When I walk into the art room on Thursdays and Fridays and sometimes even Wednesdays, there is fabric everywhere, at least several times a day. Kids from four to about ten or eleven have taken to sewing. The boxes of fabric and sewing stuff that had lived in the art room before I arrived were a good starting place. First a girl who is no longer there and I worked to figure out the sewing machine. Then somehow the hand sewing began. I think it happened before I was aware. I remember a girl of about nine showing another staff member her wrap around skirt, a piece of fabric fastened around her hip with a closure of some sort, and thinking, there is potential here, kids may like to sew. Just like when the beads and looms came out and kids gathered around, when the fabric comes out, the kids appear. Ironically, the Friday before school opened, the older staff members and I tossed loads of old fabric, thinking it useless. So, I solicited donations from the day care group, and came up with four bags of fabric, small scraps and a few larger pieces, and pins, buttons and ribbon and lace. I bought a new smaller pair of sewing scissors and we found more needles in the art room drawer.

As with the beads, part of the attraction to this activity is the tactile, sensory experience of the stuff. The satiny ribbon, the knubbly ric rac, the bits and large swaths of deep red velvet, the open work of bits of lace, one fingered by a tattooed teen, others squirreled away by younger girls, the brown fur and black satin collected by my youngest bead loving boy, the off white flannel used by a group of nine and ten year old girls to sew the bodies of dolls, since discarded, the hot pink satin pouch snapped up by a visiting six, made into a purse when she added a strand of metallic edged lace, all these things call out to the children like jewels to a mockingbird. Some just want to touch, others want to own, some want to take them home, others want to put them together into finished works, for themselves, or for their friends.

Yesterday the youngest girls wanted to make dresses. This time they hit a nerve, a swath of deep red velvet a slightly older girl had pulled out in the early morning which gave me pause. Up until then all the fabric has been available freely for the children’s use. This time I felt ownership, reserve. I asked for it back, decided that this piece was special, would cost money, should be treated dearly according to it’s value in the larger marketplace. I also wonder if I was triggered by my own childhood memories. When I was a small girl I was invited to be the flower girl in an older cousin’s wedding. She had a seamstress measure my sister and me and make us long gowns of deep magenta velvet trimmed with off white cotton lace. Till this day, that dress is probably the garment which made me feel most beautiful. I wore it again for Christmas, after the wedding in November, and the following year, my mother remarried, and I wore a dress of the same pattern, this time in a larger size, and sewed of turquoise double knit, a gorgeous color, but not so gorgeous as the magenta, and the double knit offered nothing to compare to the velvet when it came to sheer hand feel. I still love to run my hands over velvet.

My own sewing project in the art room, as I keep the kids company, has been to hand stitch little velvet bags for the game pieces formerly stored in fraying polyester felt pouches. I’ve made three so far. The first one was blue with a rose button and a guatemalan woven strap to tie it shut, to hold the grandest pieces, chess men. The second was a lichen green with a matching satin ribbon tie, to hold the backgammon shakers, dice, and pieces. The third was for the checkers, red velvet with a black satin ribbon and a button of pale pink, a shade not different from, but lighter than the velvet.

Someone used the chess pieces and when they finished, put the pieces in the velvet pouch, wrapped the guatemalan strap around it, and fastened a silicone loop at the end of the strap around the red button on the side, intended for decoration, now shown to have a function, too.

Sewing with the girls and boy who have so far showed an interest is a place to begin. No one else on staff seems to have an interest in sewing, so I’m free to do it my way and to take it as it comes. Mostly the kids sew and I help them learn little things like how to use the pins, where to find the fabric shears, and I remind them where things are and how to put them away, which they learn quickly to do by themselves. Occasionally I’ll thread a needle or tie a knot, but mostly the children learn to do those things as well, or to find other children who will help.

I’m wondering where the sewing will go. Will the hand sewers eventually sew more finished pieces? Will they want to use the sewing machine, or patterns, to make clothing, gifts, things for the school or their homes? Or will this be a passing phase, a fun thing to explore, that will be done soon, when they pick up the next best thing? I’m not a big sewer anymore. For me it’s about the materials, the exploration, the competence and conversation, the caring for the stuff, the space, one another, oneself, the development of practical and artistic skills, judgment and aesthetic sense, an opening to what is possible if one tries, persists, gives up, comes back, tries again, or moves on, just another way to do those things we do in so many, many ways.

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