Simple Slip Cover Tutorial

Thanks for all the nice words about the covered bench! I feel quite certain that it is THE KEY to selling this house.  Will keep you posted on its magical qualities.

A few of you commented or emailed to say that you’d love to have some specifics, so I whipped up some quick sketches of my math whilst making this bad boy.  Making a slip cover is pretty straight-forward in terms of the sewing, but there has to be some math on the front-end to figure out what things to sew together.  My goal is, as always, to avoid making it harder than it needs to be.  I do the math, figure out what size pieces of fabric I’ll want, and then I eyeball the rest.

Like any other largely-rectangular sewing project, making a slip cover is mostly about measuring and then figuring out the best order of operations.  Although when I write it like that, it makes me think maybe a bit more than I’d like about algebra class, which probably doesn’t sell most of you on making slip covers.

The Measuring

Begin by taking the measurements of your object-to-be-covered.  For our purposes here today, I’m assuming you’re doing a bench or ottoman or something of that nature (mine is an Ikea storage bench with padding that I no longer see on their site).  That means I’ll need the depth of the bench, from front to back (at the top), the width of the bench (from side to side, also at the top), and the height* of the bench (from top to bottom, to figure the length of the slip cover so it will reach the floor).

So for this project, I measured 16″ deep, 55″ wide, and 18″ high.

The top of the bench will be covered by one piece of fabric, cut to the dimensions you recorded when you measured it, PLUS a seam allowance on all sides.  I use 1/2″, since that makes the math easiest.

If the bench is 16″ deep, plus a half inch seam allowance on both sides, I need the depth of the top piece to measure 17″.  If the bench is 55″ wide, plus a half inch seam allowance on both sides, I need the width of the top piece to measure 56″.

The front and sides will be covered by a single piece that wraps around to the back, plus seam allowances.  This will be stitched at the upper edge to the top piece we just finished measuring.

So if the depth of the bench–the measurement at the sides–is 16″, and there are two sides plus a front, I need to add 16″ + 55″ + 16″.  Then, I’ll want at least 4″ on either side to wrap around to the back so there’s no seam at that back corner, which makes 16″ + 55″ + 16″ + 4″ (left side) + 4″ (right side).  Then, add seam allowances for both sides: + 1/2″ + 1/2″.  Total to cover the bench horizontally, across the front and sides: 96″ of fabric.  Make sense?

I also want to calculate how much fabric it will take for me to cover the back of the bench, where it will be hidden by the foot of the bed or the wall or whatever.  So I take the width, subtract the extra I allowed at the front for overlap, then add a little more so I can create a flap where the left and right sides overlap one another at the very back–that allows me to put it on and take it off easily, and will give some ease when big bottoms sit on the bench to avoid too much strain on the seams.

The part that throws most people is NOT the measuring. It’s calculating yardage. Let’s walk through how to determine HOW MUCH FABRIC I need for this bench so you can see the (bootleg) method I use, shall we?

I am using an Alex Henry print that measures 45″ wide.  I know that for the front piece, I need fabric measuring 96″ wide.  If I divide 96″ by 45″, I know I need a little over 2 panels of fabric that are selvage-to-selvage in order to equal 96″.  Yes?

If I know I need 2+ panels, I’ll have to determine how long each panel is before I cut it.  My height* is 18″, plus a half inch seam allowance at the top, plus a 2″ hem at the bottom.  So I want to measure my panels to 20.5″ long.  For the front piece, that comes to one panel at 45″ x 20.5″, a second panel at 45″ x 20.5″, and a smidgen cut of 8″ x 20.5″.  That means I’ll need yardage of 20.5″ + 20.5″ + 20.5″ (because even though the smidgen panel is only 8″ wide, it has to be the full 20.5″ long, and I can’t buy a section of a yard) = 61.5″ or 1.71 yds.  Which means, not including the top cut of fabric, I need to purchase at least 1 3/4 yds.

Add in the top piece, now: I know I need it to measure 56″ x 17″.  Divide 56″ by 45″ (the width of my fabric), and I know I need more than one selvage-to-selvage panel.  But look!  I have a piece leftover from cutting the top that measures 37″ x 20.5″!  So I take one panel that’s 45″ x 17″ and cut the rest of the bench top from the remainder piece after cutting the front.  That means I’ll need an additional 1/2 yd of fabric (since I can’t buy 17″ cuts).  Total yardage so far: 2 1/4 yds.


