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.

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    February 10, 2011 at 4:51 pm

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  • liveacolorfullife
    February 10, 2011 at 4:53 pm

    I LOVE this series. My 4 1/2-year-old granddaughter and 3-year-old grandson have done Lesson 1. Wonderful experience! Here is a link:

    I have highly recommended it to many people. Thanks for taking the time to write this series!

  • gigi
    February 10, 2011 at 5:21 pm

    LOVE it!! can’t wait to do these lessons during our spring break in a couple weeks. we all loved lesson 1!!
    echoing the thanks for writing this series 🙂


  • Anne
    February 12, 2011 at 12:37 am

    I have to tell you I really needed to read this today. I just had a very difficult day and at the end of it my husband told me he needs to work this weekend so the small break he would give me by watching our 5 week old and 2 year old isn’t going to happen. But to know that you have already started sewing with your 2 year old really excites me. I think what I’ll do first is do some crossstitch in front of her first, so that she sees me sewing and creating something. She never sees me sew because I do it while she is napping. Thanks for the inspiration.

  • Monika Kinner-Whalen / MySweetPrairie
    February 13, 2011 at 4:42 pm

    Awesome! Lovely photos. These are all the things I’ve done with my kids too. My oldest is 12, and I still have his little beaded buttons, plastic needles, hoops & embroidery floss creations. My third is now four years old and now i’m training her. I never tire of it! ; )

  • Gayle
    May 4, 2011 at 11:24 am

    Highly inspirational, especially the last paragraph. Thanks!

  • Jessica Dean
    June 9, 2011 at 1:27 pm

    I have been working through this series with my niece, and she and I both love the time we spend together sewing! When we finished this project, we could not find a frame that would fit it, so I turned it into a pillow for her. She loves it and gave it as a gift to her parents. Can’t wait to do more sewing with her 🙂 Thanks for the great ideas!