On-Ramp to Sewing

Andrew Carle appears twice in today’s blog posts, because of a Twitter comment where he said I could provide a useful on-ramp to sewing. I’m not sure how much of a useful on-ramp I can provide, but I’m going to try. Our phone conversation yesterday amounted to, “Oh, yeah, I’ve got six projects that pretty much cover all the bases…” And they do, but getting me to the point where I feel comfortable teaching others how to do them has been a chore and a sixth.

But I think that there are some things which we can do that can ramp up our commitment to textile education in MakerEd programs, beyond putting a sewing machine in the room and then saying, “I don’t know how to use that, but you’re welcome to try to learn to use it.”

The following is Long… I decided to insert the “More” tag, after I crossed the 1500 words mark.

1) Learn to Knit

Learning to knitFor me, the first step was learning to knit. I think it’s a great introduction to textiles: take a string, and weave a piece of proto-cloth out of it with only two sticks. There’s something magical in being able to do this.  It’s also a normal thing, when starting out, to make a fair number of mistakes.  At left there should be a picture of one of my first efforts; it’s filled with mistakes. More experienced knitters kept urging me to take it apart, and start over again.

Pardon my language, but screw them.

A bit of philosophy here.

There’s a Cult of Done  (H/T Topher Polack) that we as MakerEd teachers have to cultivate and encourage the growth of.  We have to be the front lines on getting kids through the ragged, ugly edge of manual illiteracy.  And demanding that they keep undoing their work to finish the first thing is a stupid, mean, nasty thing to do.  Sure, we want kids to have killer taste — but we have to encourage them to make enough to overcome their manual illiteracy. We build heaps of steaming piles of crappy work, and it’s only when we’ve built a mountain of them, it’s only when we’ve stayed on the same bus for years and years and years, that we get over that illiteracy. And sometimes that means imposing rules on our creative work, but mostly it means Making more and more.

OK… Maker Rant over.

So for me, it meant making about twelve really nasty scarves, in bad worsted yarn (worsted is a kind of yarn, not an adjective describing how bad it was — although, hat-tip, Deborah Castellano produced THE nicest yarn I’ve worked with to date, to make a scarf for my friend Steve. Buy from her!)

Fair warning: I haven’t taught anyone else to knit yet.  Even so, the fact that I’m a male, knitting, has made it easier for boys to say that they want to learn to knit or to sew.   And the beautiful thing is that while I learned the basics of knitting from a lady of my acquaintance, I learned how to finish and bind off my knitting project from YouTube videos: learning to knitcasting on, knitting, purling, and binding-off.

So knitting can be a huge step forward, because it breaks some of our usual patterns about working with string.

2) Study with a Friend/Take a Class

I took classes, rather than studying with a friend.  My classes were at Beehive Sewing, with Tess, who is amazing.  She’s set up this amazing rent-a-sewing-machine-by-the-hour studio in Northampton, Massachusetts, where you can take basic sewing classes on everything from the Lavender eye-pillow to the basics of designing patterns and learning to work with an overlock machine (otherwise called a serger). I’ve reported on the stuff  I’ve learned about sewing from my mom, and that I’ve learned from Tess in the past.  But the first project I did with Tess was a small eye-pillow filled with dry rice and lavender flowers, to lay over one’s eyes (and isn’t it interesting that the first project she taught me also has quite a bit of magic woven into it?

I’m sorry to say that I don’t have a picture of that lavender pillow, or any of the ones that the students have made in my classes.  However, it’s pretty simple:

  • two pieces of cotton non-stretch fabric, roughly 4″ x 9″
  • a sewing machine set up
  • a large bowl/bucket filled with a mixture of lavender flowers and dry rice to use as stuffing.

