Sewing with young children, some tips and tricks

During the past year I’ve sewn quite a bit with my then 3-year and now 4-year-old daughter. It started so that I could do some crafting while going lockdown-crazy but it turned into something enjoyable for both of us. At first, she would just sit next to me or sit on my lap and hand me fabrics. At some point she wanted to use the scissors button on my sewing machine and I would tell her when I was done sewing a seam and she could cut the thread. After a while she also wanted to use the foot pedal. This took a bit longer to master, but she can now start and stop when I tell her to. I did have to make up the “only sew when there is fabric under the presser foot” rule though, because she would otherwise just go whenever she felt like it.

If you had asked me 3 years ago if I thought it would work to sew with a 3-year-old I would probably have said “are you crazy?”, but now I think it is absolutely possible if your child is interested and capable of following some rules. I thought it might be useful for other (grand)parents to see what I have learned from this experience so today I am sharing some tips. 

  • Keep it simple
    • Don’t try to make something super complicated with a young child around. You need to focus on your child and make certain that the sewing you do together is safe. For that reason I like to make improv blocks. You can just cut the fabric with scissors and it’s not so important to sew exact ¼ inch seams or perfectly matched seams.
  • Leave perfection outside the sewing room anyway
    • With the improv sewing we mostly do I just trim the seam allowances to approximately ¼ inch. The back of those pieces are ridiculously messy and uneven compared to the other things I sew, but I don’t mind. It’s the back. It will not be on display when the item is finished.
  • Be clear about what your child can and cannot touch in your room
    • I do not want my child’s hands near the needle of the sewing machine and for that reason I am still guiding the fabric through the machine while she controls the foot pedal.
    • Rotary cutters, sharp scissors and iron are off limits. There is only one pair of scissors in my sewing room that she is allowed to use and she knows this.
    • My daughter knows she can touch some of the buttons on my sewing machine like the thread cutter and speed control (yes, the latter can give some surprises while you’re sewing…) and she knows not to touch the others. It really would be too annoying if she changed the straight stitch to a zig zag or the stitch length. Has this always gone well? Hmm, I did at some point have some tension issues with my overlocker because she had touched the differential feed and stitch length dials, she now knows to stay away from them.

  • Be clear about which fabrics and supplies your child is allowed to use
    • My daughter knows she can pick anything from my scrap bins, but not from the larger pieces that are stored in the closets. When we need a larger piece of fabric for something I’ll make a preselection and give her a limited number of options to choose from. If I would not do this my daughter would most likely completely mess up my fat quarter storage system looking for pretty fabrics. This way she will also not end up disappointed because she picked a fabric that I was still saving for another project and do not want her to use.
  • Get a seam roller
    • Pressing seams certainly results in a better looking finished project but I really do not want a hot iron in a room with my child. She knows it can get hot and that she shouldn’t touch it, but accidents can happen and I rather prefer to have my daughter’s skin intact over perfectly pressed seams. At first, I finger pressed seams and that worked somewhat but at some point I bought a Clover seam roller and that does work much better. I now just use the seam roller when my daughter is in the room and give the pieces we made another press with the iron when she’s not around.
  • Plan ahead
    • There are some steps in a project that you can’t really do without a rotary cutter or iron or that need your full attention. When we sewed a bag for one of her teachers, I cut the pieces for the bag when my daughter wasn’t around so that she could help with the construction later on.
  • Follow your child’s interests
    • Ask what your child would like to make and then turn that idea into something manageable. We started because she found some improv trees I had made that she liked and she wanted to make some trees of her own and I thought we could just give it a shot. When she wanted to make pyjamas for her stuffed animals we made a sleeping bag instead.
  • Accept that your sewing room will turn into (an even bigger) mess
    • My scraps are now super messy boxes on the floor because my daughter is always rummaging through them. I can live with this.
  • Stop when you notice your child starts to lose interest
    • Children don’t have a very long attention span. If they want to do something different after sewing only 3 seams, that’s just fine. If you continue because you want to finish something they’ll just start looking around your room trying to find something more interesting to do and make a mess. There were days we added just 1 or 2 trees to our forest, that’s fine. Eventually we had enough trees to make an entire quilt.