Let’s look at how the whole thing will be assembled.  I’ve got my front piece, which will have at least two seams, and probably three: joining the two full-width panels, plus joining the smidgen panel in either one or two bits.  I’ve got my top piece, which will have one seam.  Then I’ve got the back, which is really two separate pieces that overlap.  I know that the back pieces have to measure 20.5″ high (to be the same as the front piece), and I did the math to see how wide it ought to be, but honestly: since I plan to have them overlap at the back, it’s easiest just to eyeball those bad boys and use a whole width of fabric (45″), then trim if it seems too huge when it’s all pinned together.  I used stash fabric for this, but if you’re buying new and calculating yardage, you’d need two panels selvage-to-selvage that measure 20.5″ high, so 41″ total, or 1.14 yds = a purchase of 1 1/2 yds for the back.

The Actual Sewing

First, I stitch a seam to join the two full-width panels for the front of the bench.  I added the 8″ smidgen panel as one piece, so that’s a second seam, giving me a piece of fabric that measures 98″ wide (a littler extra than I need) with two seams.  Next, I stitch a seam to join the two pieces that will make my top, which measures (when sewn) 56″ x 17″.

Then, I stitch two seams to join the back pieces to the front, one at each side.  At the ends of these back pieces, I throw in a hem from top to bottom, just so I have a clean edge.  I now have a huge, long piece of fabric that will wrap all the way around the bench and overlap itself, made from two different prints, and a smaller rectangle that will cover the top of the bench.

It’s now time to finish the final seam, and be done with this!  Remember, a slip cover is just that: it slips over whatever it’s covering.  It should mimic the shape of what’s beneath it, and while you can embellish it, really shouldn’t get caught trying too hard.

To attach the front and sides of the slip cover to the top, follow the diagram above.  I wanted to mask the seam in the front so that it wouldn’t be so visible, so I added a pleat at center front where the seam can be tucked away in a fold and made more invisible.  Then I started stitching at center front, making my way down the front, pivoting at the corner 1/2″ from the edge, down the side, pivot again, and around to the back.  The overlap at the back was pinned together, so I stitched through those layers as one, stopping at center back.  Then I began again at center front and repeated on the other side–by always starting at center front, I guarantee that if I screwed up the math at all, any bubbles or flaws will be pushed to the back where they won’t matter as much as they would if they were right out front for the world to see.

Finish with a double-turned hem, and you’re done!

Alternate Method

Is all this math freaking you out?  I feel ya.  I do the math so I’ll know how much fabric to buy for a project, without too much leftover.  I think that’s the biggest challenge, and the part of the tutorial that I think is most useful.  If you super hate the math, then you can absolutely throw some fabric at your footstool/ottoman/bench and see what works.  There are no rules here.  It’s a bench, y’all.

Go get ’em!

*Pet peeve alert: there is NO SUCH WORD as “heighth.”  No such word.  Not in English, anyway.

Sewing Kids Clothing E-Course Registration Now Open!

Dreaming of sewing up a spring wardrobe for your little ones?  Getting into sewing because you remember all the beautiful things your mother made for you, and you’d like to do the same for your children?  We’ll be spending five weeks this spring sewing up eight patterns with more than 21 variations for boys and girls!  Join my next e-course and by summer, their closets will be overflowing.  But this time, it’ll be with super cute clothes.

Check out the details for the Sewing Kids Clothing e-course along with online registration–take advantage of the early bird discount!

Sewing With Kids, Lesson 4: Thoughtfulness

There is something magical and sweet about a child handing you something they have made all by themselves.  It might be the look on their faces when they offer it to you, or the joy in their voices as they crow over their success, or the delight they share openly when you compliment their work.  Children don’t seem to protect themselves the way adults do; they never apologize for flaws or play down their accomplishments; and they give freely and with no motive other than pleasure in the giving.  I love that, and wish that I had more of those qualities for myself.  So a simple sewing project that’s designed to lead to a gift for someone else, well, that’s pretty close to perfection.

