Tuesday, November 16, 2021

A New Pursuit

Hello, friends!

I have posts to share, with photos all ready to go but my time of late has been fractured, and I haven't gotten round to writing about them. I will soon, though. The kids are back at school and slowly settling into the year. I say "slowly" because in spite of this feeling like a much more normal year than last, it's still an adjustment. Swim season is over, along with the late homework nights, early morning weekend training sessions and mountains of chlorine-y laundry, which somehow segued into band/orchestra/play/musical season, with the children disappearing at random times for some rehearsal or other. Most recently, I'm catching snatches of a trombone oompah-ing behind a shut door, or a piano or saxophone running scales somewhere else in the house. Some days it's a circus; other days no one's home till late in the evening, and it's just me and the husband and the cats, passing each other on our way from one chore to the next. There's still homework happening, and Emily is still running her Etsy shop after (and sometimes during, because so much of it can be done online) school, and I'm constantly erasing and editing my old-fashioned paper wall calendar to keep it all straight.

It was a very different scenario last year, wasn't it? I am thankful. For the new things we get to do this year in school. All those opportunities to play in a band, swim on a team, gather in a home for a movie. And for the old things, too, the pre-Covid things we'd lost but which now have been restored to us: Math in a classroom with friends, sharing a bag of chips in the lunchroom, even simply just leaving the house to go to a different place to learn, then returning home to tell a parent about one's day, because it didn't all happen in an oversmall shared space 24/7. 

I am thankful I even have an oversmall shared space 24/7. Not everyone in the world enjoyed that last year, or ever.

Speaking of gratitude, I want to show you guys what I made this afternoon (it is noteworthy that I, procrastinator extraordinaire, am actually blogging on the same day I made this project; this in itself is a rare and miraculous thing).

It's a tree appliqued on a square of fabric. Whoo! Why is this significant?

Because for one morning each week, I get to help teach refugees and immigrants to sew.

And I cannot begin to explain how amazing it feels to say that.

For years, that has been something I've wanted to do. In my head, however, it was always far more romantic: LiEr packs up her sewing machine, gets on a plane, flies to a different country where they may or may not speak English, and spends months in a rural community center empowering women to wield their own sewing machines to learn a life-changing, marketable skill and eventually a livelihood, enabling them to feed their families, provide education and sustainable living needs, and someday even start their own sewing school to keep the cycle going. LiEr wakes each morning thinking, "Ah, yes, this is what all those years of blogging tutorials and writing sewing patterns and making 1 million felt doughnuts has been for! God, are you listening?"

God has, it appears - although He has cut out the middleman and brought the refugees to me (He can be very efficient that way). 

It's a long story, which I will skip over so as not to bore you with the details, but the gist of it is that someone mentioned an opportunity in passing, and I thought I'd check it out and somehow the time worked out so that people were interested to learn to sew at the exact same time I was not manically cooking dinner for the family or driving some child to a piano lesson, and voila! Instant dream-come-true.

And so, every Friday mid-morning, I get to work with some very motivated newcomers to this country and we make projects together. There's a curriculum of sorts (and you guys know how much I love curricula), and vast amounts of donated fabric and notions nicely organized into tubs and stuff, and sewing machines in impeccable working order. Funny story: I spent the first couple of sessions being a student myself, learning how the machines worked. I found it interesting that a big part of learning to sew is overcoming one's terror of the sewing machine, particularly if the manual is missing and one has to discover all its intricate workings by trial-and-error. I learned very quickly that I am only an expert at my own machine (if I can even call myself that, see this post for counter-evidence); faced with an entry-level Janome, for instance, I might as well have never sewn a stitch in my life, let alone aspire to guide others to do the same.

(Incidentally, that romantic fantasy of that faraway rural community center full of sewing machines? They were all treadles. Not an electric or computerized thingamajig in sight. Hey, it's my dream - I get to pick the details, right?). 

