Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Teaching Kids To Sew

Hello friends!

This post is in response to many, many questions I've been asked about sewing with kids, along the lines of these:
  • My kid is interested. What can I do to help?
  • My kid shows interest. Should I start him on hand-sewing?
  • My kid wants to sew on my machine. What simple projects do you suggest?
  • My kid is interested. I don't want to miss this opportunity. Quick, what shall I do (before the moment passes and is lost forever)?
  • I heard your kid has a sewing tub/basket. What do you have in it?
  • I want to teach my kid to sew. Every one is doing it. What can I do? What's a good age to start?
  • I am an adult beginner and I want to (either) start sewing or continue sewing without giving up. What can I do?
Now, that last question isn't technically a kid-sewing question, but I get those Beginner questions a fair bit, too. I put that in the list because of the similarities, but I'll answer that at the end of this post. I'm also going to refer to the kid-who-wants-to-sew as the "Seamstress in Training", even though it might be a boy. And also for convenience, I will refer to the mentor-who's-training as "Mom/Grandma", even though it might very well be Dad or Grandpa, or an Aunt or Uncle. I would love for my kids to see my dad sew on our old treadle machine at home in Singapore, or ordering sewing machine accessories and notions on ebay, lest they think sewing - or shopping- is women's work (snort). Right now they only get to see me -and other women- do it, which is a shame. A few days ago I wrote a list of sewing things I want my girls to know by the time they leave my home as adult, independent seamstresses. You can go read that here. Today's post, however, is about sewing with them now, when they are little. 

What motivates me and what do they want?
Let me begin by reading between the lines a little bit and hopefully reassuring you with a Hurrah for your seamstress-in-training. The first thing I'll say is not to be afraid that this is your one chance to get her hooked i.e. that if you miss this little window of opportunity, she will lose interest forever. As long as kids see you sew, they will always be interested. Kids have short attention spans, remember. It means there will naturally be long lull periods between their spurts of interest. It also means they will return again and again to bug you to teach them to sew. Many are motivated by watching your antics with your machine but some, especially as they get to about 5 and older, are motivated by actually wanting to make something for their toys - clothes for a doll, for instance. And that will keep recurring throughout their childhood, so you'll have lots of chances to teach them.

The next thing is to remember to teach them what they want to learn. So ask them. Many parents/grandparents like to teach their kids "from the beginning with something simple" and start with hand-embroidery, or just poking a threaded needle through an embroidery hoop. That's wonderful, and it's something the kids can do independently while you get on with your own knitting or whatever and occasionally look over and nod approvingly. However, some kids want to make actual products, and secretly want to do that on the sewing machine the way they've seen you do it. With those kids, you could skip the hand-embroidery lesson (or save it till later) and get them on the machine right away to make something simple. Set it on a little (sturdy) kid-sized table or a coffee table so they can reach the pedal comfortably.

When should/can they start? And on what projects?
Ah, you're trying to make me prescribe an age, the way the sewing world obliges me to prescribe a skill level to other seamstresses. Sneaky. Sorry, I can't. Instead, I'll suggest you might pick tasks based on the ability of the kid in question. Some tasks may not be sewing at all, but they look like what Mom/Grandma is doing, and are fun for kids. Here's what I mean:
  • Really little kids can do lacing cards and poking needles through an embroidery hoop. If you don't like real needles, use plastic needles. Use burlap or monkscloth for a fabric that's naturally holey. Use small colorful plastic embroidery hoops for littler hands; larger hoops for larger hands. Make or buy lacing cards with holes around the edge, or holes in an outlined shape in the middle of the card. Use plastic canvas for free-form stitching, or drawn on with a Sharpie for guided stitching. Older kids can whip-stitch plastic canvas shapes into structures like cubes, pyramids and baskets. Same in-out needlework, but they're making something 3D. 
  • Kids who can handle the boost in motor skills can applique or sew on buttons or large sequins. Again, using an embroidery hoop keeps the underlying fabric taut so it doesn't frustrate little hands. Applique felt shapes using the whip stitch, blanket stitch or running stitch. Sew buttons free-form, or within the outline of a design like a mosaic. 
  • Kids with better fine motor skills may enjoy actual embroidery stitches. Google "embroidery stitches" and you'll find plenty of tutorials. Sketch (or copy) designs onto fabric and let them do french knots, lazy-daisy stitches, running stitch, backstitch, satin stitch, and any other basic embroidery stitches.
Important: these are all embellishing tasks, so unless you're planning samplers of your kids' work, you will need to turn them into actual projects: a cushion cover, a pencil case, an apron, a skirt, a tote bag, a fabric bucket. You might have do the actual sewing of seams and lining and zippers and all that, but they will be able to say, "Mum/Grandma and I made that!"