The core skills that Tess taught me in conjunction with this project were as follows:

  1. choosing fabric for a project
  2. measuring fabric three different ways: tailor’s tape, quilter’s ruler, and green rotary cutting mat
  3. cutting fabric three different ways: fabric scissors, rotary cutting tool, pinking shears
  4. sewing three different ways: inside-out on a sewing machine, hand stitching, and top-stitching.
  5. measuring a hem and creating a sewing machine stitch guide: 5/8″, 1/2″, 3/8″, 1/4″ hems, zig-zag, and bar stitch.
  6. Ladder Stitch, to close up the end seam

The final element of this was the rough guide to the steps:

  1. Select two types of cotton, non-stretch fabric
  2. measure them three different ways along the grain of the fabric (with the warp and weft, as opposed to the diagonal)
  3. cut them using the three different tools
  4. pin them together with the print side in
  5. create a stitching guide with a piece of scrap fabric, to teach you what 5/8″s, 1/2″, etc, seams look like…
  6. sew three sides of the eye-pillow together, turn the eye-pillow inside-in.
  7. fill the pillow with lavender rice
  8. top-stitch or ladder-stitch the top of the pillow shut.

It was a phenomenally well-designed project, actually, and I was really impressed.  I learned most of what I needed to know to teach sewing in the process of making this project, and if you showed this set of instructions to anyone who knew how to use a sewing machine, (A) I bet they’d know what I was talking about, and (B) could teach you in two hours to do the same.  DO IT.

3) Pencil Cases

You will get things wrong. Your stitches will not be straight. Your eye-pillow will look retarded, or it won’t fit properly over your eyes, or it will be strange. Don’t worry. Make another. And another. And another. You can give your mistakes away to tired-looking moms at your school. Everything will be all right.

Thirty days of making: pencil caseOnce you make a successful eye-pillow, or even if you don’t move on to a pencil case:

  1. make a bundle of pencils
  2. bind them with a rubber band
  3. make a paper pattern that fits around that bundle of pencils
  4. Mark a dotted line on the two edges of the pattern where the zipper goes
  5. use the paper pattern to measure and cut a piece of cotton non-stretch cloth
  6. assemble the cloth into a bag inside out
  7. attach the zipper
  8. break two or three sewing machine needles in the process — have spares, calm the kids down who freak out, and show them how to fix the machine.
    1. You can only show them how to fix the machine if you’ve already replaced a couple of needles yourself.
    2. learn to replace needles, and to clear thread spaghetti from the machine.

The pencil bags are nice, because once they start to show up around school, kids’ moms and grand moms will start bringing you fabric.  Eye pillows, not so much.  Pencil cases seemed to be the thing that started a supply of fabric rolling in the door.  And polyfil for pillows and stuffed animals. And other awesome stuff (also not-so-awesome stuff, like “machines in perfect working order” that nonetheless had crucial parts missing, like specially-sized bobbins only available from Europe for 75 Euros, or missing power cords…)

4) Drawstring Bags

Thirty days of making: drawstring bags Drawstring bags are another great project. They can be very simple — a square of cloth folded in half, and then stitched up one side and one end, with a tube sewn across the open end. There’s a very cool sewing tool for pulling a ribbon or a cord through that tube once it’s made. Or you can be brave, and try to sew the ribbon into the tube in one flawless seam:  if anything will perfect your straight stitching with a sewing machine, it’s probably this.

Drawstring bags make great lunch bags.  I have one made out of the same fabric as my pencil case.  I give them away to friends; I give them to students; I store tools or tool sets in them if they need to be easily findable; I have given a couple to colleagues; and I’ve used them as storage for my magical goodies as well as gifts to friends for the storage of  their magical goodies.  Extremely useful.

In the picture at right, the bags that lie flat on the table (four at the left), are all one piece of fabric, folded in half and then sewn shut along two sides.  The larger bag on the right is two pieces of fabric: a round bottom, and a rectangular side slightly longer than the perimeter (that one is actually four pieces of fabric — it has a matching lining…  The whole thing is assembled as two bags, one inside the other, which are then turned inside out, with the tube for the drawstring sewn through both outside and liner).

