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?

Sewing tip: Threading hand sewing needles

A lot of people really dislike hand sewing and I think this is often due to needle threading issues. If you have to spend 10 minutes each time trying to poke a thread end through a tiny hole it can get really frustrating. It doesn’t have to be though. I thread most of my needles on my first attempt without the use of any aids (but I’ll get to threading aids later on!).

One very important “rule” in hand sewing is that you shouldn’t use a long thread. I know it can be really tempting to just cut a meter of thread (I’ve been there too) because it will last for ages and it reduces the number of times you need to thread that needle right? It will also make the sewing part that more frustrating because each time you pull the needle through the fabric you’ll have to do some sort of gymnastics trying to pull the entire length of thread through as well. On top of that a long thread will knot much easier and you’ll spend ages untangling threadnests. So, how long should your thread ideally be? About the length of your forearm. If you sew with double thread, cut it about twice that length so it becomes that length once it is doubled up. It is also important that you choose a needle with an eye that is large enough to fit your thread easily but that is not so large that it slips out easily.

Ideal threadlength

Threading by hand

Make sure the thread end doesn’t fray, if it does trim it before attempting any threading. Most people will try to push the thread through the needle, it is, however, much easier to slide the needle over the thread instead. I am right handed and, therefore, can execute fine movements much better with my right than with my left hand. When I thread a needle I hold the thread steady in my left hand with only a tiny piece of the thread end poking out from between my fingers. I will hold the needle in my right hand and slowly move the needle towards the thread. This way I find it very easy to exactly manoeuvre the eye of the needle over the thread. Once a small part of the thread has made it through the eye it is easy to pull the rest through.

Threading by handSome people run their thread through beeswax. This supposedly reduces the chance that the thread tangles during sewing. I don’t have beeswax and I’ve never tried it so I don’t have an opinion on it. I do, however, always run the thread through my fingers a couple of times before I start sewing (after threading the needle). This reduces any tension in the thread caused by having been wound on a spool and I really do find that I get knots less often than I used to before I started using this trick.

Threading aids

If you keep on struggling with threading needles, for example because your eyesight isn’t what it used to be or the light in the room you’re working in isn’t very good you can buy needle threading aids that help make the job easier. I’ve got two different ones in my possession.

The first is the most basic one. It has a small metal handle with a thin wire extension that forms a loop. The wire is pushed through the eye of the needle; because it is quite firm this is much easier than pushing a thread through. The wire basically enlarges the eye of the needle. You put the thread through the wire loop and pull on the handle. This threads the needle. The most important drawback of this tool is that I tend to break them quite soon.

Needle threader

The second is more like a little machine. I believe I’ve had mine for over 20 years and I used it very often when I was a child. It says Witch on one side and the other side calls it a needle threader and says it was produced in Western Germany. So yes, it is quite old… It looks deceptively similar to what Prym nowadays sells as a needle fairy.

The needle is inserted with the eye facing down into a shank. The thread is draped over the machine behind the shank. Pushing a little handle pokes a small metal part through the shank and this pushes the thread through the eye of the needle. When you pull the needle out it is threaded. Drawbacks are that some of my needles are too wide to fit into the shank and that the eye of some of my needles is too small for the pokey thing to fit through. It will work just fine for most needles though.

Needle fairy

Do you find threading hand needles a chore or do you never have much issues with it?

Sewing tip: Use your ¼ – and blind hem feet for accurate top- and edge stitching

I know I’m not the only one that occasionally struggles to get even top- or edge stitching. For most sewing machines you can buy a top stitch- and edge stitch foot, but they cost money and that money could also be spend on fabric, right? There is a much cheaper solution. Most sewing machines will at least come with a blind hem foot and often also with a ¼ inch foot. Mine are from Janome and if your sewing machine is a different brand they might look slightly different. I expect a stitch in the ditch foot (that I don’t own) will also work really well.

Left: 1/4 inch foot. Right: blind hem foot.

Left: 1/4 inch foot. Right: blind hem foot.

The thing these feet have in common is that they have a guide that you can place your fabric against as you are sewing. If you place this guide on top of a seam and keep it there while you are sewing your top stitching will be a very consistent distance from the seam. If you place the edge of your fabric against the guide and keep it there while sewing you can stitch really close to the edge. Sometimes you’ll have to adjust the needle position for it to work properly. When I place the guide on top of the fabric I’ll usually decrease the pressure on my foot to allow the fabric to be transported smoothly.

The guide of the 1/4 inch foot is placed on the seamline during topstitching.

The guide of the 1/4 inch foot is placed on top of the seamline during topstitching.

These feet have some limitations compared to the feet that were really meant for the job. With my ¼ inch foot I can only stitch a ¼ inch away from the edge because there is only a small hole for the needle so I can’t change the needle position. With the blind hem foot I can adjust the needle a bit to get different distances away from the edge but this is also somewhat limited. Ever since I started using these feet to do my topstitching I’m much happier with the results.

The edge of the fabric is placed next to to the guide of the blind hem foot. I adjusted teh needle position so I could stitch close to the edge.

The edge of the fabric is placed next to to the guide of the blind hem foot. I adjusted the needle position so I could stitch close to the edge.

Did you ever consider using these feet for top- or edge stitching? Do you now more feet that would be helpful to achieve accurate topstitching?