And finally, if you really want to sew and your child doesn’t, you can also sew while your child is sitting next to you cutting up pieces of paper, taping fabric scraps to paper, sorting your beads or watching Netflix. Just saying…

For our latest project we made her teachers mug rugs as an end of schoolyear gift. She picked the fabrics from my scrap bins and told me how they should be put together. She operated the foot pedal for some of the seams and for others I sewed them while she sat on my lap. She cut the thread and sometimes lifted the presser foot. She picked the thread colours for the quilting and edges of the mug rug and decided whether we should do straight or wavy quilting lines. I absolutely love how both of them turned out!

Have you ever sewn with young children and have some other tips that make the experience even more fun?

Completed: Erica’s pincushion

In May and June the Dutch MQG organized a pincushion swap and of course I participated. I had to make something for Erica, which is great because last year she made me a very beautiful mini quilt so it was nice to make her something in return.

Everyone had to make an inspirational mosaic and answer some questions so their swap partner could get some ideas. Erica likes green and nature and wanted a small pincushion with room on the sides to stick needles in. The pincushions in her mosaic contained a lot of triangles (my favourite!) and fussy cutting which I decided to incorporate into my own design.

I played around in Adobe Illustrator to create a foundation paper piecing pattern to use for the top of the pincushion. The block was originally 4 inches but as I started assembling it this felt too large for a small pincushion and I reduced it to 3 inches. Oh, and yes, I do remind myself to check the printer settings before printing FPP patterns.

I was super happy to find a fabric that I could cut a ball like flowery thing out of that somewhat resembled the flowery pictures that she put in her mosaic. That fabric also contained several other smaller items that I fussy cut for the corners. I picked some green and yellow-green fabrics to work with that purple fabric and as a fellow lover of green I am very pleased with how it all turned out.

The sides are 1 3/8’’ high which was mainly determined by the print that I wanted to fussy cut. The sides were sewn to the top and bottom using Y-seams and this came together without problems. Y-seams don’t scare me. I filled the pincushion with lavender scented crushed walnut shells. This was the first time I used this type of filling and I really like how it feels when you push the pins into the shells. Apparently it helps to keep your pins and needles sharp. I also like that it adds some weight to the pincushion so that it sits a bit more stable. The lavender smell is great; it reminds me of summer vacations in southern France with my parents.

My guild’s theme for this quarter is scraps so I made a scrap card to send with the pincushion. As part of the swap we also included 50 grams of our own scraps in our package so we’d all get some new fabrics to play with. I chose a variety of sizes and shapes and a combination of prints and solids.

You are probably also curious to see what I got in return. Ingrid made me a pincushion from the Deluxe pattern of Heidi Staples. I love the fussy cutting of the text fabrics that she included. This pincushion has a pocket that can be used to put a pair of scissors in but I prefer to keep my scissors elsewhere so I used the nine patch to organize the different types of pins that I use most often. The top of the pocket can be used to clip wonderclips on, I think this feature will really come in handy. The scraps that I received were very different from the fabrics that I currently have in my scrap box so they were a very good addition to add some more variety to my projects. All in all, I consider this another very successful swap!

Completed: Daycare birthday treat

Sometimes I make things that do not contain any fabric, shocking right? My youngest daughter recently turned two years old and I made a treat she could take to daycare to share with the other children to celebrate. What they bring has to be healthy, a policy I fully endorse but a single box of raisins just doesn’t look so festive.

The past three birthdays I picked a nice children’s book and made something to decorate the raisins that fits in with the theme of the book. The children can enjoy their raisins and as a group they get a new book to read with the teachers.

This time I picked a book about a boy and an elephant that play hide-and-seek, David Barrow’s “Have you seen elephant?”. It’s very cute, the elephant is not particularly good a hiding as you can already tell from the front cover but the boy can’t find him at all. My daughter loves elephants and hide-and-seek, even though she doesn’t really get the rules yet. She still runs out of her hiding spot the moment you’re done counting, usually from behind the floor length living room curtains, but she has so much fun!

In Adobe Illustrator I drew a box with an elephant on one side to fold around the box of raisins. I am quite proud at how recognizable the elephant turned out! I had to omit the tusks though because whatever I tried they just looked ridiculously out of place.

Happy birthday little girl!

Completed: a set of fabric crowns

One of my nieces turned 4 years old so we needed to come up with a gift to celebrate. She likes to dress up and is very much into princesses so I thought it might be fun to make her a fabric crown. I was also in a sewing funk and thought a relatively simple project would be a great way to get out of it.