5) Notebook

A new handmade notebookWhile not strictly a fabric project alone, the hand-sewn notebook is a potentially valuable use of the sewing machine.  Find a nice piece of non-stretch cotton cloth, and glue it in place over a piece of heavy card stock, with endpapers to cover over the cloth edges where it folds over the card stock. Take half a dozen sheets of good paper, and match them up inside.  Fold with a bone folder.  Sew along the fold.  You can add in a tab, as my mother did; or a ribbon to help hold the whole thing closed.  I’m using this as a ‘grimoire’ of sorts to hold my poetic hymns dedicated to the Behenian Stars. They’re not done yet, which is why there isn’t a link to the hymns yet.  But this is another way the sewing machine can be useful.  With paper, you can create small ‘project notebooks’ for kids to work on their specific project drawings, and in large enough quantities, from scrap or crumpled paper.

From the sewing machine: notebooksI made a set of seven notebooks in roughly the same way, to contain all of the lore and information I collected on the seven classical planets, too. The point is not that the contents have to be magical; the point is that the method of producing ‘finished product’ from the stuff that kids think of as ‘unfinished raw material’ is magical.

You’ll have to do some experimentation with your sewing machine to figure out how many sheets of paper and cardstock your sewing machine can handle; mine can handle about sixteen sheets of paper (so 32 pages); but less if I include a cardstock cover, and fewer still if the cardstock cover has a fabric shell on it, like the green one in upper left.  The more material, the fewer the number of pages.  However, being able to grab a half-dozen sheets of paper and produce a notebook for a kid is a pretty special magic trick.  It’s almost a grimoire activity in itself.

6) Halloween Costumes

I’ve worked through the patterns for a few costume pieces so far.  My most successful one is the gi or tunic from a Star Wars-knockoff pattern by Simplicity. (Sorry for the state of my bathroom — but it’s the only mirror in the house.

My own robe The essence of the success is that the gi itself is merely eight pieces: a back, two front panels (which are mirror images of one another), the collar edge and two sleeves (again, mirror images). If you use non-stick interfacing, you could make copies of the pattern with the interfacing and a Sharpie marker, in XS-S-M-L-and-XL, and use the pattern at all the relevant sizes. This is where kids can really learn how a pattern works: because they’re creating a garment that can be worn for Halloween or for a party, and they get to see that this garment is a real garment.

For me, the act of making costume clothing was a real game-changer. All of the students in my first sewing class this fall made their own halloween costumes. All of their costumes were finished enough for Halloween; although there was more work that could have been done on them like hemming and contrast panels, the garments were complete enough to wear.

Why are costumes so important?

I think it’s because it helps bridge the gap between sewing and fashion design.  If you know how a gi is made, it’s a relatively short bridge to cross from that to understanding how a shirt is made.  Shirt, pants, jacket, blouse, skirt — all of these things become much more possible once you’ve made one object of cloth that you can wear.

And as I said, that’s more than a little bit of a game-changer.  Because you wear a Halloween costume (or any kind of costume, really), there’s a sudden awareness of the connection between the costume and anything else that you might wear. That’s a powerful connection to help kids make.  We’re not here to teach them how to be the next Alexander McQueen (poor soul), but how to manipulate fabric, one of our oldest and much-neglected materials, so that it does cool things like cover our bodies, carry our stuff, and manage our gear. Which brings me to…

7) Messenger Bag

Sewing: belt pouchI wish I had pictures of the messenger bags we’ve produced in the Lab to date.  Each is essentially one long rectangle of fabric, two end pieces in the shape of romanesque arch doorways, and a very long thin rectangle (which becomes the strap).  This is a great place to teach zig-zag stitches and bar stitches on a sewing machine, and the concept of reinforcement.  It’s also a great place to teach pattern design — every kid wants an extra pocket or an internal division in their bag, and we talk about how to do that.

Though it’s not quite the same as a messenger bag (no shoulder strap!) this small belt-bag is kind of illustrative of the project. The long rectangle can be sewn together out of two rectangles, as here, but essentially one end is left exceptionally long, and is used to create a fold-over with a hemmed edge. (This one also has a reinforced loop on the back, so it can be slipped over a belt and worn on the waist, and it’s large enough to hold a camera or a wallet or a cellphone. A button or buttons can be attached as well, and while I don’t have any of the photos of this bag post-buttonhole and button, this is a good time to teach them how to sew on a button, and use the button-hole setting on a sewing machine.