Sharp Needles and Sharp Eyes

There is a lot about handwork that requires thought and time: planning the design, executing the stitches, imagining the look of the finished project.  There is also a lot that requires thoughtfulness: planning who will receive the objet once it’s done, planning the exact moment and manner of the gifting, planning what to say when you hand them the thing you’ve made with them in your mind the whole time.  I want my children to learn to be thoughtful in all those ways, about what they make–are my stitches even? do I have room for this design? did I make a knot in my floss before I began?–and about where they put what they make–who will get this?  is it the right gift for that person?  what can I do to make this gift an experience they will treasure?

A simple hand embroidery project can give all those opportunities to our children, and framing their work at the end can take it up a whole other notch.  Asking small children to handle sharp needles can be a little nerve-wracking.  They could get hurt!  They could hurt you!  They could ruin the finish on the table!  Most kids are pretty willing to try new things, and they’ll let you know if it’s too much for them.  Our children were sharp-eyed and excited at the idea of doing Real Sewing with mommy, and it led to a quiet, enjoyable, focused evening for us together.

When I first began embroidering, I thought I’d need to go out and get gobs of floss and needles.  Not only did I find that embroidery floss is absurdly inexpensive–around 35 cents a skein–but that I had inherited boxes of it from Sandra (all numbered by color, naturally).  We brought out a single box to use with the children, but you can easily purchase a multi-pack of two dozen colors for under $5.  I see them frequently at Michael’s in a variety of color combinations.

For needles, I opted to give both my children a blunt-tipped craft needle (the lower one in the image).  This comforted me in terms of their ability to gouge out their own (or each others) eyes, which didn’t happen and probably wouldn’t have, but one can never be too careful.  I was more concerned for my littlest one, who is just over two, since he doesn’t have much experience with needles.  Our four-year-old has done some hand work in her Montessori program, so I was less worried about her. The fifteen-year-old is on her own.  One must prioritize one’s worrying.

Needles were threaded with a double-thickness of floss, tied in a knot at the end, to keep them secure.  Few things frustrate a child while sewing as much as pulling on that needle and watching the tail of the floss go flapping off into the distance, no longer anchored.  Doubling makes the floss substantially thicker, but the blunt needles are also thicker, and the doubled floss fills in that hole better.

All our stitching was done on white Kona cotton, using a 4″ wooden embroidery hoop.  I like a larger hoop myself, but for little hands, smaller is better.  I think having a smaller hoop also limited the sheer area of embroiderability, which is good for learners: giving them a limited palette prevents them from feeling overwhelmed at the outset.

To start with, we worked very free-form, using the needle to push through any old place on the hoop, moving from one part of the fabric to another, just getting the gist of going from front-to-back as we sewed.  Our boy, especially, spent a lot of time focusing on how the needle goes through at the front and where it will come out at the back, like an infant who has just discovered that when you put the ball under the bowl, it’s still there.  He was fascinated by the way the needle drew the floss through the fabric, but he couldn’t really see it on the other side, a whole step up from the plastic canvas, where all the work was really in front of him the whole time.

Our four-year-old wanted to work with something more structured pretty soon, though, and moved on to using a pen to draw shapes to follow on the fabric.  These were pretty free-form, and of course Little Brother wanted to do the same thing.  So sometimes, it was kind of a mess:

I encouraged her to start working on geometric shapes, so that not only is she working out how to handle the needle without getting stuck and how to follow a line she’s drawn, but she can see that her stitches will mirror whatever is beneath them.

She loved the repetition of the stitches, the way she could draw the floss up through the fabric, and having the power and control to really guide the needle.  It was kind of surprising to see–I knew she would be focused and get a little lost in it (as I do), but I didn’t expect her fingers to feel so commanding to her, or for her to express verbally how much of a sense of creation this task gave her.

As she went along, we talked about gifts and giving, and who might like to have a piece of her sewing for their very own.  I want to communicate to my children not only that the things they make are valuable and worthy of giving, but that we can make for someone else as an act of thoughfulness and kindness and love, that using our hands, we can offer them a feeling and create a moment for them that will last long after the giving itself is done.  I don’t want them to grow up thinking that the love is IN the gift, that the reason we give things to others is because we’re obligated to do so; I want them to really internalize the idea that BY giving we communicate something from our hearts, and that we can build relationships through the caring act of making something for another human being.

We began embellishing the embroidery, adding buttons and seeing how those interacted with the floss.  Now, our two-year-old had full-on lost interest at this point and had gone to play trains with his Daddy.  I’m totally down with that.  Again, my purpose is to make this a playground, not a prison, and I have a vested interest in asking my children to craft only when they’re feeling it.  That way, when there is a need to craft–when a gift-giving occasion arises, for example–creating something is an act of joy, which translates itself into the gift.  So by this point, it was just me and Miss M at the table, buttons and floss flying.

