During an afterschool program at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, I had the challenging task of passing on a few simple sewing skills to a group of elementary school students during a residency about fiber. As I am the last person in my family that sews, I feel a sense of duty to pass it on whenever I can. So when the teaching artists in the Greene Family Learning Center were asked to teach something from their own personal art form, I jumped at the chance to work with hand-sewing needles.
As I formulated my plans, I decided to share more than one way to use a needle. Students would attempt string art with a needle, do some circular weaving, and I also really wanted to teach them how to sew on a button. I knew that it would not be easy to teach a room full of kids how to use a needle, but I wanted to do it anyway. I guess that’s where my aspirations overtook my reservations.
On the first day of class, I came to find out that I would only have one studio assistant and no other adult from the visiting school to help me with twenty-two students. Fortunately, she proved to be quite capable and the students were a great bunch of kids. For our journaling assignment on the first day, I had them write the word “Perseverance” in an artful way using color and design along with its definition. We also had a brief discussion about not giving up even though sewing is challenging. I began with that idea because it takes the spirit of not giving up, even in the face of difficultly or failure to be successful at sewing anything well. All during the residency, I knew that I could remind them to “persevere” when they were faced with tangled threads, dropped stitches and the occasional pricked finger.
We worked on the sewing aspects of the project for six of the ten weeks of the residency. Our time together sewing was in groups of four gathered around me like baby birds all wanting to be fed at the same time. I solved that challenge by quickly assessing which student in the small group had caught on to the process and I enlisted them to help their neighbor if they got in a jam. In that way, I had someone else who could help another student in a moment of confusion and I got to promote peer support, as well.
I could feel the confidence growing in the students as they worked with the needles. They became less fearful of getting stuck by the needle and more willing to focus on the process. They began to gradually gain a real understanding of the techniques I shared. Students learned to make string art with big stitches and weave in a circle. They also learned to make variations of the running stitch and the back stitch. As they sewed, I recognized the look of satisfaction on their faces as they slowed down and took their time to make good stitches.
By the third day of sewing, the students were comfortable with the sewing process and it was time to sew on the buttons. It meant a lot to me to be able to teach the students to sew on buttons. I know that someone in that bunch might have a button pop off a garment and they now have the ability to sew it back on.
Students were sewing with confidence on their own. As a consequence, I was able to freely move among the students, encouraging perseverance and providing sewing tips. Each student sewed several buttons on their project over the course of two days and seemed to really enjoy the process. They finished up the experience by creating labels for the student artwork exhibit. It felt good knowing that I had shared a life skill with my students that could be useful in their lives. It gave me hope that hand sewing skills and the artistry of needlework would flourish and live on in another generation of artists and craftspeople.