On Monday evening I was teaching a class at a local sewing studio. My students were all local moms and they’d come to learn to use their sewing machines.
I’ve taught this class twice a month for four years now and I always begin by asking each person to tell the story of their sewing machine. How did they get it and what do they know about it? Every machine has a story.
Sewing machines are unique when it comes to home appliances. Most of us don’t hold onto a blender we got as a gift in 1988 or a vacuum that belonged to our grandmother, but we will keep an old sewing machine. “I have no idea how to use this,” is often the first thing the women in my class say. They glance at my new Janome with its computerized display and fancy stitch chart and get a worried look on their faces
A few years ago I had a woman bring her great grandmother’s Singer to class. It was built into a large wooden sewing cabinet and she lugged it up the long flight of stairs to the sewing studio and set it up in the middle of the room. We plugged it in and wound the bobbin and it sewed beautifully!
The thing is, of course, that old sewing machines are very often really good sewing machines. Unlike your grandmother’s vacuum, sewing machines age really well. I reassure my students that the old mechanical machines that weigh a ton and only perform the basic stitches run just as well as the sleek new ones.
It’s always interesting to hear what motivates people to learn to sew. On this Monday one of the women in class explained that she works in health care full time, but has always been artistic. She’s got two young daughters and she pours a lot of her creativity into hosting beautiful birthday parties for them. “I don’t like to put things in goodie bags that kids are just going to throw away,” she said. For her younger daughter’s superhero birthday a few months prior she’d hand sewn capes for all 15 children of her daughter’s friends. “I didn’t sleep the night before,” she laughed.
I begin the lessons by having everyone gather around my machine. We talk about the difference between hand sewing and machine sewing – machine sewing requires two interlocking threads to make each stitch. I hook the forefinger on my right hand with the forefinger on my left to show how the upper and lower threads will interact. Then we learn to take thread off a spool and put it onto a bobbin. When the women sit at their own machines to try it I have them wind the bobbin in one color and thread the machine in another. Later, when we start stitching, they see the role of each thread and it all makes sense.
I didn’t’ grow up in a house with a sewing machine. My mother doesn’t know how to sew and my grandmother, who got her college degree from the University of Maryland at age 65 and promptly started a career as a social worker, was eager to get away from traditional women’s work like sewing. I learned to sew when I was 13 in 8th grade Home Economics class. I was terrible at it. Sewing seemed to be full of rules. It had to be done the right way and if you didn’t know the right way you were out of luck. One term of Home Ec certainly wasn’t enough to teach me the right way and with nobody at home to help me fix my mistakes I convinced myself that I really couldn’t sew.
My children won’t even learn the rudimentary sewing skills in school that I did because although we live in a town with excellent public schools Home Economics is no longer a part of the curriculum. Although a few of the women who attend my sewing classes learned to sew at some point in their childhood, many of them have never operated a sewing machine in their lives. Sewing is something you have to figure out on your own.
I try to approach teaching sewing differently than the way I learned. For me sewing isn’t about obeying rules and feeling stupid when you don’t understand the language those rules are written in (what does this little triangle mean?!). That kind of sewing holds no appeal for me. Instead I talk about sewing the way I experience it – sewing is about creative expression. And a sewing machine is a really effective tool to do it with.
For years I’ve kept a hot glue gun in my kitchen. When my kids want to make things – “I need to put this milk cap on the side of this shoebox so I can make a T.V.!” – they do it with hot glue. Why? Because hot glue is a really effective tool. Have you ever watched a toddler try to glue a milk cap to a shoebox with Elmer’s glue? If you have than you know what true frustration looks like. Hot glue solves all of that. It’s an effective tool for creative expression, just like a sewing machine.
In the last half hour of class we put all of the techniques we’ve learned into action and sew drawstring bags. While we’re scrunching the drawstrings through the channel I talk about indie sewing patterns. “Indie designers don’t assume you already know what the little triangle means! They give you a photo or an illustration with each step and write the instructions in plain English.” I tell them about Craftsy and sewing blogs. Almost nobody in my classes has ever heard of any of this. It’s eye opening for them, and a great reminder for me that the indie sewing revolution is not yet everywhere.
As we were packing up on Monday evening the woman who’d hand sewed the superhero capes pulled some pink tulle out her bag. “I want to make a tutu for my daughter’s Barbie with this. How do you think I should do it?” I showed her how to fold the fabric and make a channel for the elastic. She was elated. Now she’s got at tool at her disposal to make her creative ideas come to life.