There are already plenty of tutorials and patterns out there for fabric crowns and yet I decided to make up my own. One reason was that I didn’t have a printer at hand when I wanted to make the crown so I couldn’t print a template. The main reason, however, is that I’ve realized that the designing of these kinds of items and figuring out the best way to construct them is one of the things I like best about sewing. It may take longer to make something but it is a lot more fun when you figure everything out by yourself. At least for me it is. I also understand that some people prefer to know where they’re going when they’re sewing and use a fool-proof pattern.

I did scroll through a list of Google images of fabric crowns to decide on a style before I started drawing the pattern. I liked the pointy ones where the spikes become lower from front to side so that’s what I went for. After drawing I wrapped the template around my daughter’s head to determine how far the sides of the crown should extend to allow for some room for the elastic I put in the back.

Because I used my daughter as a living dress form to determine the size she quickly realised I was making a crown and immediately decided that she wanted one as well so I ended up making two. She also specifically asked for a green one.

For each crown I cut two pieces of Decovil light slightly larger than the crown template. This is a fantastic fusible interfacing; it is firm, yet flexible and ideal for a project like this. These pieces were fused to the front and back pieces of fabric for the crown that were also cut slightly larger than the template. On the right side of the front piece I traced around the template so I knew where to put the decorations. I used a set of iron on glitter stars that were sold as elbow/knee patches. You can’t go wrong with stars and glitter on a crown. Each crown was also decorated with some sequins that I sewed on by hand. For my niece I only picked a couple of colours but my daughter wanted all the colours.

The front and back pieces were then layered on top of each other wrong sides together and I put some fusible stuff in between that had come with some IKEA curtains to make a fusible hem (I obviously used a sewing machine to hem those curtains…). During pressing I protected the sequins with a pressing cloth. Fusing the two layers ensured that they stuck together when I cut out the final crown shape. It was also very helpful for keeping everything in place when I used a zig zag stitch to finish the edge of the crown.

Deciding on what to use as a closure probably took the longest. Since I didn’t have the intended recipient on hand for try-ons I wanted it to be somewhat adjustable. I considered snaps and Velcro but both those options will probably require help from an adult to adjust and as a parent I really like it when my children can play with their toys without adult assistance. I am also not so sure that Velcro is so desirable to use close to hair as it may get tangled in the male part. So, in the end I decided that the fabric part of the crown would not go all the way around the head but at the back a piece of soft and stretchy elastic would supply some adjustability. That probably makes my crowns a sort of crown-tiara mashup. For the elastic closure I cut some fabric that was the same width as the back of the crown. Sewed the elastic to one side, folded it and attached it to the crown with some vertical stitch lines and some more zig zagging around the edges to get a neat finish.

My daughter is very happy with her new green crown!

Completed: curvy crosses drawstring bag

In December I participated in a winter swap organized by the dutchMQG. We each had to prepare 12 gifts for another member and some of the gifts had to be handmade. They were opened in the 12 days preceding Christmas and it was a lot of fun to see what everyone received. I had to make something for Ingrid and she loves blue and plus blocks so to combine those two in an item was a given. Each quarter we also have a specific theme at our guild and at the time it was curves, so I also wanted to include some curved piecing

For my final gift I made a quilted drawstring bag. I first sewed 9 improv curvy cross blocks to create a panel for the front of the bag. This was framed in a dark blue solid fabric to make it large enough. For the back panel I used a single piece of the same dark blue solid. The front was quilted in the ditch and on the back I quilted one large curvy cross.

The front and back panels were sewn together and the corners at the bottom were boxed so that the bag can stand up on its own. I did not use a separate lining. For the sides I used French seams and for the corners the seams were bound with a strip of fabric because the layers just got too thick for French seams.

For the closure at the top I used a single layer of the dark blue solid because that would make it easier to close the bag than when you have to pull a quilted layer together. The top was folded over to create the channel for the drawstring. It was attached to the main piece and again I used some binding to cover the seam.

I dug through my collection of saved ribbons for something suitable to use for the drawstring and found this nice off white piece that was just long enough. I am very pleased with how this bag turned out!

My first newsletter goes out on Saturday so if you don’t want to miss it there is still time to sign up here! I will share a personal story of how I came to be where I am now and what my plans are for the near future.

