It’s Not About the Sewing

I’ve spent the last 3 days at state Career and Technical Education conferences. These are always some of my favorite teacher trainings of the year. The conferences are a chance to network, spend time with old friends, meet new friends, and participate in engaging, hands-on activities we can replicate in our own classrooms. Not surprisingly, we heard a lot this year about PCBL—Personalized, Competency-Based Learning, which is one of my favorite teaching topics. I’m happy that more teachers are getting involved in personalizing, which I truly believe helps all students succeed.

Probably my favorite workshop this year was “Sewing is Not About Sewing,” taught by Kayla DeCoursey. This was a fabulous, engaging, hands-on, personalized, project-based workshop that highlighted many vital, 21st-Century workplace skills. Kayla described how she designed this workshop as a rebuttal to a fellow teacher who said that teaching sewing was no longer valuable or relevant. She pointed out the skills students learn from sewing, such as visual-spatial awareness and reasoning, small-motor skills, measurement, and creativity. I would add to those skills the skills of problem-solving, grit, endurance, critical thinking, engineering design, and proper use of tools and care of materials, as well as the potential for collaboration on projects with others.

Collaboration, communication, dependability, responsibility, respect, empathy, cultural awareness and acceptance, creativity, resilience, grit, problem-solving, and critical thinking could arguably be skills that are needed in the workplace and in life more than any of the other content we teach. Information is abundant. Students can find it anywhere. What they do with that information will make the difference between solving difficult world problems and sinking under unsustainable practices of our society.

How does Kayla foster these skills in her classroom, and how did she engage teachers in using these skills? She set out 32 half-size dress forms and let us go to work. We had each brought a yard of fabric and our own creativity. We had 3 hours to draw, drape, and construct a dress from scratch. Every teacher met this challenge from a different skill level, just as every student would in the classroom. There were teachers who didn’t want to accept the full challenge, and that was ok for a teacher workshop, but Kayla doesn’t let her young students off the hook. She shows them some drawing and draping techniques, and they keep going until they figure it out.

I found the challenge instantly engaging and wanted to put my best into it. That’s the magic of personalization with project-based learning. It wakes up students’ imaginations and tells them it’s ok to play, to get creative, and to push themselves at the same time. I drew a sleeveless dress with contrasting waistband, circle skirt, and high-low hem. Yes, the bodice is lined. Yes, the seams are finished. And yes, I had the dress sewn and hemmed before the three hours were up. But just before.

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USU Clothing and Textile Training and the Mental Health Benefits of Sewing

A week ago, I had the opportunity to attend one of the best professional development conferences I have ever attended. Teachers attend a variety of required trainings every year to maintain licensure. Some of the trainings are mandated, and many are redundant. I’ve been at full-day trainings that go from 7:30-3:30, and teachers are counting the minutes after lunch until the training is over. This training was totally different. It ended at 5 p.m. both days, but few people left that early. The first day we stayed 45 minutes late; then arrived an hour early the next morning with a large group of others all excited to continue work on their projects. What kind of training would make us want to put in so much of our own time? It was the annual USU Clothing and Textile Training.

I had been looking forward to this training for over a month. I knew I was going to get a couple of mental health days at the conference, even though I would be working at the same time. I was so excited to attend the conference, that my substitute joked that she was going to tell my classes that I was going to a sewing spa day.

I have long understood the mental health benefits of sewing in my own life. There was an emphasis on those benefits for students at the USU Clothing and Textile training. The subject came up during multiple workshops. One presenter talked about research showing that there are specific mental health benefits that go along with hand-eye projects, and that we have lost a lot of those benefits in our society as young people rarely participate in such projects anymore.

In her young-adult novel, Sparrow Road, (Puffin Books, 2012) Sheila O-Connor describes a teenage girl named Raine, who is trying to find the solutions to some difficult problems in her life. An adult mentor begins to teach Raine to sew. After several days of sewing, Raine says, “I still didn’t have an answer, but the steady act of sewing gave my heart some peace” (page 154). I love that line! I truly believe that creative activities have a healing property.

Creativity, and the peace that comes with it, is a gift we can offer our students. Sewing, when projects are personalized, is automatically engaging. There are adults who tell me that sewing stresses them out, and I know there’s a story behind that. Actually, I’ve heard the story over and over. I know it’s a true story because I saw it happen during my junior high years. There were some sewing teachers who were so strict, they scared their students half to death. I’ve had grown women who have faced difficult life challenges tell me that they are terrified to try to put in a zipper because of the way their sewing teacher made them feel when they were just 14.

We can alleviate stress in our sewing labs first of all by helping young students understand that there will be mistakes. I make mistakes every time I sew. Secondly, we must assure our students that when those mistakes occur, we will be willing, available, and patient as we help them understand how to fix those mistakes. We can also reduce stress by teaching problem-solving skills and allowing students to take short breaks as needed if their stress level begins to rise. Sewing should be joyful. When it is joyful, teachers will naturally build their programs.

During the USU training we heard stories of schools that have eliminated their sewing programs. Principals or districts may feel that sewing is no longer practical or necessary, but when we take into consideration the enormous need our current students have for mental health support, and when we understand that sewing provides that mental health support, we recognize that eliminating our programs is simply not acceptable. The critical-thinking and problem-solving skills learned in a sewing lab are important academic reasons to include sewing classes in our schools. I encourage both students and administrators to see sewing classes as the perfect place to incorporate the engineering design process. I also love to point out how sewing and clothing design are all math; textiles are all science; fashion is communication, history, and social studies; and fiber arts are art.

The USU Clothing and Textile training combined everything I love about sewing and design. We had two fantastic keynote speakers. Carina Gardner, who currently designs fabrics for Riley Blake, talked about fabric and paper design and marketing, and how designers who understand the marketing aspect can achieve financial success in the design field.

Melissa Clark, professor in the USU Outdoor Product Design Department, described the USU program for Outdoor Product Design. I’ve been watching this program since its inception. I love what they are doing, and I encourage young, aspiring designers to consider that program in their future.

Melissa was generous enough to let us try out her own outdoor product design by sewing a lightweight rucksack. This project was probably our most challenging project of the 2-day conference, and I was especially excited about this project, because my son has been telling me how much he needs something like this.

The patch on the backpack was not part of the original design. My daughter brought it home from a work-based learning experience at her own school, where someone from Hill Air Force Base had presented to her class about Homeland Security. My daughter didn’t feel strongly about keeping the patch, and my son loves everything about military planes of any kind. He hopes to become an aerospace engineer. I knew he would be excited about the patch, and it was a perfect match for this bag, so I couldn’t resist adding it on.

Besides the rucksack, we had opportunities for service sewing. This is just the beginning of the pile of mastectomy pillows we made for donation. You should have seen the way we worked together to get these done.

We made this lovely, lined travel jewelry clutch with pockets, zippers, snap-on attachments, and places for earrings, rings, and necklaces.

I was skeptical about learning to make macrame keychains, but this turned out to be a fun workshop.

We made swimsuit cover ups, and we did some hand sewing with this cute “circles to hexagons” quilt block. I don’t do much quilting. I’m much more focused on clothing. But I enjoyed the hexagon project, partly because it was a great opportunity to feel the mental health benefits of hand sewing. Does it have mistakes in it? Sure enough. Same as all my projects. But it turned out nice anyway.

One of the best parts of the conference was the opportunity to visit and collaborate with a teacher from my own school and with teachers from across the state. I loved to hear their stories and find out about the projects they are doing and how they are finding success!

If you teach, I hope I see you at the USU Clothing and Textile Training next year.