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Picture of Sewing with a group of children
I am a preschool teacher and I work with children ages 3-5. Last year (08-09 school year), our class entered a 9 month endeavor to learn how to sew and make our own garments. It all started with one little girl who asked for "lots and lots" of paper which she would tape together to make a dress. When I explained that I could get her REAL material and teach her how to sew, she was ecstatic! Soon, other children joined into the project and, before we knew it, we were making dresses, police vests, super hero costumes, doll clothes, and viper fish costumes. We started with learning how to hand sew, then we hand sewed pillows out of felt. After that, each child designed their own garment and we used a cheap little machine to bring those designs to fruition. Even though they are young children, we were able to complete such a long-term project because we were doing something they were interested in. We believed in their capability and competency and, with a lot of time and A LOT of patience, something amazing came out of it!

This instructable will show you how to teach anyone how to sew, even those only just developing their fine motor abilities!
 
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Step 1: Hand-eye coordination

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With young children, it is important to let them fully explore a medium before you try to give them specific instructions. They are quite curious and need to understand how things work before they are comfortable with building new skills. So we put out small squares/rectangles of plastic canvas with yarn and large, blunt needles. Beforehand, we threaded the needle to the middle of the piece of yarn and tied both ends of the yarn together around one corner of the canvas, so that the needle wouldn't fall off. We let the children practice-without instruction, unless they asked-so they could figure out how to position their hands, how to be precise with the needle, and how to weave in and out in a sewing motion. Some children taught others stitches they had learned outside of school and they all created interesting designs. After each practice session, the canvases were un-sewn by the teachers so that we could reuse them at the next practice session.

Step 2: Making pillows

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Once the children were comfortable using a needle and holding their work at the same time, we began making pillows. We bought some 8x11 rectangles of felt from a craft store and let each child choose 1 or 2 colors. If the child chose one color, we simply folded the large rectangle of felt in half. if they chose 2 colors, we cut the rectangles in half and pressed the two smaller rectangles together. For sewing the pillows together, we used smaller tapestry needles (size 22, I believe)-which also have a blunt end-and embroidery floss. We would start the first thread with the needle in the middle and the two ends knotted, just as we did with the canvas. We hoped to eventually set the children up with the traditional knot at one end and tail at the other by their last thread-on. Sometimes it took several tries for them to realize how they had to hold the needle and thread at the same time so that the needle wouldn't slip off as they pulled the stitch tight, no matter how many times we explained it. Once both long sides of the pillow and one of the shorter sides of the pillow was sewn, the children stuffed their pillow through the un-sewn side. Usually a friend would help hold the pillow during the stuffing and while the child sewed up that last side. After it was stuffed, the child got to choose embellishments. Some of them chose to add beads, buttons, ribbon, and lace to their pillows by sewing them on, of course. This last step of embellishing was the perfect way for each child to really personalize their pillow as well as practice the intricacies of sewing a button.

Step 3: Draw and Plan your design

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Next, each child drew a picture of what they wanted to make using a sewing machine. A teacher would sit with them, taking notes and asking questions about details they wished to incorporate such as what kind of sleeves on the dress, what color something would be, if it needed buttons or a zipper or a tie. One little boy wanted his costume to be a viper fish which is a fish that lives deep in the ocean where it is pitch dark. This fish has a lantern at the end of an antena looking thing that comes from its head. In order to make a working lantern, we researched creating our own simple circuit, but eventually sought the knowledge of his father who had an LED light kit.
We were fortunate that we had collected a rather eclectic selection of fabric over the years and were storing it in a cabinet. Once the child's design was complete, we would walk out to the cabinet and they would have all the time they needed amid the smorgasbord of fabric. Somehow, we always found exactly what each child needed.

Step 4: Measure, Cut, and Pin

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Once the fabric was selected, it was time to measure, cut, and pin the creation so that we could sew it. We asked the children how they thought we could measure the garments. Some children knew about measuring tape, so we used that to the best of their ability; some thought we should trace their bodies, that worked, too; and some tried free hand drawing, this often took several attempts, but we never cut until it looked like it would fit when held up to the body. After the design was drawn out on the fabric, the children went to work cutting away. Then, we pinned up any edges that needed to be hemmed or seams that needed to be sewn.

Step 5: Introduce the machine

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Since we were using a major piece of equipment with children, we stressed the importance of using the machine in the proper way. Before each child began to sew his/her design, they were given a tutorial on the parts of the machine and how to use it.

Step 6: Sew baby, sew!

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We let the children use the foot pedal to operate the machine, while we helped them guide their garment through the press. Allowing them the control of the foot pedal seemed to truly empower them and taught them a tremendous amount about cause and effect. Each child understood the importance of following directions while we used the machine to make their garment. A group would often gather around in amazement to witness the work of the machine and watch the pieces come together.

Step 7: Final touches

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The last step in completing the garments was the finishing touches like adding buttons or a zipper or a sash. Since they already knew how to sew on a button, this step went pretty quickly. The zipper and sash were easy as well. We just pinned them in place and let the machine do the work.

Step 8: Take pride in what you've made

Here is a PDF of all the final creations so far. These children graduated in June 2009 and have just started kindergarten this week. The younger half of last year's class also has drawings and plans to make their ideas a reality. Once we have settled back in from the summer, we shall get started on their projects as well.
sewingproject.pdf(612x792) 469 KB
GFunkEra2 years ago
That was just too cute!
I love that you are introducing such thought intensive work into preschool! I know just making garments on a sewing machine is hard enough, let alone teaching it to a group of children but they looked like a great bunch that were very excited about what they were learning. Thank you for sharing and being an awesome teacher!
kdoyle64 years ago
Wow, this was a great project, I am inspired to have a go with my preschool class. Thanks for sharing :)
I wish you were my teacher!!!! Your project is inspirational, and very touching.  You've opened new worlds for your students.  Way to go!!!
patsyblake5 years ago
This is incredible! I vote it number one winner in the contest!
aimeee5 years ago
This gives me hope. I'm almost 39 and have always wanted to sew. If these kids can do it than so should I. I think this is awesome!
vanc095 years ago
Alicia, you hit it out of the park with this one! I love the faces of the children while modeling their creations. Such pride and joy. There should be more teachers like you. You have proven that young children are capable of so much if we just guide them, give them the tools, and get out of their way! You rock!
mimirie5 years ago
This is a phenomenal project! We teach Family and Consumer Science in the middle school, but you have demonstrated that these kids can definitely learn much earllier. The steps are developmentally appropriate and the results are adorable! Way to go, Alicia! Love, Aunt Marie
kiffakitty5 years ago
I love the idea of teaching them to sew with the plastic rectangles, this instructable has a lot of creative ideas :)
caitlinsdad5 years ago
This is great. I'm a big believer in allowing kids to explore and giving them the tools to do. And exposing them to machinery and pointy needles overcomes their fears and develops a healthy respect for them later on. The biggest reward is to see the imagination at work. We need more teachers like you with creative ideas. Thanks for sharing.
Some of those dresses look store bought! You did a fantastic job teaching them.
I don't see the photos of the dresses that look store bought? Did some of the photos get taken down?
acafarchio (author)  threadbare5 years ago
There are about 15 photos in a PDF file in step 8. If you can't view the PDF, I will try to upload all of the photos to that step individually. Thanks!
How wonderful! What a great way to let the students bring their creative ideas to life.
DJSparkles5 years ago
That is the cutest thing I've ever seen, ever. I was an Early Childhood major and I love how you let them discover the process on their own, even letting them make their own patterns! Truly awesome.