Sewing lessons aren’t for everyone, just like soccer isn’t for everyone. But sewing lessons are as important, or more important, in today’s world than they’ve ever been. That’s because today’s children, while privileged in many ways, are cheated in many other ways.
Today’s kids often attend daycare and then preschool practically from birth. After they start school they start lessons: ballet or gymnastics, T-ball and soccer segueing into Little League and other competitive sports. They have all kinds of electronic devices, they skype with their far-away relatives, vacation at Disneyland, take cruises with their extended families. Their folks hire plumbers and carpenters for tasks that in previous generations were done by Dad or Uncle Bill.
What today’s kids don’t do is relate to the practical, daily-life world. A million years ago, when I was a child, I shadowed my mother to the grocery store and watched her choose the best eggplant (smooth, shiny, richly purple skin) and pineapple (if it’s ripe you can smell the pineapple scent from the bottom end; it should have some yellow with the green, and a center leaf should pull out without much trouble. Oh, and be careful, it’s prickly!). Not that piece of fish—it stinks; not that chicken, it looks dry and old. My days were filled with tasks that required me to notice color, pattern, texture, and scent. “Helping” my dad build screens for the windows, I held the tape measure while he marked off the lengths of the 1x2 board that would become the frame; incidentally he explained the markings on the tape until, after a few years, they were no longer mysterious.
Our kids today, many of them, are starved for these kinds of activities. They don’t know they’re starved, their folks don’t know, and their teachers don’t know (or care—it’s not the place of school to teach daily living). They’re like the elderly woman who doesn’t know her bones are brittle until she breaks a hip. These kids are in for a surprise when adult life hits. They're like a young acquaintance on a tight budget who spent $45 to have the tailor sew 12 buttons on her husband's business suits and shirts: it didn't occur to her that she (or he!) could learn to sew on buttons. Many of the 6th graders I’ve taught—normal, bright kids—can’t find 1 inch on a ruler. While they might know, academically, what 1/2 means, they can’t conceptualize a half-inch, and can’t find it on the ruler either. Try getting them to understand 5/8 in., the standard seam depth!
In sewing classes, kids get to play with color, pattern, and texture. They learn to measure, and they learn why accuracy in measuring is important. They practice taking things apart and putting them back. As one fourth-grader said, “In sewing, I have to take things apart a lot until I get them right. But when I wear something I made and it looks good, I’m really proud of myself.”
In sewing classes there are no grades, no competition. Each child works at his or her own speed. They each get to choose the colors and patterns and textures that they like. They get to see what other colors and patterns other kids like, too, and maybe improve their own design sense in the process. I once knew a woman who told me that in third grade her teacher brought a box of autumn leaves into the classroom, gave each child three, and talked about color, shape and texture. “When I went home that afternoon, it was as though the world changed from black-and-white to color. I’d never thought about those things so I’d never noticed them. That lesson changed my life.” Sewing classes do that for kids.
Sewing students are earning to live more fully in our colorful, textured, patterned world. They’re learning that things are more complex than they thought, and that mastery takes time and effort. They learn about accuracy and tidiness, and that mistakes are how we learn.
Oh, and they learn to make useful and fun things like shirts and totes and dog blankets and aprons. But in the larger scheme of things, the “products” of their classes are actually incidental. In sewing classes, children learn to live.