If your kids are interested in stuffed toys, try 2D ones first. Like these. They can be whip-stitched by hand right-side out. Also doll pillows, which are 2D and stuffed. They can graduate later to 3D toys with gussets and thicknesses. If your kids are mentioning using the sewing machine, then use the sewing machine and don't make them do hand-embroidery. If they are too little to visualize how parts join together, or to handle more than one layer of fabric at a time, try these:
  • Unthread the machine and remove the bobbin. Give them paper and let them make perforations, then let them tear these apart. It's fun and you don't have to worry about tangled thread.
  • With a threaded needle (and bobbin), make little books. Stack paper together, fold in half to make a spine, and sew down the spine with long stitches. 
  • Cut triangles from different colored paper and let them sew their top edges one after the other, to make a banner.
  • Make greeting cards. Grab random scrap fabric from your scrap bin and some cardstock, and let the kids stitch the fabric on the front of the cards.
Remember to toss the needle you used for paper, when you are ready to sew with fabric again!

If they are ready to try fabric projects, here are two simple ones the girls and I have made. They use only straight seams. Click on the names below each photo to go to those posts.

Here's a project that combined a little bit a curved seams (the head) and patchwork:

I have reservations about doll clothes. They are small, fiddly and thus hard to sew. Especially if you are 5 years old. They also require fasteners (buttons, snaps, zippers, velcro) or else elastic casings and/or knit fabric. For younger kids, try spaghetti strap dresses made with knit fabric, to minimize the need for fasteners or elastic. Avoid sleeves unless you don't mind something that fits badly. Avoid sleeveless armscyes unless you want to be left with doing all the bias-tape binding or facing.

Note that these fabric projects are all collaborative efforts, and require a lot of supervision. Your job would include designing the project, drawing lines (both for cutting and sewing) and pinning pieces together. The little seamstress-in-training can then choose fabric, do all the cutting (because you drew lines to help) and all the sewing. You can teach them back-stitching, lowering and raising the presser foot, cutting off trailing thread, following the stitching lines (some can even eye the edge of the presser foot to get straight lines), sewing-WS -out to hide seam allowances, then turning RS out. Set aside time to work with your kid on the project because you probably won't be able to do your own sewing while they do theirs. Plus you'll need to be vigilant all the time- watching, guiding, protecting, and so on. 

Do kids need their own sewing machine?
Start them on your adult-size sewing machine so they get used to sewing-with-you. For most of their early attempts, they will understand that sewing is a teamwork thing. This is the most powerful thing to keep them interested in sewing because whenever they have an urge to "sew something", they'll know that they'll have a shot at actually finishing the project because they got your help. If they are given their own machine, and a box of fabric and notions before they are truly independent seamstresses, they will most likely never touch these. The truth is, kids will need help to do many of the stages of making a project, that have nothing to do with actual sewing, like designing, laying out, measuring, cutting, pinning, knowing where to sew.

As they get comfortable with sewing on your machine, you might want to get them their own machine. This is wonderful for making them feel "just like mom/grandma" (or dad/granddad) but remember that you will still have to help them sew with it. It is still teamwork, no matter whose machine you use. For that matter, get them a real sewing machine, not a toy. NEVER buy kids a toy machine, unless it's a real toy i.e like this. Even if it's cheap. It will end up in your garage sale before the year is up. If you don't want to make the investment in a separate machine, let your seamstress-in-training work on your adult machine. I never had a kid's machine as a kid. I used Mum's and Grandma's treadle machines till I was into my twenties and it never harmed my self-esteem or dampened my interest or anything daft like that.

Here is what my girls are using now:

And by "using" I mean that it sits on the floor in our sewing room 95% of the time. That's OK. It supports my point that kids, unlike their manic mothers, will not sew regularly. I bought it only a couple of months ago and not particularly because I was planning to get them a separate machine. I did a review of it in this post. Based on the interest that post raised on sewing forums and pinterest and whatnot, I got the feeling that people were fascinated by it as a beginner's machine. Read my comments in that post for what I think of that. Obviously IKEA's is not the only 3/4-size machine on the market. If any of you has or knows of 3/4-size models (any brand), please would you share/review them in the comments so everyone can start their own short list? Thanks!

