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.  

Flexible Seating on a Budget in a Junior High Classroom

Flexible seating is just one way to help students feel safe, wanted, and respected in the classroom, but how do you make it work in junior high, especially when funding is limited? I’ve used flexible seating for several years, both in elementary and junior high school. If you want to try flexible seating I would say, just like with everything else, start simple.

One of the easiest ways to start is with a few yoga balls. Along with other items, these have gone up in price over the last few years, but you don’t need many of them to get a start on flexible seating. I get mine on Amazon. If you’re a Utah teacher, you can use “Class Wallet” money to buy them. Right now I have 6 in my classroom. They will need to be replaced from time to time, but having just a few makes buying and replacing them manageable. The 65 centimeter size is a great size for junior high school.

Not all teachers like yoga balls. The up-and-down or swaying movement makes some teachers dizzy. That’s another great reason to start small until you know if this option will work for you. If you are going to use yoga balls, you have to set up some rules, and you’ll also have to be careful how you present the whole thing to students. Junior high boys will snicker if you get the wording wrong. When I share my expectations with the kids, I always talk about “yoga seats.” That helps avoid problems. And here are the rules. Yoga seats are on a first-come, first served basis with no saving and no fighting. Yoga seats are seats, not toys. They should not be dribbled or thrown. It’s ok to get movement on a yoga seat, but it’s not ok to distract others. Yoga seats are not for doing the “Superman,” or rolling under the table and kicking your neighbor. If someone is sitting on a yoga seat, nobody else should kick that seat. If you are sitting on a yoga seat, you can’t bang it on the sides with your hands or otherwise make noise with it. If any student has difficulty meeting my expectations with a yoga seat, I will ask them to put it away. The kids understand my rules, and I’m consistent in enforcing those rules.

Not all students like yoga balls, which is another reason to start small. I have a handful of students in every classroom who can benefit from the movement that comes with sitting on a yoga ball, but many students are irritated by that movement. I’ve added other options to my seating to allow all students to find something that matches their personality.

Most of my students choose to sit in traditional student chairs at one of my 7 classroom tables where students work in teams. Each team usually has 5 students, but I have some larger classes where I have to have 6 students on some teams. I can lower the size of my teams by moving a few students to my soft seating area. I always have students volunteer for these soft saucer chairs, which are quite comfortable, and which I also found on Amazon. This is a great seating area for students who want less movement or want to be away from distractions.

The “tall table” is another option. I can almost predict the personality of students who will choose to sit at the “tall table.” Some will be rowdy or more likely to need redirection to stay on task. Often these kids are independent and creative thinkers.

For a few years my tall table was a regular classroom table on risers, just like the kind you could use to raise up a bed. The table was less stable that way, and even on risers, it wasn’t tall enough for me to use as a cutting table when I’m cutting fabric. This year my principal agreed to purchase a 36″ Nasco cutting table for my classroom. I absolutely love this cutting table! It saves my back when I have to cut fabric, and it’s a great surface for students working as well. The Nasco table has a larger surface area than the other tables in my classroom, and because some students naturally gravitate to that tall table, I often have 6 students seated on 24″ stools there.

I let students choose their seats on the first day of class with the understanding that if there is a problem, I will change their places. I also change their seating from time to time if I need to adjust teams for various projects. When I do adjust seating, I try to keep student preference for types of seating in mind.

Last week we started our third and last trimester of the year, which means that I am meeting four new classes of 7th graders for the first time. I have one student who came to class on the first day anxious and unsure about staying. I noticed how this student swayed and rocked while talking to me and asked the student if it would be more comfortable to sit on a yoga ball. The student lit up. Sometimes students have needs that I can easily meet by providing legitimate movement, and I’m happy to be able to do so. Every student can succeed. My challenge is to find a way to make that success possible.