We talked about giving a gift to Daddy, and how he would like to see her work.  She knows she’s valued, she knows her work is worth sharing, but I wanted to communicate that to her AND the rest of our family by framing a piece and offering it as a gift:

Because it isn’t just about her putting thought into the making of it all.  And it isn’t really just about her being thoughtful toward others in giving what she’s made.  It’s about us all thinking, about me being thought-full, about me acknowledging that our words and actions today will impact her for a long time to come, and that something small–like framing her embroidery with all its imperfections–can really have meaning for her.

I should point out that I am very much like the dad in A River Runs Through It on this one, though: he made them write and re-write and re-re-write their essays over and over–and when it was done and perfected, he threw it in the trash and sent them out to play.  I am all for empowering our kids to create by framing a piece of work to put on the wall, but at the same time, when that piece has had its say, it comes down to be replaced by another.  Because if we are truly thoughtful, and truly thinking, we recognize that it’s all transient, there is no perfect, each piece is unique and beautiful and worthy of treasuring but that in the end, it will be replaced.  And SHOULD be.  Because it’s the memories we make while we’re making that are worth saving, and those last longer than fabric and thread.  I don’t want to accidentally teach my children to hang on to every scrap of ribbon and every shred of art with the false idea that it matters in and of itself.  I hope that they will see that we applaud it as a reflection of who they were at a moment in time, and who they are becoming, and that nothing in our home matters as much as they do.  Make the best you can make when you make it, but remember that in the end, it’s just stuff, and stuff is never as important as people.

Something to think about.

Martha Stewart Just Threw Up In My Laundry Room

As long as I’m airing out all my icky secrets, how about another?  And can I start by saying how nice it was to hear that I am not the only one with a vile dog who sheds stinky dog hairs all over the house and leaves puppy shadow on the furniture and makes me feel like a crappy homemaker?  Because your comments made me laugh so hard that I startled the children.  If it weren’t illegal to check email in the car here, I would have swerved off the road.  Which I didn’t do, because I never read email in the car.  Because it’s illegal.

Back to what I was saying: it makes me feel better that I’m not the only one who yearns to not have to mask the dog shedding in my home.  And seeing all your replies made me wonder why all of us wait so long to take action, when clearly these animals (who we love, naturally) are preventing us from having the homes we dream about.  The homes that Martha (that Martha) wants us to have.

Take my laundry room, for example:

I took this photo the third time I was thinking about re-doing the laundry room.  Notice I didn’t say the first time, because this was not that.  I’d known I needed some laundry room help for a while, through a couple of realtors, through a couple of births, etc.  I always tidy the shelf when we’re on the market, but dagnabbit, I was ready for a real change.  At last.  At long last.

Why do we do that?  Why does it take selling our house (or having house guests or throwing a party) for us to finally feel motivated to do something we want to do that will make us happier all the time?  Why don’t we just DO it already, for ourselves?

This is what the laundry room looked like this past Saturday:

I was so ready to do this thing that I didn’t even think to grab my camera until I’d already hauled the dryer out the door and kick-started the paint tray.  Tee it up, now!

The results:

It’s gorgeous.  I already spend something like 20 hours a day doing laundry, but I find myself wanting to be in this room even more than I have to be, and I never thought I’d say that.  It’s like Martha came over and waved her magic wand and made something magically magical happen in my laundry space.

Now, I should admit that not only did I skip some harder tasks (like adding another shelf up higher, so I could have more storage, or waiting until the paint was totally cured before moving the appliances back in) because I couldn’t be bothered to work quite that hard on a Saturday afternoon (and I was already pushing the boundaries of nap time), but also: I called my mom toward the end with serious painter’s remorse, convinced I had chosen the wrong color and that it was going to look like a low-rent hospital.  She assured me that no paint is the wrong paint and that it would be fine.  And once again, she was right.

These photos were taken at the same time of day, one day after the other.  Can you even believe the difference in how light and large the laundry room looks now?  Cuh-razy!  What is it with builders never using a white when they want white?  Or with translating the word “neutral” to “unbearably ugly and soul-sucking”?  While I admit that a good cleaning-and-eliminating might’ve done some good, I think it really is the paint that made the difference.  My husband came home and saw that I’d been attacking the walls with rollers, and was not only impressed by how much better it looks, but that I’d painted the ceiling, too.  But clearly it had to be done.

