What is a “Tea Towel”?

Dear Sewfie,

My sweet niece gave me a tea towel for Christmas. I have to admit, I don’t even know what is tea towel is. What is it and what is it used for?
-Tea Time ?

Dear Tea Time,
The term “tea towel” originates in England and refers to the type of towel used to dry china tea service as well as other valuable serving pieces. Tea towels have been both highly functional and decorative, moving during the last century from service to showpiece.

Linen is the traditional fiber for tea towels, since it is highly absorbent, lint free and can be used to dry delicate plates and silverware without the risk of scratching. Tea towels are made with a simple weave, rather than a looped terry, and are made in a hand towel size. The size and material they’re made from also provides an ideal background for decorating with embroidery or printing. Nineteenth century English ladies embroidered their tea towels for decorative usage during tea time to cover food. Decorative printed towels were hung on the wall. Tea towels have been printed with monarchs and other famous people, country scenes, nature themes and calendars.

A tea towel is NOT your common dishrag!

Not to be confused with the common dish rag, a tea towel is kept spotlessly clean, because it is used on freshly washed dishes and as a cover for food intended for consumption. Clean tea towels may be spread over a tea tray before tea things are put onto it, or used to cover warm scones or a tea pot to prevent heat loss. When the tea towel becomes damp, it is hung up to dry, and it will also be periodically washed for better sanitation. A dish rag, on the other hand, is a small towel used to wash dishes and wipe down counters.
Tea towels are now often sold as souvenirs, particularly in Great Britain and Ireland, two nations well known for their tea. While these tea towels are perfectly usable for their intended purpose, they are typically kept for ornamental rather than practical reasons. Travelers may bring back tea towels for friends, or keep them as a reminder of the trip.

Thanks to the DIY culture and artsy crafting sites such as ETSY, handmade tea towels are now quite popular as gifts, collectibles and eco-friendly kitchen accouterments. They can be framed, used to make aprons and other craft projects or even used as gift wrapping.

Warm Stitches,

Scared to Sew? Tips on Reducing Sewing Anxiety

Dear Sewfie,
I own all the ‘right tools’ and have a fantastic Bernina machine- I’ve made some very simple yet beautiful quilts and love the end results- yet I am so stressed when I work on these projects. Why am I so scared to sew? I mean, I CAN do it- yet as much as I try to enjoy it- I’m so relieved when it’s over. Does everyone do this? How do I get over my anxiety and start enjoying this like I know I should???? Help me Sewfie!!

P.S. A side note to my question…. when I DO sew… my family knows how stressed I get- they actually stay away from me, sad- huh? It’s crazy- ’cause I REALLY DO ENJOY IT!


Dear Sue,

First off….. take a deep breath! You have come to the right place, Sewfie can help you. She is a bit of a Type-A tomato herself, so she knows exactly what you are going through. What you are experiencing is called “fear of failure”, also known as “perfectionism”. You love sewing (perhaps you are even obsessed with it) and you want to do a good job – as evidenced by your investment in all the ‘right tools” and the fancy Bernina machine. But you are so concerned about doing a really great job and getting perfect results, that you can’t enjoy the process. You are afraid you will make a mistake, it won’t turn out just as you had envisioned, it will be “not perfect” in some way. Your focus on the end results is ruining the fun of the process. What you need to do is focus less on the end results, and more on the process, accepting that even if it doesn’t turn out perfect, it doesn’t have to be and you can still have fun. Here are some practical tips on how to reduce the stress of your quilting projects:

  • Buy cheap fabric. By “cheap” I mean inexpensive, not low quality. Shop the discount fabric shops or the bargain bolts at your LQS (Local Quilt Shop). This way, with less financial commitment, you will feel less anxiety about cutting into an expensive piece of fabric.
  • “Little victories”. Build up your confidence by investing your time and talents in some small, easy to finish projects like table runners or placements. By building up a series of successes under your belt, you can later tackle that heirloom king sized quilt with greater confidence and less stress. And in the mean time, you’ll have tons of cute placemats you can give away as gifts! Sewfie’s favorite source for cute little projects is Pieced Tree Patterns. They have these adorable small, laminated pattern cards called Tiny Ones. They are no bigger than an index card and their tag line is (no kidding) “Easy to Piece, Easy to Enjoy!”. They cost only $3 and they make the cutest projects. Sewfie keeps a stack of these cards on her sewing desk for times when she needs a quick fix of something fun and rewarding.
Pieced Tree Patterns ‘Tiny Ones’ pattern cards, 68 cute little designs
  • Don’t sew after 10pm. Nothing good ever happens to a sewing project late at night. You’re tired, you will make mistakes, crabbiness will ensue.
  • One stitch at a time. Don’t feel like you have to plow through a project all in one sitting and don’t set a deadline on when you “have to” get something done. Set mini-goals, such as, I’ll work on this until Block X is done, then I’ll take a break. When you’ve reached a mini goal, walk away, have a coffee break, etc. and revel in your progress. Learn to be happy with achieving the little goals along the way so you won’t have to derive all of your satisfaction from the completed project alone.
  • Don’t point out your mistakes. Every sewing project has some mistakes in it and the rest of the world need not know about them. I bet you are the type if someone was admiring your finished work, you’d dismiss their compliments and starting pointing out all the boo-boos…. don’t do that. No one else cares if the binding is crooked or you had to piece the blue fabric because you ran out after cutting it the wrong way.
  • Sew for charity. If you are sewing for someone else – someone who needs what you are making – then little mistakes and getting it “perfect” will take a back seat to the comfort you are bringing to others.

