Thursday, August 8, 2013

Harriet Hargrave Is Teaching My Boys Quilting!, Or Mayhem at Mary Jo's Cloth Store with Lars and Anders

Boys' Fabric Picks of the Day

My son Lars, who is now twelve years old, has intermittently asked to make a quilt many times over the last five years.  The first time he asked, the memory of him pouring glue down the needle hole of my sewing machine's throat plate was a bit too fresh in my mind, and he was unilaterally banned from the sewing room entirely.  (I am eternally grateful to the tech who painstakingly removed every speck of glue from the bobbin case and hook race of that sewing machine -- and grateful that the glue was of the Elmer's School variety that peels off when dry, rather than super glue or Gorilla Glue).  But both of my sons are artistically inclined, and they have seen me having great fun playing with fabric and thread over the years, so they kept asking.  They want to play, too!

At first, I looked into some of the Beginning Quilter or Kids Sew type classes offered by my local quilt stores, but the class descriptions were a big turn-off.  In the classes designed to introduce kids to basic sewing, the projects always seem to be skirts, aprons, and little purselike tote bags.  Then there's a footnote about how, if any boys want to take the class, they can make something called a "Do Rag."  I didn't even know what a Do Rag was, so I turned to my trusty search engine and found a slew of delightful images like this one:

Do Rag, or Du-Rag, image from NikeTalk What IS a Du-Rag
Hmmm...  So girls in this sewing class will learn to read a pattern, operate a sewing machine, and construct a skirt, and boys will learn to tie a piece of cloth around their heads and glare at everyone?  I can see how valuable this would be to those who aspire to piracy, gang life, or a career in rap music.  Every mother's dream for her little boy, right?

Then there were the beginning quilting classes, but they didn't seem like a good fit for Lars and Anders, either.  First of all, Lars and Anders have LOTS OF ENERGY.  They bounce in their seats, get up and run around the table to smack one another, and are prone to fits of uncontrollable giggling.  I don't feel like they would be very welcome in an introductory quilting class of mostly retired ladies who have been sewing for years and are new to quilting only, not entirely new to sewing.  My sons have never threaded a sewing machine or used an iron, for instance, and most beginning quilting classes at least require students to be familiar with how to operate their sewing machines.

Typical Beginner Quilting Class, photo courtesy Bernina Chattanooga

I am pretty sure that my boisterous boys would be highly disruptive in a class like that, and it would be a negative experience for everyone involved!

Occasionally I will see a shop offering a beginning quilting class geared specifically toward kids, but again, reading through the class description, I was underimpressed.  Why do so many adults think that everything needs to be dumbed down so much for children?  Cutting up novelty prints into huge squares, or worse, starting a with a bundle of 10" "layer cake" squares to avoid teaching kids to cut accurately, and allowing the kids to sew them together crooked, with wobbly, mismatched seam allowances just to complete an entire quilt project in an afternoon sounds like a terrible idea to me.  I think adults too often underestimate what kids are capable of learning.  At school, my kids are studying subjects like Chinese, algebra, music theory, and chemistry.  Anders, my rising 5th grader, has memorized the first 18 digits of Pi and half of Hamlet's "To be, or not to be" soliloquy -- just for fun.  Both boys even learned some basic embroidery stitches in art class at school (love that art teacher!).  There's no reason these kids can't learn about textiles, sewing, and quilting at the same level it would be presented if this was a class offered by their school.

Quilter's Academy Vol. 1, available from Amazon here
Recently I discovered Harriet Hargrave's Quilter's Academy series of books.  Perfecto!  Harriet is a highly respected, trailblazing machine quilter and author who has been teaching and inspiring new quilters since the 1980s.  I have her other books, and didn't know whether any of the information in this Freshman Year volume would be new to me, but I was pleasantly surprised.  Not only did I find lots of new-to-me information to highlight in this book, but it's also an absolutely ideal textbook for teaching the fundamentals of quilting to bright students of any age -- this is the Gifted and Talented workbook of quilting!

When my mother and I took a class with Harriet a few months ago at the North Carolina Quilt Symposium, she talked to the class about a disturbing trend away from beginner classes that teach fundamentals in favor of project-based, "quilt in a day" type classes.  This approach gives new quilters the satisfaction of making a quilt right away, but can leave them ignorant of the basics of precision cutting, accurate piecing, color and design theory, and drafting.  After several classes, the student may have made several entire quilts, but is unable to apply what they have learned to other projects and completely unable to design an original quilt.  Even worse, by rushing through the process to finish by the end of class, many new quilters develop bad habits that result in small inaccuracies.  If your seam allowance is off by 1/16" to 1/8" in a simple quilt with few pieces, it's not a big deal -- but when that "minor" inaccuracy is multiplied by all of the pieces in a more advanced block, it results in units that don't fit together at all.  For this reason, many younger quilters especially, who typically have no prior sewing experience, find themselves stuck at the beginner level and believe that intermediate and advanced quilts are just "too hard."