Le sigh.  Le happy laundry sigh.

Giveaway: Inspired to Sew by Bari J

When I was working on Stitch by Stitch, I spent untold hours hunting for the very most perfect fabrics to showcase the projects.  One night, in a rush of final decisions, I ordered yards and yards and yards of beautiful cottons to be delivered so that I could make the samples that made up the bulk of the book. 

Days later, the boxes arrived, and I sifted through and chose a print here, a coordinate there, prepping for the sewing.  I carefully packed my first picks and some alternates for the trip to my publisher’s to shoot the step-by-step photos for the book.  When my editor and photographer and I were laying out the color story for the projects as a group, we finalized selections, and most of the fabrics I had ordered were lifted and rearranged and mixed and matched so much that I lost sight of which fabrics were from which designers and collections.

After the book came out and I was planning the blog tour, I sent a note to Bari J, asking her to be part of the tour, since I knew I’d used some of her fabrics on a very popular project (the zippered piped pillow).  And then I flipped through the book, because something was nagging at the back of my head.  And there was the proof: I had used LOTS of Bari’s fabrics–a whole lot.  Without even realizing it, I had selected no fewer than five of her prints to be featured prominently on three different projects, and all of them are absolutely lovely.

So when Bari sent a note saying that her very first book is coming out and asking me to be part of her blog tour, I was more than pleased: I’m excited to see her style and sincerity come through in a new format, and can’t wait for those of you who don’t know her yet to meet her.

I am happiest flipping through the book and seeing that the things that I admired in her fabric designs really translate to the pages of her book.  I am especially drawn to Bari’s painterly sense of color and movement, and have loved that about her fabrics as each new collection is released.  That same sense of spontaneity comes through in the book, which is packed to the gills with projects and ideas and insights, and yes: inspiration.

Called Inspired to Sew, the book leads you through Bari’s own experiences with sewing in a way that I think is really personal and charming without trying too hard.  She’s super approachable and friendly in her tone, and it’s clear that she’s Been There in a way that makes her like an older sister showing you the ropes.  The book includes lots of instruction in different techniques, like freezer paper applique and free motion quilting, that newer stitchers have lots of questions about, and she offers it in a way that’s integrated into the projects so that you always feel as though you’re learning just what you want to learn when you want to learn it.

The photography is lovely and soothing and soft and dreamy, and features Bari’s fabrics and her aesthetic in a way that makes me want to flip through the pages over and over just to imagine myself in a bright, sunny room with the ease of a day of dreaming ahead of me.  I find the whole look of the book super relaxing and enjoyable and finding that satisfied place helps me to come up with new and exciting ideas–a pretty rare combination for a book that also includes clear writing and approachable projects.

I love that there is such a wide variety of projects–Bari says that she began sewing simply to bring some beauty and creativity into her home and her life, and it’s clear that she’s written this book with the same philosophy and desire.  Her warmth and clear pleasure in sewing come through, and you feel invited to try the techniques and projects she shows you.  I hope it doesn’t sound super trite, but I truly think there is a project here for everyone.  Bari has a long history of bag-making, so it’s no surprise that the bags are strong, well-rounded projects.  I personally am really fond of the home decor projects, and love the idea behind the keepsake memory quilt–Bari really does a great job of layering fabrics and threads and images into a frame-worthy piece of fabric art that makes me want to preserve my family’s memories in a format I’ve never tried before.

Stash Books, Bari’s publisher, is GIVING AWAY a copy of Inspired to Sew to one of you, and I think you’ll really enjoy skimming the pages and dreaming up ways to bring these projects into your sewing and your home.  More than anything else, I think I was most touched that Bari doesn’t make me feel pressured to do exactly her project through her writing–instead, I felt like she’d presented some inspiring ideas and then given me permission to make them my own, use the techniques to give a little twist and bring a new concept to my sewing machine, where it would easily translate itself to my aesthetic and sensibilities.  Totally expecting it to do the same for you!