Now, unless you have really good fabric, these messenger bags are not going to be strong enough to transport a typical kid’s typical collection of books and materials around school, or between school and home.  They’re just not, unless you invest in nylon rip-stop cloth and serious  hardware like buckles and D-rings.  I’ve found that it’s important to teach kids how to make it by “making the muslin” — essentially, a prototype of cheap fabric, which can then be scaled up by families in a visit to Jo-Ann’s or Fabric.com for the hardware and materials to build it for serious. The number of families that acquired sewing machines at Christmas/Hanukah is astounding. Part of it is that it’s not a simple tool — it’s on a par with a computer tablet in price for basic models — but unlike a tablet computer, you can’t just ask kids to turn it on and learn how to use it just by fiddling around and see what works. They need an experienced hand to get them past the first hurdles… and these projects help kids clear the first hurdles.  I think.

8) Stuffed Animals

Stuffed Animals are a new project area for me since the new year.  I got this book for Christmas called How To Make Stuffed Animals (though fair warning: this link is for the Kindle edition which won’t help at all, shell out money for the Print Edition).  Stuffed animals are great — they’re a good place to teach hand-sewing, kids like making them either with a machine or with hand needle tools, they’re a great way to use up scrap fabric, and they take very little time relatively speaking. Which means that kids can produce sixteen or eighteen of them in a few months, and develop a routine with them… Which *I* think helps them learn to “read” a flat paper pattern as a three-dimensional object.  And if that’s not a key design skill, I don’t know what is.

10) Throw pillows

Again, I don’t have any photographs as examples.  However, a pillow is at its most basic, simply two squares of fabric sewn back to back with the fancy print inside; leave a hole for stuffing.  Turn the bag outside-out, and then stuff it. Top-stitch or ladder-stitch the hole closed.  Voila! You’re done.  None of the kids in my Sewing Class really understood that a straight seam was important until their “square” pillows came out all misshapen, and they understood that the straightness of the seam determines the straightness of the side of the pillow.  The straighter the seam, the more the pillow looks like a puffed-up square.

11) Silk Screening Kit

We’ve just gotten this, and I haven’t had a chance to experiment with this.  But being able to dress up plain fabrics is critical, and being able to replicate designs is powerful.  It lets kids and adults ‘brand’ their own works, and it lets us have a say and a stake in the design and creation of the patterns on the cloth we work with.  I’m looking forward to experimenting with it.  More than that, I’m interested in getting the kids in the MakerLab class to make some more kits for us, so we can substantially increase our production.

Tools and Materials

A Maker Lab textiles area will need some organization and planning.  You’re going to need several pairs of fabric scissors, and a sharpening stone.  Please feel free to freak out at children who use fabric scissors on paper and paper scissors on fabric — get across to children that although the tools look exactly the same on the surface, they actually have different cutting edges, and to use them on the wrong material is to dull and ruin them. Setting that boundary is important.  Two pairs of pinking shears are necessary — but make sure they have pink handles, so that kids learn to connect pinking with the color (even though they’re not specifically relevant), and don’t accidentally cut out their pattern with pinking shears (I have a beautiful piece of velvet brocade which has a huge pinked-edge hole in the middle of it — “it was for a vest!” — that’s basically destroyed.  Oh well.

Measuring and cutting tools: you need both rotary cutters and scissors. Since you have a rotary cutter, you also need a rotary cutting mat — as large as your program can afford, plus some smaller ones.  A Tailor’s tape for each kid, a set of pins for each kid… in general, a collection of basic hand-sewing tools for each kid.  I found some kits for under $5 and I just bought them. A couple of Quilter’s rulers (the thick ones of see-through plastic, with inches and half-inches gridded, and dots or dashes for quarter inches)

Extra sewing machine needles.  Seven inch zippers are about right for pencil cases.  Sixteen inch ones and four inch ones are great for messenger bags. Polyfil for stuffing pillows and stuffed animals.  Seam rippers — two per kid seems about right.