Completed: boxy pouches galore!

My daughter turned 4 years old and as a result no longer goes to daycare but to school. Time does really fly these days. We wanted to give her 3 daycare teachers a special goodbye gift and decided (well, I suppose this decision was mostly mine) on quilted pouches with improv piecing.

My daughter dug through my scraps to find pieces she wanted to combine. For a lot of the sewing and quilting she even operated the foot pedal and scissors button. This goes better each time we sew together. The original plan was to make the entire pouch using improv pieced scraps but we ran out of time and the piece we had made just wasn’t big enough to make 3 pouches. Instead I cut it into 3 wedges and let my daughter pick a solid fabric to combine with each piece. For some extra interest I also used a piece of cork leather for each pouch that was added after the pieced panel was quilted. I love it when a change of plan results in an even better looking item!

Add a lining, a zipper and some binding to finish off the inside seams and 3 pouches were completed. My daughter was super happy with how they turned out and excited to gift them. It was funny to see how she decided that certain fabrics definitely had to go in the pouch for a specific teacher.

A new journey has started. Going to school is very different from how we imagined it would be when we enrolled her. Schools in The Netherlands will be closed for at least another couple of weeks for most of the students. On the days she can go it’s just a couple of students in the class. On the other days there is a half hour online meeting with the teacher and we do some assignments with her at home. I am happy that she does appear to be enjoying herself. That’s probably an advantage of starting school now, she has no clue what it is really supposed to be like.

Newsletter

I’ve decided to try something new and am starting a monthly newsletter at the end of January. I’ve been digging deeper into Adobe Illustrator and am now using it to turn some of my designs into real quilting patterns! If you’d like to know a bit more about what goes on behind the scenes and don’t want to miss anything you can sign up for the newsletter here.

Tutorial: Greeting cards with fabric

I’ve been using tiny scraps to make greeting cards. I came up with the idea when I wanted to send a pretty card but didn’t really have anything suitable left and didn’t want to visit a shop to buy one. It’s a super quick method and I thought some of you might be interested in a tutorial so you can use up some of your own scraps in a fun way!

What do you need?

  • Blank (coloured) greeting cards
  • White or coloured card stock (I use 160 gms)
  • Fabric scraps
  • Ruler
  • Rotary cutter
  • Sewline glue pen (or another basting glue that doesn’t leach through the fabric)
  • Thread
  • Old sewing machine needle to sew through paper
  • Sewing machine
  • Double sided sticky tape

Method

1. Use the rotary cutter and ruler to cut a piece of card stock slightly smaller than the front of the greeting card.

2. Cut fabric scraps and arrange on piece of card stock until you are happy with the layout.

3. Use the glue pen to stick the fabric to the card stock. Only use a small amount of glue, it’s just to make sure the fabric doesn’t shift around when you’re sewing.

4. Put an old needle in your sewing machine.

5. Make sure the ends of top and bobbin threads are pulled out a bit before starting to sew. Sew through the fabric scraps and make sure to also leave a thread tail at the end.

6. Pull on the thread at the back of the cardstock to pull the thread that’s on the front through to the back as well.

7. Tie a knot in the threads and either trim short or weave the ends into the stitching.


8. Put a couple of pieces of double sided sticky tape on the back of the card stock.

9. Use a ruler as a guide to make sure that you stick the piece of card stock centered on the greeting card.


10. Write message on the inside and put in the mail!

Alternatives

For an even quicker make you can also stitch the fabric directly onto the front of a double greeting card. The stitching and thread ends will show on the inside of the card but that’s part of the charm of a handmade card right? Do make sure to open the card before you start sewing though or it may be very difficult to write your message afterwards. I probably don’t need to spell out how I came up with that last piece of advice…

I also like to make fabric postcards using the method described in this tutorial that I made years ago, but those postcards take a lot longer to make so it’s not something I’ll do when I only have a little bit of time to sew. Have you ever used fabric to make greeting cards? 

Completed: Teacher’s bag

My daughters go to daycare and one of the teachers recently left. My youngest is probably her biggest fan so we were a little sad when we heard the news. So, I decided to make her a gift with a little help of my eldest.

The original plan was to make a simple tote bag with appliqued fabric scraps on both sides. My daughter was in charge of scrap selection and placement. My task was to sew everything in place according to her instructions.