To enter to win a copy of Inspired to Sew, leave a comment and let me know the most inspiring sewing project you’ve ever seen. I’ll start: in Pittsburgh a few years ago, I saw a king sized yo-yo quilt that looked from far away as if it was made entirely of lace.  It was amazing, and the very first time I have ever been stopped in my tracks by the beauty of a simple bed covering.  What sewing has inspired you? Leave your comment by midnight February 14, and I’ll choose a winner to be announced on the blog next Tuesday, February 15.

See the rest of the Inspired to Sew blog tour at these fine establishments:

January 31, Mary Abreu: Confessions of a Craft Addict

February 1, Jennifer Paganelli: Sis Boom!

February 2, Jona Giammalava: Stop Staring and Start Sewing

Feb 3, Rashida Coleman Hale: I Heart Linen

Feb 4, Sarah Fielke: The Last Piece

Feb 5, Jenny Doh: Crescendoh

Feb 6, Cara Wilson: Cara Quilts

Feb 7, Deborah Moebes: Whipstitch

Feb 8, Monica Solorio-Snow: Happy Zombie

The Dog Made Me Do It

Once again, we’re putting our house on the market.  I’d say it’s because we’re gluttons for punishment, but really it’s because the baby sleeps in the closet, and I just can’t face her first birthday with her snoozing under the suit coats.

At the foot of our bed, we have an Ikea bench.  It’s covered in white canvas.  Or, more accurately, it’s covered in black dog hair that covers the white canvas.

That is not a shadow.  That is a filthy line rubbed into the fabric from the dog brushing up against it over and over and over.  As our eldest used to say: bee-ee-skusking! I mean, that is just humiliatingly vile, and I have officially aired this laundry all over the Interwebs.

When the realtor comes over to take photos of the house for the web, I cannot allow this to be seen.  More importantly, I can’t let people walk through my house and observe the filth of the dog.  I care not that they’ll understand–they shouldn’t have to, and I can hear a chorus of those of us who’ve tried to market a house in the past three years agreeing: ain’t nobody gonna buy a house that isn’t spit spot.

So today, I was forced to do this:

And can I say: I really love it.  Curse that dog, but it led to something yummy.  I have canine conflicts, clearly.

Alexander Henry’s Larkspur, with a muslin backing where it will be hidden at the foot of the bed.  I’ve never loved the color of the walls in our room–my husband painted before we were married, and while it’s a very nice, soothing, masculine color, it doesn’t work with ANY of the blues I generally choose, so I’ve struggled to sew for this room.  Thank you, Alex Henry, for giving me a fabulously pretty print in exactly the right shade of blue.  Now we’re both happy.

At least, until we finally move.  And pick a NEW paint color.  But that’s a sewing saga for another day, yes?

Cure For Wintry Weather (And A Sewing Buddy Update)

This one’s from the “warm” sample for the new Your First (Modern) Quilt series we’re doing.  Maybe I’m having a little more fun than strictly necessary.  Yummy bright colors for this wintry day!

Sewing Buddy Update:  Speaking of wintry weather, we’ve got two sick babies over at our house.  When they’re not sleeping, they’re sniffling and snuffling and generally being a little cranky.  When I’m not wiping noses, rest assured that I’m tapping keys, making matches and getting introductory emails out to all of you!  If you sent me your info but haven’t heard back, I am on the case–sit tight and your Buddy will be with you shortly!  Thanks for your patience, y’all.

Central Park Sudoku Quilt Top Finished!

So far, so good!  This is a sweet and simple nine patch quilt top, made from the Sudoku Quilt Kits Moda has put out for the Central Park collection–you do the sudoku puzzle inside, and that becomes the pattern for the quilt.  Super cute, and I liked that it let me kinda draw out the enjoyment–I could do a little at a time and extend the pleasure of working with these colors and prints.

Sashing is from Sugar Pop, and I LOVE the color it lends.  I assumed at the beginning that I’d sash with clean white Kona, but I decided that the Sugar Pop washed the prints out less and added a lot of warmth.

Getting ready to start the free-motion quilting today.  I’ve never made a quilt top that begged to be stippled in quite the way this one does, so that’s where I’ll be if you need me.

Sewing with Kids, Lesson 3: Persistence

Sometimes, when children are introduced to new ideas, they struggle with getting their tiny hands around tasks suited to a bigger world.  For them, and for us, it can be tough to stay tuned in when a job feels too big or too tough, and it leads to lack of attention and–gasp!–quitting.  I want my kids to learn to press on through, to recognize that even though the going can get tough, that if we push ourselves, if we challenge ourselves, if we have faith that at the other end of the experience something wonderful is waiting, that we can discover amazing worlds, right in our own hands.