But let's show-and-tell now. This tree-applique thingy was project #3. The learning tasks included working with fusible interfacing, the zig-zag stitch, sewing around curves and layering. It was good fun. And when we had finished our projects, someone floated the question about what to do with it.

"Bag," I immediately said. Because I am addicted to making them.

This wasn't part of the curriculum, however.

But maybe the very-motivated students might be ready for a challenge, was how I rationalized it. You know, like in a mixed-ability classroom in which a teacher prepares More Challenging Assignments for the kids who are done with their regular work and are yawning at their desks?

So that's the plan. I took some supplies home and made a sample. I had to remind myself repeatedly not to make it ludicrously fancy like the bags I usually sew. When people see it, the point is maybe for them to say, "Oo, I don't know if I can make that but I think I might be able to connect the dots if I try."

Well, here it is:

The marvelous thing about the fabric is it's some kind of twill or canvas - I believe these squares are actually upholstery fabric swatches someone donated to the organization. And because they're swatches, their edges are also pre-finished. All that was needed to turn them into a bag was sew two pieces together, hem the opening, create bottom corner darts, 

and attach a pre-made strap. 

I used bias tape for the strap, of which the organization had a large quantity. I went for pre-made because strap-making is a whole other new skill I didn't want to add to the mix at this point.

I vacillated on the button clasp - on the one hand, it finishes the bag and makes it more functional than had I omitted it; on the other, it ups the difficulty level because it's fiddly. There are other options, of course: snaps, for instance. Or a tie. 

I'm going to leave it in for now. Upon finishing the project at home, I realized two things.

One, that it might be jumping the gun somewhat. I mean, we're veering dangerously into 3-D territory, after all, and adding details that perhaps are overwhelming for a beginning seamstress. Maybe we could omit the corner darts and let it be a flat tote even though that's not nearly as cute as a darted one? What do you guys think? Could a beginner make this without their eyes glazing over?

Two, that this project has the potential to be adapted for different challenge levels. Take the clasp/fastening mechanism alone, for instance - it's a button and bias-tape loop at the moment. Later iterations might have a button and a buttonhole. Or a magnetic snap (meaning we would need to introduce a lining). Or a small fold-over flap with a buttonhole in it. Or (shudder) a zipper. And then (double shudder) a recessed zipper.

And pockets. 

OK, I'm stopping now.

Here's a last shot of Fleur modeling the bag, for size perspective.

Final thing: one (distant) goal of this sewing class is to enable the students to work toward selling what they make, if they want to. I could see potential for that in a bag like this, I think. When I'd projected sewing as a livelihood in my crazy dream, I imagined dusty-floored tented marketplaces and small-scale collaborations with indie craft stores in bigger towns and cities. But what if it also meant craft fairs and boutiques right here in our neighborhood, or online platforms like Etsy? Whoda thot?


  1. Love the bag, love that you get to follow your dream to share your passion without sacrificing being there with your family. God is pretty amazing that way, right!
    I don't think boxing the bag is that hard, and it increases the cuteness level - and therefore the possibility to sell a bag like this - a hundredfold.
    Keep up the great work; we love hearing about all your creative endeavors with a bit of family life thrown in!

    1. Marina: thank you! Yes, it's always that delicate balance, isn't it? I look back now on all the times something like this COULD have happened but didn't, and am glad it's happening only now. I couldn't have done this when my kids were little.

  2. Love the bag. I too, fantasize, but about teaching just plain beginners, especially kids, to sew. Haven't made it a priority yet, but it rolls around in my head. I'm glad God worked it out for you! Love the bag, I think the corners and button closure are not too much. If they are going to sell their items, every additional extra adds some "chic", as my sweet Mother used to say.

    1. Kathy: Thank you! I think I will go ahead with the corners and fastener - all the comments here seem to be indicating that the pros far outweigh any (imagined) cons, anyway. Keep that dream in your head and heart - the time will come when doors will open.

