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 However, Sewfie thinks that notion is rather outdated – especially in this age of computers, cell phones and all kinds of complicated widgets that even toddlers know how to operate.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 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,

Got them Basting Blues?

Dear Sewfie,
I like to sew, but I am having trouble basting. It takes longer than I think it should. Should I skip it or do you have any tips?


Dear Izzi,
If the pattern is recommending it, you definitely shouldn’t skip it. Basting is usually recommended for seams that are long (such as a skirt hem) or for areas that are too complicated or bulky to easily use pins (such as the bottom seam of our Grab ‘n’ Go Diaper Clutch, see photo below). Also, basting is often called for because it is easier to stitch over with your sewing machine than pins.

Here are Sewfie’s tips for making basting less painful:

  • Use long stitches. Basting doesn’t have to be tiny and accurate like your hand sewing stitches. For basting, use a big, long running stitch. ½” stitches (or longer) are perfectly OK and help to get the job done faster.
  • Baste slightly inside your seam allowance. For example if you have a 5/8” seam allowance for a garment, baste at ½” from the edge of your fabric. This way, after you machine stitch your seam, you won’t even see the basting stitches and you won’t have to take them out! Not having to pick out all those stitches later will save you some time.
  • Lay your work on a flat surface like a table or a floor (not your lap). Make several stitches at a time with your needle (see photo below) and then pull the thread through. Its like getting two stitches for the price of one! This will make it go faster, too.
Make basting go faster by taking a couple stitches at a time
  • Finally, instead of using a single strand of thread like many sewing instructions recommend, use a double strand of thread, knotted at the end. This will keep your needle from falling off the thread all the time, which is what always happens to me. Not having to re-thread your needle 10 times will save you time as well.

In the end, basting seems like a hassle but it really does help you get good results the first time. And after all the hard work you put into your wonderful handmade creation, isn’t it worth it?

Basting takes extra time…
… but it helps you get great results!
Warm Stitches,

Too Early to Start Sewing for Baby?

Dear Sewfie,

I just found out from my mom that my sister is expecting her first baby. I’m so excited I could just squeak. Mom wasn’t supposed to tell anyone but obviously she is really bad at keeping secrets. My sister doesn’t want to announce her pregnancy until her first trimester is over but I can’t wait until then! I’m itching to get started sewing for my little niece or nephew. Would it be bad luck to start a quilt for the baby before any formal announcements are made?

– Eager Auntie-to-Be

Dear Auntie,

Sewing a quilt for someone is an act of love: you think of them as you chose the fabrics, arrange the blocks and stitch all the pieces together. Emitting such positive energy into your sister’s world could never be bad luck! However, for the sake of covering for Grandma Leaky-Bucket, you should probably avoid asking your sister if she prefers pink or blue!

P.S. For an easy, fun baby shower project, try my Baby Puzzle Ball pattern…

Baby Puzzle Ball makes a great shower gift!

… or the Grab ‘n’ Go Diaper Clutch, for stylin’ new mommies!
Everything you need for baby in a cute little clutch

Warm Stitches,