And that last part–the faith in discovery–is a big part of the thought process behind today’s lesson.  I want my kids to trust me, I want them to believe that if Mommy introduces them to a new craft or toy or book or game that it’s because I know they can do it.  I believe in them, I see their ability, and I trust that they can succeed.  HUGE ideas for little people, but central to growing up secure and healthy.  And the seeds for such a giant idea can be sown with something as small as an after-dinner activity.

Plastic Needles and Plastic Canvas

After dinner is hardly the place I would ordinarily do a craft project.  I’m much more likely to plan it for, say, after breakfast, when the light is bright and our bodies are rested and when we’re all full from breakfast and in that golden hour of no-one-screaming.  It lasts from around 9:30 to 11ish at our house each day, that perfect period of contentment when we all universally like one another, and no one is poopy or grumpy or cranky or anxious or tired or hungry or irritated.  It’s my favorite time of day.  But this week, we took a few minutes after supper one night to do our craft, and it was a real risk.  I share this because some of what I learned is the direct result of WHEN we did this lesson, and it wasn’t at all what I expected.

Plastic canvas is a perennial favorite of crafters.  There’s something very Free To Be You And Me about it: it makes us think of tissue box covers and camp.  But for teaching kids to sew, it have some distinct advantages, despite its 1970s afterglow: the holes are precut and regularly spaced, making it easier for tiny fingers to work out the rhythm of stitching; the needles aren’t terribly sharp, and help littler ones avoid any unseemly incidents; the yarn is thick enough that any mistakes or changes in stitch technique are visible right away, making it simple to point out distinctions and build on the lessons of the lacing cards; and the length and complexity of the project is fairly whimsical in nature and can be as persnickety as you’d like (or not), so it suits all ages and inclinations.

I wanted this next lesson to really be about how to hold the needle, where to put the needle, and how moving the needle in new directions changed the way the project turned out.  Again, like the last two lessons, these all seem like super simple concepts, but for children–who are tabluae rasa and don’t have any clear conception of what sewing is, no expectations for this experience–spelling it all out and making it explicit is the best way to lay a foundation that will let you have much more complicated lessons later.

So for the two younger kids, we worked with very few expectations.  Under the warm glow of the overhead lamp in the dining room, after the dishes had been cleared away, we pulled out skeins of yarn in bright solid colors.  Laid out in a row, I produced the plastic canvas and needles.  Plastic canvas is just what it sounds like: plastic sheeting that has been molded into a grid, with the openings appearing at regular intervals to allow a needle and thread or yarn to be passed through it.  The canvas sheets can be cut into shapes, like squares and rectangles, that are then put together (and they also come in little circles!).  I got mine here, in the size 5 and 7.  The smaller number is a larger opening (5 openings per inch in the size 5, for example, so sort of a big hole for the needle to pass through); I wanted to have some that were super easy to use for our two-year-old, and others that were a little more challenging for the oldest and the four-year-old.  I also got some circles, which come in only one grid size (and will use the leftovers to make this fabulous travel sewing kit for myself!).  The plastic needles we keep in stock at Whipstitch, so I brought home four: one for each of the kids, and one for me.

While I’d love to offer you a concrete projecty-project that we did with these supplies, I mostly let this lesson be free-form, and allowed the kids to play with the tools and see what would happen.

The two-year-old tried threading the yarn in and out six or seven times, and then wandered away; I think to a degree, this was pretty challenging work for him, and he lost interest because it was above his interest level.  To lure him back, we spent some time touching the needle to see how sharp it was, looking at the colors of the yarn, and arranging the yarns into a rainbow.  I absolutely didn’t expect this to turn into a chance for him to show off his knowledge of colors, but he really enjoyed that–and his role became that of handing out yarn when his sisters asked for a new color.  Until he bailed again and went and played with his trains.

The four-year-old loved the whole concept from beginning to end.  She wanted to thread the needle, she wanted to poke it through the openings in the canvas, she wanted to change colors every thirty seconds.  But she got frustrated.  When we first began, I used basic Plastic Canvas Rules about how to treat the end of the yarn: ordinarily, when working on a project with plastic canvas, you’d leave the yarn end unknotted and work the loose end back under the stitches later, to secure it.  With an eager child who likes to YANK, that’s not gonna do the trick.  So we ended up doubling the yarn and knotting the end to make it possible for her to see results.