I fear I may no longer be able to make “simple” tote bags. After completing the front and back panel I thought “hmm, you can of course see the zig zag stitching inside the bag, a lining to cover that up would be nice”. This was quickly followed by “if I’m making a lining I may as well make the bag even more useful by adding a patch pocket”, “a key chain so keys don’t get lost among all the other stuff would also be nice” and “an adjustable strap so she can choose whether to wear it as a shoulder bag or cross body would be great and I do still have webbing and sliders in my stash”.

After all that I was sort of able to stop myself from adding more features except that I really wanted to add a closure at the top of the bag. One of the quickest closures to install is a magnetic snap. Sadly I didn’t have any in my stash. There was, however, still time to order some so I did.

I am very pleased with how this bag turned out. There are some risks when you let a 3 year old select scraps but I really like what she picked and how they’re arranged. I didn’t have enough black webbing to make both sides of the strap so I let my daughter decide whether the teacher would prefer yellow or pink as an accent detail. No idea whether pink was really the correct answer to that question but I certainly like it!

Completed: What makes you think I love triangles?

This quilt started as a “what if” experiment. I have a stack of colourful 10’’ squares and thought to myself “what if I layer them on top of each other, slice them into two triangles, put one triangle to the side and then repeat this procedure twice with the other one? The next step was mixing up the fabrics to get as much variation in the blocks as possible and sew them back together into squares.

I wanted to make 30 blocks and picked 33 different fabrics so I’d have some extra blocks to play with. After sewing several seams and a couple of trimming steps in each block I could square them to 8’’, so the final quilt measures 37.5 x 45’’ or approximately 94 x 112 cm.

It was a lot of fun to choose a layout. The 3 different sizes triangles in the blocks create additional shapes in the design and I kept adjusting the placement of the blocks over several days to achieve the final layout.

For the back I started with the improv pieced name of the recipient and added two rows of trucks/tractors because I know he’s into that kind of stuff. It gives the quilt a bit more of a child vibe than I usually go for, but I quite like it.

Let there never be any doubt who’s quilt this is!

The batting is Hobbs Tuscany cotton wool and thread a variegated Guttermann Sulky that I already had in my stash which is a very good match for several of the colours in the quilt.

Details of the walking foot quilting.

For the quilting I decided to go for a no markings needed design and sort of followed the shapes that I saw in the quilt. Quilting didn’t take as much time as I’d expected and I really like how it turned out.  

I love hand binding and this Karin Lewis Blueberry Park fabric is just perfect for binding because it seems to go with everything!

I’m thinking of making another quilt using this method but then using solids. Is anyone interested in a more detailed explanation of how to make these blocks? I forgot to take pictures when I made this one, but would be happy to make a small tutorial showing all the cutting and trimming steps.

Completed: A quilt for Lana

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So happy I finally finished this quilt! I basted it back in February and then all sorts of things happened in the world and the need to get if finished quickly disappeared. I quilted it a couple of weekends ago and added the binding over several short sessions.

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Batting is Hobbs Tuscany cotton/wool, which so far remains my favourite batting for quilts that will be used as blankets. It’s soft and drapey and, not unimportant, I like quilting it. The finished size of the quilt before I washed it was 96 x 114.5 cm, I didn’t measure afterwards but it’s probably slightly smaller now.

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On the back you can see the quilting much better.

I used a neutral Guttermann Sulky 30wt cotton thread for quilting. The quilting design is simple. In the lighter parts I quilted ½’’ away from the seam lines and in the darker parts I did a zig zag that is the mirror image of the zig zag created by the seam lines in the quilt. I only did very minimal marking for the zig zag and even though I didn’t always hit the mark exactly you can’t really tell in the finished quilt. The child’s name was quilted with a more shiny purple thread.

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Small marks to help me quilt in the right direction

For the binding I picked a black fabric and while it’s perhaps not the most obvious choice I like how it turned out. I still need to gift this quilt but I don’t think the parents read my blog so it’s probably safe to already show it here.

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All the long straight lines in the lighter parts of the quilt are done.

Although it’s not really obvious on this blog (yet) I have been spending so much more time in my sewing room lately and that is great. I am experimenting with different techniques, quilt designs and generally just having a lot of fun. Expect to see some more activity here in the coming months when all those projects (hopefully) get finished!

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