarios: how will you react to a cut or a burn? Review basic first aid and gather a few supplies, like Band Aids and an ice pack, so you can react quickly in an emergency. In four years of teaching sewing camps, I have never had a serious emergency occur; but, as they say, it’s all fun and games until someone sews a finger. Make sure you, as the instructor, demonstrate that you are in control from the first day of camp. Know your expectations for safety, and communicate the rules to your students and parents. Ensure that you have a parent’s or guardian’s phone number for emergencies. In my camps, we use student-sized sewing scissors, and I never, under any circumstance, allow the students to use the hot iron. We make it a habit to turn off sewing machines when not in use, and I encourage the campers to sit quietly while their partner sews, to allow each student to concentrate on his task at hand. Learning correct hand placement at the machine is an important skill, as is practicing control of sewing speed with the foot pedal (discourage flip flops; sneakers or bare feet are safer). It’s always okay to sew slowly and with control. No one needs to risk an injury in an attempt to get a project finished. Insist on an atmosphere that is calm, quiet and respectful of others. Your campers will enjoy it more, and so will you.

Pick Your Projects:
Now for the fun part! My number one rule when choosing projects for sewing camp is: NO JUNK. Everyone’s time— including a child’s— is valuable. Why waste time creating projects that end up in the trash? I choose projects that are simple, and emphasize mastery of basic skills (straight seams, pivoting, simple seam finishes, etc.). We use quality fabrics and threads, and we don’t “cut corners” to save time. If I don’t already have all the fashion fabrics that I want for a project, I search for good quality fabrics via closeouts and discounted remnants. My favorite online fabric source, featuring a large selection of discounted heirloom fabrics on their website, is Farmhouse Fabrics. (Sew Mama Sew readers can receive a 15% discount on an order of at least $30, valid through December 2016, with coupon code sewmama15.)

Provide each camper with a labeled, gallon-sized zip top baggie for their projects. My campers stash their projects in their baggies each day before leaving, so all supplies are organized and easy to access the next day. Campers love to keep their projects concealed from parents all week, leading to a big reveal on the last day of camp! Most children really enjoy the opportunity to unveil their hard work and show off their treasured projects.

Make sure you have all the project supplies you need, and then some. The inevitable Epic Fails will occur; be ready to provide an instant replacement so your campers can keep moving forward on their projects. Analyze your projects and determine which parts you should prepare ahead of time. For example, for our Sew Easy Sunglasses Case project, I prepare the fabric squares before camp, and even iron on the fusible interfacing. Then, when I present the project to my campers, I simply demonstrate these two steps quickly at the cutting table and the ironing board. These are skills that should be safely practiced and perfected at home, with one-on-one supervision from a parent.

I have three criteria for choosing sewing camp projects. Each project must:

  • incorporate at least one basic and useful skill, such as pivoting or making a casing;
  • sew up from start to finish by most beginners in 1-2 hours or less; and
  • include attractive details and quality construction, such as seam finishes and linings.

With the thousands of sewing blogs and creative websites we can access online (including Sew Mama Sew and Pinterest), unlimited free tutorials, printable patterns and more, ideas for beginner projects are plentiful.

In addition to machine-sewing projects, I like to select several easy hand sewing projects, as there are always a few campers who find they prefer a needle and thread over a presser foot and pedal. Hand sewing skills are essential for any sewist to learn and switching to a “slow sewing” project, after an hour of intense machine-sewing, can be calming and restful. Hand sewing gives your campers a chance to sit together and chat quietly as they sew. It’s a wonderful time to ask questions and forge new relationships with fellow crafters.

Make sewing together fun, not frantic. Give your campers permission to stop working on a project if it gets frustrating, and to go at their own pace. It’s fine to set a project aside and complete it the next day, or even at home after camp ends. Every camper will make mistakes, so emphasize and model that mistakes are an acceptable and expected part of the learning process. Share your own sewing successes and failures, and the challenges you have faced with your projects. Sewing is a creative outlet, and an opportunity to grow, not a competition.

Here are a few guidelines for daily skill-building lesson plans and projects, designed to build confidence and help campers learn sewing basics. You’ll be surprised at how quickly even your youngest sewists will acquire skills and create satisfying projects!