The oldest got much more into this than I expected–I think I’ve said that for every lesson, so maybe I should just start to realize that even at 15, she wants to feel included and she loves to do crafts and working with her hands gives her an excuse to be part of the hearth and the family.  She immediately decided on a formal shape to create, and began working away at it.  About halfway through, she saw that it was going to take her longer than she had imagined, and she slowed down a little.  It took some encouragement to prevent her from changing her design into something more simple just to make the work shorter, and to convince her to go with her original vision.

As the kids worked, I talked to the girls about colors and the color wheel.  As they created their projects, I worked on a couple of stitch samplers, and we looked at primary and secondary colors, our younger girl asked about how colors blend and we imagined where white and black fit in the color spectrum, our oldest asked what would happen if she skipped boxes or stitched straight lines versus diagonals, so we practiced on the color wheel.  It was a good chance to look at some more complicated color ideas while our fingers were busy with the repetitive motion of stitching the canvas.  It made the time pass a little more quickly as the girls reached their finish points, and made it a little easier to convince them to stick with it when there seemed to be miles of empty squares ahead of them.

Our oldest worked on a rainbow, her version of a color wheel.  The four-year-old did some random stitching at first, but then decided that she wanted to make a barn–after seeing what her sister and I were working on, she made the leap and realized that the stitches didn’t have to be random, but could be organized to make a picture.  Her barn is pink, naturally.

Even my husband played a little–I think he saw that we were all sitting around the table, talking and trying something new, and thought he would give it a whirl.  The children were delighted, I kid you not–they loved seeing Daddy with a needle in his hand.

It’s Like A Rubber Tree Plant

Once again, I learned more from the teaching than I think the kids did from the lesson.  I thought I was demonstrating to them that they could work at their challenge level–above the point where the work is super easy and they can mail it in, but not quite to the point where it’s so tough that they’re frustrated, right at that level where it’s hard and they have to push a little to get it, but that is totally achievable for them.  And I was, I was teaching them that.  But at the same time, I was learning the same lesson: persistence.  Trying one time didn’t get the needle and yarn to work for our four-year-old.  She needed to try over and over, and I needed to adjust how I’d assumed the whole project was going to work.  Practicing the action of slipping the needle into the canvas was OK for our youngest, but it was hard enough that he lost interest; rather than let him wander off and assuming that he was too young, I had to persist in finding a way to make him part of our time together, in making this craft something that was relevant to him.  Our oldest wanted to dial back and make the work easier, and I had to find ways to encourage her to continue on without quitting–but not make her feel as though she was obligated to do it, without taking the fun out of it.

As the kids learn more about sewing, the work gets more challenging, and they begin to have to think about three dimensions and right sides and wrong sides and matching seams and operating machinery.  This project might look simple at the outset, but it’s about building confidence, establishing a rhythm of work, and learning that there is totally a pay-off on the other side.  I think if we’d done this lesson when we normally would have, and weren’t racing bathtime and a little tired at the end of the day, I might have missed some chances to see better what my kids have to say about how they learn and what they learn.  We all really enjoyed working with the gridded lines, letting our brains have a break even before our bodies did, and settling in to the soft repetition of stitching in and out.  It makes me hopeful as we move forward that they’ll begin to associate sewing with happy times, loving times, trusting times.  And that after all, they’ll be persistent when they set a goal for themselves, because there is always something warm and happy waiting for them on the other side.

Quilt Remix WINNER (and Other Books I am Loving)

We have a WINNER from our Quilt Remix Giveaway!  Congrats to VickiT, who said:

VickiT, your book will be shipped direct from the publisher–hope you love it and make some AMAZING things!

Speaking of amazing things, I’ve been thumbing through some inspiring images and new books at bedtime lately.  I can’t get some of these dresses out of my head:

Given how I feel about plaid, it’s no wonder this is one of my favorites.

And talk about inspiring–I love the flounces and the colors of these party dresses:

Dresses made entirely of bias strips!  My delicious obsession!

And lucky for me, I have a new volume to help me get the details just right, the way Coco would have:

All these titles are available from Amazon (where I got mine).  Happy stitching, everyone!