Finally, as for your family that fears the wrath of your sewing projects, if you try Sewfie’s tips, they are sure to notice a significant reduction in your anxiety right away. If you really want to show them that a Quilting Mom is a Fun Mom, then make things for them! They’ll be happy to see you sewing if they know they are getting a colorful pillow or a cuddly lap quilt out of it!

Warm Stitches,

Getting Your Child Started with the Sewing Machine

Hey Sewfie,
How old do you think a child should be before they learn how to sew? Should they learn hand sewing first, then learn how to use the machine later?

Sewing D

In theory, it makes sense to learn to hand sew before learning how to use the machine… if one is a true sewing purist. However, Sewfie thinks that notion is rather outdated – especially in this age of computers, cell phones and all kinds of complicated widgets that even toddlers know how to operate. Many kids can type their names on the computer before they can write their names on paper, so by that analogy, why not set aside Grandma’s sewing basket and put the (sewing machine) pedal to the metal! Children as young as 5 can easily operate a sewing machine, with supervision from an adult and some basic instructions and safety tips. Learning to sew on the machine has the added advantage of enabling the young sewist to get good results quickly. Their impatient little fingers can crank out a tote bag, a pillow, a bean bag or even simple stuffed animal in less time than it would take them to stitch a single hand sewn seam. Greater satisfaction derived from quicker results will encourage your little seamstress/seamster to keep sewing!

Here are some tips for getting your little one started on the sewing machine:

    • Is my child ready? In Sewfie’s opinion, if your child has the dexterity to cut a piece of fabric with scissors, then s/he is ready to sew!
    • Do not teach a child to sew on a “child’s” sewing machine – Any plastic widget you buy in a toy catalog, toy store, etc. or anything that has the word “child” in the model name is NOT a REAL sewing machine. It won’t work well, it will break, and it will most certainly make a huge tangled mess of the thread 99% of the time. Your child will be instantly frustrated and your sewing lessons will end quicker than they began. If you are too afraid to let your child use your $2000 Bernina, buy an entry-level sewing machine, but get a GOOD one. Sewfie’s Tip: The best thing going out there right now is the ThreadBanger TB12 by Janome. It is basically a re-issue of their very popular Travel-Mate, updated with cool graphics and co-branded with the popular D.I.Y. site ThreadBanger.com. Hip looks aside, this is one awesome machine. It’s cast aluminum (you just don’t see that anymore, it warmed Sewfie’s heart… as she sews exclusively on a Singer 301A, circa 1953), has twelve basics stitches, a 4-step button hole, push-button reverse and a built in thread cutter…. All you really need in a sewing machine! Described in many reviews as a “workhorse” (i.e. it can take a beating), it zips easily through all kinds of fabrics, including denims and fleece. Its very forgiving, doesn’t tangle the bobbin thread – even for the most egregious “user errors”, and its trim design gives you a spacious, open work space. It retails for $299 but many places sell it for $199.
Janome TB12

Janome TB12

  • Setting up the machine – It will be a long time before the child can set up the sewing machine herself, so for now, Mom should set up the machine with some neutral colored thread. Kids won’t care if it doesn’t exactly match. Sewfie herself was sewing for at least two years before she realized that thread came in other colors besides white.
  • Practice on paper first – Just like in your old Home EC class (you remember that, don’t you?), draw some straight and some curvy lines on a piece of paper. Have your child take a few “practice drives” on the paper – without thread. The needle will poke holes in the paper so you can see here you’ve been. Show her/him how to stay on the lines. This exercise helps to coordinate one’s hands in moving the “fabric” through the machine and also helps to get a feel for how the foot pedal makes the machine go faster or slower. When s/he can mostly stay on the lines, it’s time to move up to fabric! BTW, you’d be amazed at how quickly this video-game savvy generation can master the paper practice drive… don’t be surprised when it takes just a few runs!
  • If it feels stuck – ask for help! A simple rule of thumb to keep harm from coming to mom’s sewing machine is: if it feels stuck or is making a funny noise, something is wrong and you should ask for help.
  • Safety – There is almost no way to hurt yourself on a sewing machine unless you are just determined. You really have to go out of your way to run over your finger. Never the less, the “paper practice drive” mentioned above will help teach little hands where they need to be to keep away from moving parts. Loose hair should be in a pony tail and baggy sleeves should be secured.
  • Felt is an awesome first fabric – You can make a lot of really fun things from felt: bean bags, cases for pencils/iPods/phones, bags of all kinds, flags/banners, wallets, bracelets, pillows, stuffed animals… the possibilities are endless. It comes in lots of colors and it has the added advantages of being very easy to cut, it won’t fray and you don’t have to finish any of the edges.
  • Keep a stash box – Give your child a box of fabric for her own “stash”. This way, whenever the creative urge strikes, she can start chopping up her own fabric instead of that $18/yd. Etsuko Furuya you’d been saving for your “someday” purse.
  • Don’t be a Martha – Who says you have to sew by the rules? A simple, unfinished strip of quilting cotton makes a fine purse strap! You, as your child’s sewing instructor, must resist the urge to show him or her how to “do everything right”. Just let the child be creative: if she slaps two pieces of fabric together with a wobbly seam and calls it a gown, well then, it’s a gown! With more time and practice, you can teach her additional skills when she shows interest, but for now, just get started creating and having fun!
Warm Stitches,