A friend recently messaged me about her girls picking up the sewing bug (I can’t even tell you what joy this is to me) and she was asking about sewing machines and just sewing with kids in general. I’ve had that question so often over the years from parents and I’ve never really written about it. With Christmas coming and a winter that seems rather shut in more than others, what better time to fill stockings with all sorts of supplies to make things?
On Sewing Machines:
Hands down, my top recommendation when looking at sewing machines is to find one with an adjustable speed control. In most older and cheaper sewing machines the speed is controlled via the foot pedal; like driving a car – the harder you press down the faster it goes – which with new seamstresses means lots of super fast take-offs as they get the hang of it. Having a speed dial just relieves some stress!
There are a handful of good, entry level machines out there. Janome makes some affordable and simple machines and I’ve seen the Eversewn machines popping up for a few years as a great beginner machine. I personally taught on Juki’s and that’s what I use in my own studio, but I’ve had so many issues with the bobbin case and threading issues that I really don’t recommend them.
Sewing Machine Tips
My first rule when teaching sewing is to always know where your needle is. Ha! My second rule is that sewing isn’t about perfection. There are very few mistakes in sewing that you cannot easily fix – it just might mean taking out stitches or re-cutting out a new pattern piece or figuring out how to piece something together a different way. That said, a seam ripper is the tool seamstresses love and hate. It’s necessary, but often times it’s also oh so humbling.
When sitting down to learn how to sew, the one thing you really want to teach them how to do is thread the machine. Believe me, you will go bonkers with this if they don’t learn. I swear that 80-90% of most issues with your stitches will be because it’s come unthreaded in some way. When in doubt rethread it. And little fingers also like to cut their threads really short, which means that the thread will flop out of the needle over and over again.
After learning how to thread, the most basic things they need to learn how to do are:
- Sew a straight seam lining up the edge of the fabric with the presser foot and sewing on a line
- Leaving the needle in the down position and pivoting the fabric and turning the corner
Learning these two basic techniques will open up a whole world of possibilities. Going around curves would be the next technique, but that one is a bit tricky.
Ages and Stages for Machines
I really think that with supervision and a tiny bit of know-how from the supervising adult, a child even as young as 6 can use a sewing machine. The key here is supervision.This is a machine with moving parts and a sharp needle that really doesn’t feel great when it finds your fingers (sadly, I know this from personal experience), so never leave a young maker unattended.
When I was teaching sewing I generally had projects planned that worked on certain skills, but it was the open sewing time that was the most memorable. A basket of fabric in various lengths and types, some stuffing and a handful of buttons is really all you need.
When it comes to fabric, a good quilter’s cotton is the best thing to start with. If you have an aspiring doll or stuffy maker, fleece is usually easier to work with than knit. Minky is super soft and very tempting, but super slippery. I’d stay away from satins, rayons, voiles, lawns, gauze and other really thin fabrics. I used a lot of flannel back in the day and that was super for pillows, quilts and other fun projects. Felt is also a great option and you can splurge on the beauty of wool felt or just pick up crafting felt at your local fabric/craft store.
Stuffing is a super thing to have around. If you aren’t down with synthetic fibers for stuffing another option would be wool or cotton roving, which you can pretty easily find online or at local yarn shops.
Buttons are always good to have. I’ve got a massive stash of vintage and thrifted buttons and you can often find whole lots of them for auction on eBay.
An extra sort of thing would be a water soluble pen for making marks on fabric that you don’t want to stay on there. These, obviously, rinse out with water. With the pandemic and shortages of crafting supplies, these have oddly been hard to get lately. But there are a handful of different brands that are just fine.
A Good Beginner Project
One of the first projects I always had my students make was a tic-tac-toe bag. This ticked the box (haha) of so may good skills for a beginning maker.
Here’s how to make your own tic-tac-toe bag:
Cut out two smaller squares of fabric (basically as big or small as your want your bag and board to be. I used a piece of cotton for the board side and a piece of felt for the back, but you can use felt for whole thing – or cotton!
Draw your grid lines for the board (if you are using felt you might rather use a chalk maker for making the grid lines or you can use a Sharpie marker or even a pen, but this won’t wash out).
Sew a straight stitch on all the lines you made on your cotton piece.
Then place your sewn grid board on top of you backing piece (felt in this case) and stitch a big C shape around 3 of the edges – leaving the top open. You can stitch this with a straight stitch or a zig zag like we did here. When you start stitching, make sure to do a backstitch (sometimes called a lockstitch) so that your seam doesn’t come unstitched. When you get to a corner, leave your needle in the fabric, lift up your presser foot and pivot the fabric around to the next side. Then repeat on the next corner. When you come back to the top, sew another backstitch to secure your seam. Sit back and look at what you made! You made a little bag!
Take a piece of ribbon and stitch it down just inside the top of your little pouch you made. Make sure you aren’t sewing down both pieces of fabric, you just want this attached to the back side.
Gather up some buttons for your game board and plop them down inside your pouch, roll it up and tie it off with a ribbon and voila – a portable little game you made yourself!