I want to give my kid a sewing basket. What should I put in it?
Emily has a sewing tub with a lid (to contain the madness therein). It contains:

  • Fabric - fat quarters, craft felt
  • Measuring tape
  • Fabric marker
  • Pincushion with pins
  • Needles for hand-sewing
  • Embroidery floss
  • Embroidery scissors
  • Small fabric scissors (we just use one of those Fiskars kid scissors)
  • Seam ripper
  • Thimble
  • Ruler
  • Trims
  • Iron-on patches and gems
  • Small embroidery hoops
  • Small bag of stuffing
  • Her labels (see this post)
My kid is (whatever age) and showing no interest in sewing whatsoever. What can I do to get her interested?
Why? Because you think she should? Because she needs to learn useful skills? Because everyone else's kids (in blogland, friend, not in the real world) are like 2 years old and already sewing winter coats?
I'd say if you feel it's high time she learnt some basic sewing skills because they're useful, but she has zero interest in creative sewing, then teach her utility sewing. Stuff like mending a rip, sew on a missing button, taking up a hem. But don't push her to be the next sewing prodigy. Or him. Unless she's/he's 18 and moving out to college and still having you mend her/his clothes. 

I am an adult and I'm a beginner. I want to begin to learn/improve/not give up. What can you suggest?
There are obvious similarities between a beginning child and a beginning adult, like going from 100% ignorance to increasing knowledge. But you have advantages over children because your motor skills are hugely better, your memory, attention span, coordination and capacity to visualize are superior, and you can understand delayed gratification, to name a few. This means many of the things children will find challenging as beginners will not be challenging to you and be more like, "Oh, so that's how you do it. All I need now is practice".

I personally feel that the fastest way to improve is to take classes. I don't mean e-courses in which you watch videos. I mean a real class to which you can bring your own sewing machine, and sew with it, and tangle the thread up and raise your hand and the instructor will come and detangle it and explain to you what you did wrong. E-courses, youtube videos and blog tutorials are wonderful if you already know something about your (and other) sewing machine and seams and things like that. And they are lovely for going at your own pace, or hitting the pause button while you head off to the bathroom or to cook dinner. But if you are a true beginner, you need a human teacher. Human teachers will help you improve like nothing else because you can stand at their elbow and watch them from 100 different angles, and say, "can you do that again, but sew from the other direction because I'm left-handed?" And you can ask them to show you, on YOUR sewing machine, how to do that fancy thing because your machine dials look completely different from theirs, no matter how generic they claim they are. Many sewing/fabric stores and sewing machine dealers offer lessons. JoAnn, for instance, even has sign-up-days when you can get classes at 50% off the usual price. 

Does this help? If I've missed something out, or if you have other questions, just leave it in the comments or shoot me an email. I love that so many folks ask these questions because they've noticed their kids/grandkids showing an interest in sewing and they want to nurture that interest. High fives for you! 

I'm going to add a link to this post in my FAQ section, so people can find this post easily in future. And now I must bake something in the oven, then head downstairs to sew something. All while trying to get Kevin Max's voice (he's the soaring tenor with the killer vibrato) out of my head. 


  1. When I was an adult-beginner a few years ago (and I'm still an adult-beginner, really, but that goes to your last post), I stopped in the shop of one of the local alterations ladies to inquire about lessons. I guess she did not see me as a threat to her business, because she was happy to teach me the basics, and it was quite a bit cheaper than a JoAnn class, plus it was one-on-one, which was huge for me. I went once a week for many weeks, and each time we picked up where we'd left off, either doing something I wanted to accomplish or something she thought was important. I would encourage anyone to try this!

    1. What a score, Jenny! One-on-one: doesn't get better than that. I bet you got to ask her all the questions you wanted, and weren't afraid of how they sounded. Lucky you! Thank you for sharing that here!

  2. My first machine (from 2002 to 2010) was a 3/4 machine: the New Home 609. I think it was modelled after the Janome Jem. There's a Kenmore that's very similar, too. It was pretty much like the IKEA one you reviewed. No needle positions, nothing fancy, but a beautiful and strong straight stitch. Also decent zig zags. I never did try out the buttonholes.

  3. Have you seen this book? http://www.amazon.com/Sewing-School-Projects-Kids-Will/dp/1603425780/ It's on my drool-list! My daughter is 5 1/2 and not quite ready to learn to sew (she's neither very interested, nor does she have the hand coordination necessary for the task)...but I want to own this book by the time she is ready!

    I got my first sewing machine when I was 8...it was a used machine that my mom got second hand, but I loved it! I sewed a 2D Hello Kitty doll (from a printed panel) as my first project, but I already knew how to sew from learning on my mom's machine (that part, I can't really remember...like one doesn't remember learning how to use a fork and spoon).

    1. Yes! And I recommended it (with the disclaimer that I hadn't actually looked inside it) to a friend's daughter who's 13 and interested in sewing. It looked like a book I'd like to have had as a kid - colorful, not too much text (unlike my drafting books) and fun, young projects. Thanks for sharing it here!

