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.  

3D Community Building

The title of this activity is a play on words, because students will be building community with their team, but they are also building a 3D community out of paper at the same time.

Many courses have strands and standards that involve teamwork and collaboration. For Family and Consumer Sciences Exploration in Utah, this activity works well with the following strands and standards:

  • I can explore the importance of employability skills (Strand 4 Standard 1) including the following:
    • Effective communication
    • Problem solving
    • Teamwork
    • Critical Thinking
    • Dependability
    • Accountability
    • Legal Requirements/Expectations

For Utah College and Career Awareness classes, this activity gets even more bang for the buck, meeting the following standards:

  • I can discuss the benefits of strong workplace skills and the negative consequences of underdeveloped workplace skills. (Strand 2 Standard 1)
  • I can complete tasks on time. (Strand 2 Standard 2)
  • I can exhibit self-motivation and self-discipline. (Strand 2 Standard 2)
  • I can show respect for others. (Strand 2 Standard 2)
  • I can be responsible for my own actions. (Strand 2 Standard 2)
  • I can demonstrate strong work ethic. (Strand 2 Standard 2)
  • I can explore various methods of communication and can use effective and appropriate communication for the given situation. (Strand 2 Standard 3)
  • I can identify and demonstrate effective collaboration and teamwork skills. (Strand 2 Standard 5)

3d Community Building takes minimal preparation and supplies but provides a lot of engagement. Students love this activity!

Here’s what you need to have ready in advance for each team or table.

  • 4 pieces of cardstock
  • 1 tape dispenser
  • Colored pencils
  • Scissors

And here are the rules for the activity which you can also find posted on the Canvas Commons as “3D Community Building.”

Your teacher will give each team 4 pieces of paper or cardstock and will allow you to use tape, glue, colored pencils, and scissors. Each team will have the same amount of time to create the following 3-dimensional items:

  • At least 1 building
  • At least 1 vehicle
  • At least 1 tree, shrub, or other plant
  • At least 1 person
  • Any other elements of a city you would like to build

All items you build should match each other in scale and should be similar in style. That means that as a team, you should choose a theme for your community so that the items look like they belong together. When we finish building, each team will share their work and their process with the class. 

As I am explaining this activity to students, there are a few things I make sure they are clear on. The first is that they will only get 4 pieces of cardstock! If they have 5 people on their team—4 pieces of cardstock. If they have 3 people on their team—4 pieces of cardstock. They can’t ask for more cardstock. Using their supplies effectively is part of the requirement. If they come to me in 15 minutes and tell me that they made a mistake and need more paper to start over, I tell them that they need to figure out how to problem solve with the mistakes they made and the supplies they had.

We talk about what it means to make their items 3-dimensional. I do allow for paper people to be flat, as long as they can stand.

We talk about scale, and how a car should not be smaller than a person or taller than a house.

And we talk about choosing a theme. I have seen all kinds of creative themes chosen for this activity—old Western towns, alien towns, New York City street scenes, vacations on the beach, campsites, “under the sea” scenes, scenes from shows and movies, and the list goes on. I look forward to 3D community building because the kids often surprise me. Just last week, I had students create a pop-up beach scene. It was delightful! And yes, I do allow boats to count as vehicles.

Once students start working with their team, they need approximately 40 minutes to build their scene and feel ready to share with the class. Some teams go a little faster or a little slower. When a majority of teams have mostly cleaned up their scraps and mess and are ready to share with the class, I have a spokesperson from each team share what they made. After every team has shared, we have a class discussion using both pair/share with students at tables as well as whole-group sharing. The discussion is how I make sure we have met the day’s objectives. I tell students that as long as they have participated effectively and respectfully in both the building activity and the discussion, I can see that they have met the standards for the day, and I can give them points for this activity and its objectives based on their participation. That makes this activity quick to grade, even for a large class!

These are some of the questions I typically ask during the class discussion, and I believe these questions connect well to the standards, but you can use your own questions, depending on the objectives for the activity in your classroom:

  1. How did your group split up the various responsibilities, meaning, did you share in various responsibilities or did specific people do specific things, such as leader, architect, artist, object designer, builder? Were formal assignments given or did the responsibilities just happen?
  2. What made communication most effective for your team? 
  3. What are some real-life workplace skills you used as part of this activity?
  4. What are some of the things that your group did that helped the group cooperate and be successful?
  5. What did you learn about decision-making in a work or teamwork environment?
  6. What were the positives and negatives of working with a group?
  7. What are some things you could have done to work together better as a team?

I hope you love this activity! If you use it with your classes, I’d love to get some feedback on how it went. Also, what would you change to improve the activity? I can always make improvements to my own lessons!

Below is one of my favorite ever 3D communities. The 4-person team that made this creation was incredibly in sync! The figure standing on top is Willy Wonka on a green hill of candy trees over the top of a chocolate river. The vehicle is a violet, Viking-style boat floating on chocolate inside the chocolate factory.