Sewing tip: Use your skirt marker to hem curtains

If you own a skirt marker you probably use it to mark hems on skirts. You can, however, also use it to make marks on other items, such as curtains! A skirt marker will make it much easier to create an even hem on your curtains. skirt marker

Hang up your unhemmed curtains. Adjust the height of your skirtmarker to the desired hem height and make marks across the entire width of the curtain.

skirt marker

Take the marked curtains down. Align a ruler with the chalk markings and use a rotary cutter and cutting mat to add the desired seam allowance. Because curtains are usually large and heavy I placed the cutting mat on the floor instead of a table to prevent the weight of the curtain putting strain on the fabric.

skirt marker

My chalk markings are almost invisible here, but I aligned them with the left side of the ruler and cut a 15 cm seam allowance.

Sew hem. If you have a lining you can easily repeat this process by hanging up the curtains with the lining side facing the room. Make sure to adjust the skirtmarker so the hem for the lining hits a little bit higher and will end up invisible on the finished curtains.

Can you guess what I did during the past couple of days?

Sewing tip: Unpicking

If you’ve been following this blog you’ll know by now that unpicking is not my favourite part of the sewing process. When you don’t like unpicking you basically have two options:

  1. Don’t unpick and accept sloppy seams as your sewing signature.
  2. Unpick when necessary.

I aim to have perfectly matched seams and great looking topstitching in my garments and as a consequence I have to accept that:

sewing + perfection = unpicking

Over time I’ve learned to unpick quickly and selectively and this helps to make unpicking less of a chore.

I’ve found that the fastest way to unpick a seam is to rip every 5th or so stitch on one side of the seam (don’t count, you want to do this quickly, if it is the 4th or the 6th stitch you’ll also be fine!). In the places where you backstitched you’ll want to unpick more stitches. After you’ve done this for the entire seam, you can then turn to the other side of the seam and place your seam ripper under the thread. You should be able to pull out the whole thread on this side of the seam in one go. All that is left now is to remove the smaller pieces of thread on the side you unpicked first and you are ready to redo the seam.

quickly unpick a seam

If I’ve sewn a seam and there is just a tiny little pucker somewhere while the rest of the seam is absolutely perfect I am not going to unpick the whole seam. I’ll only do a couple of centimetres around the pucker so that I can smooth that area out and resew it. I’ll backstitch and partially overlap the original seam. I used to feel that this was a bit like cheating, but I’ve seen several Craftsy instructors use this technique as well so I refuse to feel guilty about it. Selective unpicking will save you a lot of time and a lot of frustration.

selective unpicking

Do you have any other tips that make unpicking more enjoyable?

Sewing tip: Bias tape maker

Bias tape has been on my mind for the past two weeks or so. Perhaps not so strange since I made a top with bias tape facing and wrote a tutorial on how to fit bias tape in an armhole or neckline. So, I thought I might as well turn this into some sort of mini-series by giving a sewing tip for using bias tape makers:

“A fabric strip with the end cut at an angle will feed much more smoothly through a bias tape maker than a fabric strip with a straight end”

make your own bias tape

Cut the end of the fabric strip at an angle.

When you think about it, this is not all that surprising, but seriously, this tip can save you lots of frustration! The small tip of the fabric strip won’t meet much resistance inside the bias tape maker, and once the tip peeps out of the front, it is really easy to pull the rest of the strip through. No more fussing around with a pin trying to pull the fabric through.

When the tip of the strip comes out of the front you can easily pull the rest of the strip through.

For those of you that are not familiar with bias tape makers I’ll also show you in more detail how to use them.  A bias tape maker is, as the name suggests, used to make bias tape. I think they’re nifty devices that are a very useful addition to your sewing room. They’re not very expensive and come in (at least) 5 different sizes, 6 mm (1/4’’), 12 mm (1/2’’), 18 mm (3/4’’), 25 mm (1’’) and 50 mm (2’’). I own the 4 largest ones. Making your own bias tape has several advantages. You are not limited by the colours of store bought bias tape. You can use much nicer fabrics for your bias tape (store bought tape is usually very stiff) and you can make your garment look really unique by using a special print.

bias tape makers

My bias tape makers, don’t they look pretty all lined up?

The instruction leaflet that comes with the bias tape maker will tell you what size to cut the fabric strip but roughly this will be more or less twice the width of the finished width of the bias tape. For the really small bias tape makers it will be a little bit more, for the larger ones a little bit less. For the following pictures I used the 25 mm bias tape maker and cut my fabric strip just under 50 mm wide. The fabric strip is usually cut on the bias (45 degree angle to the grain line of the fabric). This gives the fabric a little bit of stretch and makes it easier to fit around curves. If you are going to use the tape to bind something that doesn’t have any curves it is totally ok though to use a strip of fabric that is cut on the straight of grain.

back of bias tape maker

The back of the bias tape maker is U-shaped. This is where the fabric goes in.

bias tape maker6

When the fabric comes out of the front of the bias tape maker the edges are folded in.

bias tape maker7

An iron is used to press the bias tape as it comes out of the bias tape maker. You can pull on the metal handle to pull more fabric through.

That was easy wasn’t it? I hope I have convinced you that making your own bias tape is totally worth it!