The project we chose was pretty perfect for the task- we took two old dresses/skirts and changed them into curtains for the girl’s playhouse. The end result wasn’t something that would win prizes, but it was fully functional, and nearly 100% done by the girls. They were so pleased and kept showing everyone they could their new curtains at the barbecue we had later on.
1) Choose the right project.
This is a piece of advice I give a lot, but it is as true for this as it is everywhere else. Not all projects will be suitable for children, and certainly not every project will be something that will interest them. Keep it simple. Your goals with a first sewing project should:
- Introduce the child to the sewing machine
- Teach the child how to be safe with the sewing machine
- Give the child a chance to try sewing out
- Build confidence that the child can do this.
Pick a project that you can do start to finish in one day. Kids often don’t have the same kind of patience as adults, and they like the instant gratification of something coming together that they can show off at the end of the day.
It is also a good idea to keep it simple in terms of what kind of sewing will be done. Straight lines are great. Complicated things like ruffles, top stitching, and curves can be kept for a later project. You can always make dolls clothes next time, after you’ve made Dolly a simple blanket. A lot of this will come down to who the child is and what will work with them, which brings us to our next point.
2) Know your ages.
Children of different ages will find different projects interesting and possible. So plan your project knowing how old they are if at all possible. Different ages will also have different abilities to focus and different attention spans, but you will almost certainly need plenty of patience no matter what the age. A child's age will affect different things too that you might not think about.
I worked with a 4 and 7 year old. The 7 year old could pretty much do everything I showed her how to do and was so taken with it she was quite convinced that she should be allowed to put the replacement zipper into a dress I’d said I’d mend. Ambitious? Yes, but I think if we’d had a lot more time, she certainly could have helped with some of it.
The 4 year old wanted to do everything (as every sibling will want to do what the other does), but just couldn’t. It wasn’t that she didn’t have the ability, it was that she physically couldn’t do everything at the same time. She could happily feed the fabric through the machine, but her legs wouldn’t reach the pedals at the same time. She could press the pedals, but only by standing on the floor, at which point she couldn’t see the fabric properly to safely feed it through.
Knowing the children you’ll be working with, you’ll be able to plan how you can adjust plans to accommodate the child’s abilities.
3) Involve them in every step
If your selected project involves complicated cuts with scissors you don’t want children using, or you’re scared they will cut themselves with the rotary cutter- pick a different project. There’s nothing as boring as watching someone else do your project for you. It will turn them right off, bore them, and if you’re very unlucky, make them decide sewing isn’t for them.
Things you need to plan on doing with them-
- Explaining how the sewing machine works
- Cutting fabric
- Using the sewing machine
Cutting fabric is here on the list because you can’t make a sewing project without cut fabric. You could pre-cut fabrics, but the children will have more fun if you let them in on it. They will also take greater ownership of the project if they get to do everything, which is good because it keeps them interested. Teach them how to cut safely, and make sure you have scissors that will cut fabric easily for them to use (not your good Ginghers, but better than the round tipped plastic scissors most kids seem to own for school). If cutting the fabric is difficult with the scissors you give them, they will be far less interested in completing the project, and you won’t have even gotten to the fun part.
The last part of this is of course the main event- using the machine! The girls I was with were absolutely fascinated and all wanted to spend time using it. I only had two, but we still had to share the machine, so watching how many children you’re going to have doing this might be something you need to do. I don’t know how well I would’ve coped with too many more.
Importantly, they need to learn how to sew semi-straight lines. I gave the girls scraps to practice on before we took our new enthusiasm (if not skills) to the main event. I think they may have actually loved just playing on the scrap pieces as much as they enjoyed sewing the curtains together. Give them plenty of time so that they understand the idea of feeding fabric through the machine and do show them how to go forward and backward. If you have particularly inquisitive children, this could be the only thing you do, as I found that they had a definite desire to try every different setting on the machine, whether it was necessary or not!
Remember though, we aren’t looking for perfection. My philosophy on this is that your first sewing project should build your confidence, so I specifically made certain not to criticise when our lines got wobbly. I just taught them how to raise the foot, get back on track, and begin again. This goes back to picking the right project, as if you start off with something that has to be done RIGHT, you may find that everyone will get frustrated.
Lastly, make certain you explain how to keep your fingers from getting under the needle or foot or anywhere else that might end in tears. Which brings us to possibly the most important tip-
4) Focus on safety and fun
Teach good practices now. If you think it is important not to end up with a needle through the finger, then teach them how prevent that from happening. I taught the girls to keep their hands well away from the needle as they fed the fabric through, and you know what? No one had an accident. I also was certain to supervise quite a lot of the early work until I was certain they were doing things in a way that was safe.
I also chose to not use pins. I did this because the project was so simple, but also because it ensured there were no tears when fingers/hands/bums found the sharp end unexpectedly. I happen to own Wonder Clips for my quilting projects, so when we needed things held together specifically, I used those, but mostly we just held things in place. There was no need for these to be 100% perfect curtains, and holding fabric together is yet another skill you can teach. It also meant the day flowed well as there wasn’t the wait to put pins in. Could you use pins? Absolutely, for the right child and the right project.
I also didn’t bother with ironing, again because things wouldn’t need to be perfect. When I go back for our next project, I will definitely be using pins and irons and using that opportunity to teach them how to use both correctly and safely.
But of course, the most important thing is to make sure kids have fun! If they are having fun, you will find that you will have fun too. I certainly enjoyed my time passing on my love of sewing, and I’m fairly certain I’ve infected them with the excitement as we already have the next project lined up.