What I love about the Quilter's Academy format is the way that in-depth academic information and advice for selecting equipment and setting up your workspace is interspersed with the hands-on exercises and projects, and that each "class" in the book builds on the knowledge and experience gained in previous "classes."  It's exactly the way a good science textbook would be laid out, so students can read the chapter and understand what they are doing before they get out their little goggles and do the lab exercise.  I also love that, even in this very first "Freshman" book in the series, Harriet teaches the basics of understanding base block grids and beginning drafting and design.  The math involved really isn't difficult, and I seize any opportunity to reinforce what they're learning at school by making everyday connections.  (In other words, YES -- you really DO need to know that stuff!)

I purchased a paperback workbook for myself and also downloaded the digital version from Amazon so the boys could read this on their kindles.  I had them read the first 26 pages on their own, through Lesson Four of Class 130, and then gave them a multiple choice quiz on the material to make sure they were paying attention.  Then Lars had to go back and reread to find the CORRECT answers, because he INcorrectly assumed that Mom's quiz would be so easy that he could just skim...  Hah! 
Once I was satisfied that they both understood fabric grain, thread weight, fiber content, and ply, the pros and cons of prewashing their fabric, and the basics of rotary cutting and pressing with starch, we headed off to Mary Jo's Cloth Store in Gastonia, North Carolina for our first field trip! 

Quilting Fabrics at Mary Jo's Cloth Store, photo courtesy Mary Jo's Cloth Design Blog
I was tempted to take them to one of my favorite boutique quilt shops instead, but I'm glad I didn't because they were LOUD and EXUBERANT and by the time we checked out, EVERYONE in that 32,000 square foot store knew them by name, and was relieved that we were leaving! 
Sampler Quilt from Academy of Quilting Vol. 1
The boys were each told to select three fabrics for the sampler quilt exercise they would be starting in Class 130, Lesson Five.  Harriet suggested a dark solid, a lighter print, and a white background, as in the sample quilt at left.  I told them to find a print first and then find coordinates, but they kept getting hung up on HUGE scale novelty print fabrics with gigantic pirate skulls, Star Wars panel prints, etc., and they had a hard time understanding that they needed smaller scale prints because they were going to cut their fabric up into small pieces to make their blocks.  But they finally did find appropriate fabrics (not stereotypical "boy" fabric, either), and then at the cutting table Anders explained to everyone (loudly) why the saleslady should tear the fabric on the crosswise grain instead of cutting it off the bolt with a scissors.  Harriet would have been proud!

Lars's Color Theory: Everything Goes with Orange!
Once we got home, I told them to reread the section about the pros and cons of prewashing their fabric and make their own decision.  They came back to me and told me that they were NOT going to prewash because stiffer, unwashed fabric will be easier to work with as beginners. 

Anders Had Starbucks Cake Pops On his Brain...
Because I'm not COMPLETELY insane, I'm going to do the hands-on exercises involving hot irons, rotary cutters and sewing machines ONE AT A TIME.  We're going to break this up into small, manageable sessions so no one gets frustrated and overwhelmed -- especially not mom! 

First they will do the exercise in the book where they learn how to straighten their fabrics, which will be their first experience using an iron. 

Another day, they will take the length of fabric they straightened and do the exercise from the book where they learn how to cut straight strips of fabric with a rotary cutter and acrylic ruler.  Again, neither of them has used a rotary cutter or done any kind of fabric cutting before, and we might waste a bit of fabric before they get the knack of how to hold the ruler in place so it doesn't slip when they are cutting.  Hopefully this can be learned without sacrificing any digits, but we do have an Urgent Care facility within 5 minutes of our home, so we should be good either way.

After that, I think I'll need to create my own Meet-the-Sewing-Machine exercise, because neither one of them knows anything about how to thread a sewing machine or how it works.  They will be learning to sew with Judy, my 1951 Singer Featherweight, because it's the perfect size, it sews beautifully for piecing, won't give them any trouble, and doesn't have a gazillion distracting buttons across the front.  Once they are good with how to thread and operate the sewing machine, THEN we can move on to the next exercise in the Quilter's Academy book, learning to sew with an accurate seam allowance so that their pieced units finish the correct size.  Again, since they haven't used a sewing machine at all before, I'll start them off with "disposable" fabric instead of their good stuff.

So that's four hands-on lessons before they actually start working on their sampler quilts.  Again, I'm really glad that I found this book, because without it I wouldn't have realized that a complete beginner would need to spend so much time on the basics before starting their first project, but I feel confident that this is the best way to ensure that they both have a good time AND that they gain the skills they will need to be successful.  Once they both have the basics down, I MIGHT let them work on their projects at the same time (which is why I needed that second Featherweight!).  I'll play that by ear.