Organization bins: have bins for different kinds of fabric — sort by color and by grade.  Have braid and trim available; encourage parents to contribute stuff they’re not going to use to your bins.  Kids need selections, but they don’t need huge selections. They also don’t need awesome fabric — cotton prints are usually fine, and if you have an Affordable Fabric near you, most of that stuff is $3 a yard.  Discourage big projects, encourage lots of small ones. Making an elaborate Tudor-style dress that a kid isn’t going to be able to fit in, in a year, is not appropriate.  It requires a level of organization and dedication that beginning sewers don’t have; but all these smaller projects will give kids the skills they need to build cool stuff.

Have your Own Project

It’s important to have your own project, especially once all of your kids have projects of their own and can help each other with the basics.   You’re going to be called upon every 10 minutes or less anyway — a broken sewing machine needle, a rethreading of a needle, a technical question about a pattern, a design flaw, that’s just been noticed, or something.

It’s by having my own project that I learned to gather for a Tudor-style shirt.  It’s how I learned to make a button-hole.  It’s how I learned to make a drawstring bag.  It’s how I learned to sew on braid and trim.  None of the key skills of being a sewer will come to the MakerLab teacher without taking the time to make your own stuff.  It will help you help students, if you learn to read patterns, to work with different kinds of material (pseudo-suede and pleather and cotton and fleece and braid and trim and tulle… gah. None of them behave the same way under the presser foot).


This is going to be the hardest section to write, because I’m well over thirty-five hundred words at this point, and on my way to five thousand if I let this section get as long as it needs to be.  However, as our Theater Director pointed out to me, the goal of a school sewing studio is to produce sewers.  We’re out to produce kids who not only can make projects out of fabric, but who can operate as tailors and seamstresses and drapers and costumers in their own right.  And that means teaching processes.

Make sure everyone can thread the machine they sit at.  That they can sew a straight-ish seam. That they’ve made a seam-guide, showing what a 5/8″ seam looks like, and a 1/2, and a 3/8″ and a 1/4″.  That they know how to turn a corner (leave the needle IN the fabric, lift the presser foot, turn the fabric, put the presser foot down, continue sewing).  That they know how to finish (sew forward and back along the same 1/2″ or so to lock the seam together at the beginning and end).

That they know how to measure with a quilter’s ruler, a tailor’s tape, and a rotary cutting mat. That they can cut with a rotary cutter or a pair of fabric scissors, or a pair of pinking shears. That they know how to cut from the edges of a piece of fabric (rather than take that beautiful bit in the middle, and leave the raggedy edges).

That you lay out a large pattern on a large piece of yardage — seven or ten pieces of tissue paper on five or six yards — so that you emphasize how important measuring is before cutting.  In my class, a girl cut out four pieces of a dress before we discovered that the fifth piece didn’t fit on the remnant of fabric: heart-breaking, really, and my own fault for not emphasizing that basic skill.

Final Thoughts

I hope this has been helpful and useful.  Please let me know if you think of ways to add to this guide or make it more useful still with other projects for early training of life-long sewers.

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    • I love weaving. I think that it’s a sophisticated skill, that it has important lessons to teach us even in the 21st-century especially as a hand activity done on a hand treadle or foot treadle loom; but a friend of mine is a weaver, and we did an estimate of what it would cost for us to collaborate on making a garment out of cough that she Wells and that I sewed. It is cost prohibitive. Even a simple garment, like a jacket or a pair of pajama style pants, the price might start at $1000.

    • I think one of the things that magicians really should learn, at some point, is the art of tablet leaving. Tablet, or cards, weaving, produces bands of fabric that can be sold on as decoration to other pieces of clothing. And I think that’s the technique to experiment with, and learn, in a magical context. Not trying to produce 45 inch wide fabric for making a road from scratch-yarn.

  1. Every person that sews has that story about being short of material because of an error in what they cut out! My family was full of sewers, both men and women, and was consequently full of funny stories about that. Some were not so funny at the time they happened, because they were during the depression when it really, really mattered! Same with carpentry. What’s the saying? Measure twice, cut once?

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