Daily Guide for Sewing Camp:

Day 1: Begin with an overview of safety rules and explain the parts of a sewing machine. At the machines, campers can sew without thread on paper (search online for free printables) to get the hang of hand placement and sewing in a straight line. Then take a break from the machines, and sit down to some hand stitching. We make heart-shaped felt coasters, sewn with a straight stitch. Back at the machines, campers practice sewing straight seams on fabric, then learn to pivot at the corners. To apply these skills, we make a simple travel-sized laundry bag with a drawstring casing closure.

Day 2: Review safety rules and teach campers how to thread the sewing machine (build in plenty of time to practice this essential and sometimes intimidating skill). We create a lined sunglasses case from complementary fabrics and, as a surprise, I give each camper a fun pair of dollar-store sunglasses! This is a great day to demonstrate basic ironing skills, as you will need to press seams and corners, and apply fusible interfacing. Hand sewing skills for day two include practice sewing on buttons, and creating a simple felt headband or bookmark.

Day 3: This is typically a very busy day, as campers have reached a “comfort zone” and are becoming markedly more proficient. We begin at the machines and review threading. Then campers learn to use the zigzag stitch. I teach this as a seam finishing stitch, and we practice on our scraps from previous days. We learn to wind and insert bobbins, and take time to practice, practice, practice (make sure you have plenty of empty bobbins on hand). Typically, campers begin their “final project” on this day: a simple elastic waist skirt (or, for boys, pull-on shorts or a tool apron). Campers learn to take their basic hip and waist measurements, then cut their fabric and pin seams together. They sew up the sides, and use the zigzag stitch to finish the seams. Then the project is set aside for finishing on Day Four. At the hand sewing station, I teach the whipstitch and/or blanket stitch, and campers begin another project from brightly-colored felt. An open-top case for a handheld device, assembled using the blanket stitch, can be decorated with buttons so campers can practice skills learned the day before.

Day 4: Our final camp day is spent finishing their final project. Campers learn to insert elastic into the waistband (note: this can require ample patience and hands-on help from the teacher), as well as how to measure and sew a turned hem. I give campers the opportunity to model their amazing creations and we take lots of pictures! Finally, as a break from sewing (but still a sewing-related craft) we create handmade buttons from shrinkable plastic material (such as Shrinky Dinks). Check Pinterest or search online for directions and inspiration.

Count On Camaraderie:
Often, two or three of your campers will already be friends or schoolmates, but it’s important to create opportunities for all the children to get acquainted. What could be more fun than discovering a new sewing buddy? When campers come with friends, I typically allow them to pair up for the first part of a lesson, and then ask everyone to switch partners midway through. Pair older children with younger, or boys with girls, and let them work together to find their way to friendship. I purchased a set of inexpensive folding chairs, which we pull into a circle for our hand sewing lessons. We pass around supplies, admire each other’s work in progress, and chitchat—just like an old-fashioned sewing bee. Ask questions about their favorite activities, subjects in school or summer vacations, and see where the conversation leads. I often end up teaching children who enjoy creative arts (dance, gymnastics, theater) or scouting, and it’s interesting to talk about how they might use their sewing skills in support of their other pursuits.

Finish Strong + Follow Up:
In addition to their projects, I send campers home with a folder filled with handouts (most copied with permission from the My Sewing School resource pack) and several tutorials for the projects we created during camp. I also include two resource pages for their parents: an overview of skills campers learned, and a detailed list of all the supplies we used. After camp, the number one question parents ask me is, “What sewing machine should I buy?” so I always include my personal recommendations, in several price ranges.

Send parents a follow-up email, thanking them for the opportunity to teach their camper, as well as digital copies of any photos you took during the week. The highest compliment I receive as a teacher is when parents bring younger siblings to camp the following year, or request an “advanced camp” for their inspired sewing enthusiasts. There is plenty of potential to build lasting relationships with families and turn your week-long camps into weekly classes or additional project-based camps– such as making pajama pants or tote bags– during school breaks and holidays. Project possibilities are endless. There is much joy to be found in sharing your sewing passion with the next generation of crafters. With careful planning and preparation, a summer camp can be the catalyst for a new sewing career!