  3. Loved hearing your story and how teaching people to sew. Its what we need more of. Thank you

  4. I love it! I think you could show them both ways so they can do eitehr one according to their level. And I have one question for you: could you share the name of the organization where you teach? I live in Saint Louis Park, MN, and that is something I would love to do, if they need more people to teach. Thank you!

    1. Cecile: that is a very good point about both ways. After all, the students are going to first make a flat tote anyway before adding the darts to give it the three-dimensional structure. We can always ask them if they like it as is, or if they want it to "look more like the sample" and let them pick.

      This organization is called Salem Arts Exchange and they operate out of a building near the Lake Street are in Minneapolis (it's about 5 minutes from the Target Field, so it's pretty centrally located. SAE is part of a larger ministry called ARRIVE Ministries, which offers different services to refugees and immigrants new to the Twin Cities. You can read about them here:

      and the Salem Arts Exchange (SAE) specifically here:

      And yes, they are always looking for new sewing instructors. The default sewing class was Tuesday nights but this year, students who work night jobs have been interested in a daytime class, which was how this Friday one came to be.

  5. I'm with boxing the bag. And the closure could be optional to beat back the 'fear factor'. 😂
    Best of luck with your newest endeavor - what a delightful detour. Please keep us posted!

    1. Lodi - thanks! And in spite of my hesitation, I have a feeling that if these brave ladies have moved countries AND learned to use a sewing machine without a manual, they're not likely to be deterred by a fiddly closure!

  6. The bag is cute, & I think your students should be able to handle it with few problems. & teach them buttonholes now, before they decide that they're too difficult to try

    1. Laurinda: I totally agree about what you said about buttonholes. I grew up learning buttonholes without realizing that they'd had a bad reputation for being hard. I can't remember the curriculum offhand, but I'm pretty sure that buttonholes will be introduced in one of the later lessons. And these days, many sewing machines come equipped with automatic buttonhole-making stuff, so it's really not any harder than, say, a zig zag stitch. In fact, I wish my somewhat-outdated sewing machine had one of those fancy gadgets!

  7. Do the 3D!
    Long ago I taught a summer long sewing class that I simplified for beginners. All crafty things, each focused on a specific new skill. End of summer, they wanted to do a "masterpiece" and wanted clothing. I picked a Hawaiian shirt pattern because very boxy and simple lines.

    They could not get past putting on a sleeve, because one piece curved and the other didn't! "That's so it will fit over a shoulder!" In my zeal to keep it simple, all we did were straight lines, or matching curves. 100% my fault.

    That teeny little box corner is the simplest way to introduce how we go from flat to 3D. I now do that little corner as early as I can in sewing classes, to help learning minds grow.

    1. Thanks, Trish! I'm sorry your class didn't turn out quite the way you'd planned but I will take those lessons into my own. Thank you for sharing your story! I agree: learning to think and execute in 3D is such a fundamental skill in making anything, really, and the sooner we introduce that, the better we're preparing our learners to take the next step (or any step!)

  8. I think you actually wrote about this dream once, years and years ago? Anyway, I am so excited that you are doing this. And the bag looks great! I think if they can manage the button it will feel empowering to them. I bet they can do it.

    1. MaryAnne: yes, I did! It's been on my heart for the longest time. And you're absolutely right about the extra challenge empowering the students. Thank you for the encouragement!

  9. You amaze me in the best way! The sample could have options for next steps that build on the last: applique on flat fabric > flat pouch > flat bag > boxed bottom > closure > pocket > button > zip and on and on :)

  10. This post was forever ago, so sorry to just happen upon it now! I spent some of the summer teaching kids how to sew, and it really is remarkable what people of any age can do if they are not told from the beginning that it's supposed to be "hard". One of the projects we did was a similar flat beach tote, but the applique design was up to them. It was wonderful to see how creative the final projects were.


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