Wish us luck!


Lane said...

I am jealous. Jealous that your sons are such go-getters. My kid is no slouch, but I felt like I dragged her through introductory Spanish. Second, that they'll take these lessons. My first quilt didn't have a straight quarter inch seam in the whole thing. Third, that you have the patience to go through all this when it would be easier to say "don't bother Mom now". So, color me as green as Anders' fabric choice. And, tell Lars that everything does go great with orange. You're going to have so much fun! I'd love to teach little fingers to quilt. Lane

Rebecca Grace said...

Thanks, Lane! I still have have to bribe them with video games to get their homework done on time, but they are eager to do this stuff because I've been saying "not now" and "maybe when you're older" for so long -- every time I finish a project, they say "Hey, can I do that?" My mom does oil painting with them one-on-one every Sunday afternoon (alternating so they each get a chance every other week) so I'm planning to do the quilting lessons with one kiddo while the other kiddo is painting at my mom's. I swear they were in diapers two weeks ago -- I'm making an effort to make those memories NOW because they'll be off to college in a heartbeat. That is, as long as they continue to get their homework done... ;-)

JanetD said...

What fun. I have taught beginning sewers and have found 1 tip that is fun and beneficial: first sewing on the machine with it unthreaded and following lines on paper. This gets them familiar with running it and only poking holes in the paper. A class at a private school had so much fun that the principal even came in & tried it, what a hoot.

Jackie's Stitches said...

I want to come sew with you too! It sounds like a great time!

And good for you mom for making sure they form good habits from the very beginning.

Kitchener Quilter said...

I applaud your willingness to teach your boys how to make quilts. I learned to sew at the tender age of 9, by a very kind lady who was not my mom! But there was always space and time and fabric for any sewing I wanted to do, for which I am eternally grateful. You hear of men quilters and sewers now and again, so you never know where your efforts will take them.

Ivory Spring said...

This looks entirely FUN! I am glad Lars picked one of the Benartex fabrics I had worked with. Can't wait to hear more about your quilting classes. :)

Anonymous said...

Rebecca, How about a Klutz Glove by Fons and Porter for the boys? Check Amazon, Joann's online, the Fons and Porter web site if your LQS doesn't stock them. Even experienced quilters cut themselves with rotary cutters. Just a thought. Good for you teaching your boys! ~~ Dar

Jenny K. Lyon said...

Oh I LOOOVE this! I know about boys and their energy and from your desciption, I would really enjoy your boys. Hm-but glue in your bobbin-yikes? Does forgiveness extend that far? Lucky boys to have you creatively find a way to teach them to love fabric and sewing! I enjoyed every single word of your post. And Mary Jo's-miss that place!

Rebecca Grace said...

Janet, when I got my first sewing machine, the lady who taught me how to use it had me sew on lined paper without thread, too. It's a great idea, and I do think I'll have the boys try it that way first. Thanks!

Rebecca Grace said...

Hi, Dar! You know, I've seen those gloves, and I feel like you lose too much sensitivity and control if you're wearing them, don't you think? I'm going to make them keep practicing until they can cut practically perfect strips, and it would be frustrating to try to do that with a bulky mitton thing on your hand. They aren't THAT little, and I'm going to be right there supervising the entire time. Also, you'd be amazed how much FASTER kids heal than we do. Mwahahahaha! As my son Lars would tell you, I have "a VERY inappropriate sense of humor!" ;-)

Rebecca Grace said...

Jenny -- fortunately for Lars, he was a very cute 3-year-old with big brown eyes, long eyelashes, a sweet pudgy belly, and the top of his head smelled really good. Mother Nature has ways of protecting the next generation from the consequences of their toddler antics!

Kris Jacobson said...

Have you ever looked at 4-H materials for sewing. I have not looked at them for years but they used to have a diagram of a sewing machine along with exercises for threading and sewing without thread to get the hang of things.
Check out 4-H online

Marjorie said...

I loved this article. I had girls and they both sewed from the time they were small. Because they were girls, they would sit on my lap while I sewed and just absorbed a lot of the threading and seam allowance basics. Boys would never sit still on any lap long enough. Also taught 4-H sewing classes, but I think the Harriet Hargrave book sounds better than anything. I am going to buy it for my grandchildren so when they're old enough I can teach it to them when I have a grandma summer sewing camp for them. One of my daughters was a ballet dancer and stitched beautiful costumes and the other only stitched "things". I could give her a spool of variegated Sulky and she would spend an entire afternoon stitching a fabric shape with all the decorative stitches. Her "things" were very pretty.