    2. I wanted it before I flipped through it, but when I did get a chance, I wanted it even more! It's laid out in an appealing way and has a lot of practical, useful info for young people wanting to sew -- by hand OR machine!

  4. I have been looking for a 3/4 machine FOREVER...and didn't want the Kids' Hello Kitty one that has such bad reviews...

    I didn't even know IKEA made one! And awesome tips (as usual)!

  5. Thanks for this post, my 5 yr old wants to sew every day, we have been handsewing for a while and now teaching her to use my machine. No Ikea in New Zealand and haven't seen any other kids machines here either. Fine using mine but can see us both wanting it at the same time.

  6. The 3/4 sized machine my kids learned to sew on was a secondhand Singer 99. My younger really wanted to sew when he was small, so we attached an aftermarket handcrank to it and let him crank while I ran fabric through, or run fabric through while I cranked. In this way, he helped me sew a little storytime quilt when he was not quite 4.

    Both stopped sewing before they hit their teens, but I've never regretted the investment in the Singer. Although it only did a straight stitch, it ran perfectly without ever needing adjustment--a great asset when one wants to focus on the sewing, not the sewing machine!

  7. Thanks so much for your thoughts on the best way to teach kids to sew. I have 3 granddaughters, and the eldest (aged 11) shows a lot of interest in sewing, but has a very short attention span which up until now I've found a bit irritating, but reading your blog has made me realise that I just need to be patient and keep encouraging her each time she shows an interest, even if she doesn't follow through to a finished article.

    Thanks again


  8. What a great post! I really appreciate this. Last year I did a blog entry about the steps towards teaching your child to embroider. You can see it here. http://katydiddys.blogspot.com/2011/09/teaching-your-child-to-embroider.html

  9. I taught my 6 year old to embroider last year, im thinking this summer will be a sewing one. Thanks for the tips! I'll let you know how it goes, lol.

  10. Thank you - so helpful as always.

    My kids are panting to get at my machine, but I'm not willing. Fortunately, we got a used Viking - full size, but no owner's manual. Now I have to get off my lazy butt and get a manual or otherwise figure out how it works.

  11. All 3 of my kids sew. They are now 17(g), 13(b) and 11(g). They started at different ages to sew. My oldest started around 6 yrs old, the younger two started at 3 yrs old I think because older sister was sewing. My son would made sleeping bags for his Rescue Heros. Anyway, I let them learn on my Bernina sewing and serger machines. Yes, at 3 yrs old I let them serge. My mom bought them a Jamone that sits collecting dust for several reasons, mainly it doesn't have a speed control and the pedal goes from dead to 60 which they hate!

    My advice is make sure any machine you buy for a kid has speed control.

  12. Young children are very able to learn to sew on a machine. My four oldest all learned young and began entering their sewing into the fair after they were 12 years old. They have all won enough blue ribbons to earn them a free sewing machine from the fair contests. (So maybe you won't have to share your machine forever.) My two youngest are learning to sew. Today my 5 year old used her Christmas/birthday money to purchase a kenmore machine (small blue one). I have three boys and three girls and they all do a great job.

  13. A singer 99 is a 3/4 machine. It only has a straight stitch, but it can go in reverse. it's an older machine but works amazing with minimal maintenance. I've been teaching my kids how to sew with it.

  14. After 4 grandsons, I finally got a granddaughter! I hoped she would want to sew but she's a cross between a Taylor Swift groupie and a tom boy. She's either pretending to be TS or beating up her brother and neither one seems to be the type ... But I came over one day with my Featherweight and I bought an entire spool of hot pink ribbon. While I stitched a tutu for her (she has to wear something while she sings), I let her do whatever she wanted with the ribbon. The next time I came, I gave her a ball of yarn. She made a huge spider web by going in and out of handles of kitchen cabinets (it was a trap to get her brother). But guess what? She bonded with fibers and fabric during that process and she has asked to sew. She sewed a seam and asked for more. I'm glad I just let play until she started asking for more. I think the secret is to enjoy sewing yourself and just not care if they follow suit.

    1. MaryMary86: You speak the truth! I, too, believe, that children will learn what they will, and if they see our passion for something, it will probably ignite theirs too, when the time is right. I guess this is why so many careers run in families. I am happy thinking of you and your granddaughter sewing together. There might be periods of intense interest in sewing followed by drought periods, and then more periods of interest again (that's how it is with my own girls, at any rate) but each time they rekindle their interest, it is more fervent, and they are more committed than the last time, and it is an increasing joy to teach them what they ask for. Happy sewing together!


Thank you for talking to me! If you have a question, I might reply to it here in the comments or in an email.