Teaching Mira to Sew: Chapter 2

A Hand Crank Machine isn’t the Answer

Teaching a child to sew isn’t something I have expertise in, so my efforts with GD Mira are somewhat of an experiment.  Like many experiments or sewing projects there are successes and failures.

Several months ago I proudly blogged about 8-year-old Mira’s first attempt at machine sewing with her mother’s sewing machine.  Sewing lesson #2 was several weeks ago, which from my perspective wasn’t as successful.  Her viewpoint may have been different as the quilt she’s making is now 16 squares and she continues to be quite proud of her accomplishment.

Proud as Punch

Here’s the story.  Several months ago I bought a Singer Spartan vintage sewing machine for $9.95 with the hope of replacing the motor with a hand crank.  Through a series of unrelated events, this too heavy to be mailed machine was transported from Philly to Mira’s house in Wisconsin.  Prior to our visit several weeks ago I ordered a hand crank for the machine (this little attachment was surprisingly heavy for the size of the wheel – I guess maybe that’s the point).

In case you’re wondering if it’s difficult to convert to a hand crank, it took our technically inclined SIL Stephen about 5 minutes to remove the motor and install the crank.

My thinking behind this was that it would be easy for Mira to use a hand crank machine independently – much like a child’s sewing machine. Additionally I thought possibly the hand-crank machine would make it possible for Caitlin to sew as well – after all if big sister does it, so will Caitlin.  It turned out that I was a little off-base on this thought process.

The hand crank was actually difficult for her to maneuver; needing to turn the crank with one hand and guide the fabric with the other was difficult.  Maybe the tension wasn’t set correctly or the needle was too large but at times, the needle didn’t go through the fabric easily which made it even tougher for Mira.  She felt much more competent when she used the electric machine, which she could do without my assistance.

On the other hand, this was a great solution for Caitlin, who now has 4 pieces sewn together.  She loved turning the crank while I held the fabric.

In this case, higher tech was better.  Next time I’ll pull out the electric machine for Mira and will tag-team with Caitlin to use the hand-crank.  This experiment didn’t work as I anticipated but then how would I know if I hadn’t given it a try?

Fall Beauty

Fun in the Fall Leave: Fall Photos

Having lived in the midwest for most of our lives, there is something about the spectacular fall color and smell that makes me mindful of the impending cold weather and a little homesick.    While I love warm weather and loathe the deep cold of winter, there’s something that feels normal about color, leaves, frost and the change of seasons.

Photo Album

On a recent visit to Wisconsin, Kevin caught Caitlin and Mira enjoying one of the last warm fall days for this year.

Hmmm. What might she be thinking?

Unadulterated fun

A new "do"
Later, a visit to the Arboretum

Didn’t Kevin do a terrific job of capturing the innocence and beauty of the day?

Tutorial: Making a Dress from a T-shirt

Copying Children’s Ready-to-wear

One of my favorite sewing challenges is to copy ready-to-wear, so when DD Angela told me that Caitlin wanted a dress with a T-shirt top and a ruffly skirt, I visited the store where she’d seen the dress and of course, surreptitiously took a photo.  This didn’t seem to difficult.

Before I go further, I should mention that while this tutorial is for making a child’s dress, the same technique would work for an adult.  In fact, here’s a similar idea for a summer dress – this was in a storefront when we were in Greece last spring.  It’s still on my list of things to make someday.

Instead of sewing a t-shirt for the dress, I happened to find a cute one on the sale rack.  In the eyes of a child, I am sure it was far cuter than anything I would make, as it had massive amounts of glitter.  Now that I had the t-shirt, my next stop was the fabric store where I purchased 2″ black twill elastic and 1/4″ green ribbon for the skirt. The lace for the skirt was left over from a previous project.


1.  If you’re using a purchased t-shirt, it is best to use a fitted style, as opposed to the standard boxy t-shirt.  If not, taper the sides so it is somewhat fitted.

2.  Measure the length you’ll need for the sides of the top of the dress. In this case, for a size 5, I aimed for 6″ on each side.  Cut the t-shirt off at this point, making sure to keep the bottom seam even.  I find that it’s easier to hold the side seams together while cutting as the bottom cut will be more even.

3. Now measure a length of elastic – about 1-2″ longer than the child’s waist, plus 1″ for the overlap.  I used a length of 24″.  This should also be the approximate circumference of the shirt.

4. Overlap the elastic about 1/2 inch and sew together with a zig-zag or straight stitch.

5. Mark the center front and back, and the sides on the elastic with chalk or pins.

6.  Also mark the center front and back on the shirt.  

7.  Pin the elastic to the shirt at the center markings.

8.  Sew the elastic to the shirt, stretching slightly if the top and elastic are not the same size.  A zig-zag stitch works well for this.  On my first attempt, I tried a cover-stitch but it didn’t work well.  Admittedly, I’m rather new to cover-stitching so maybe that was the problem.

9.  Now repeat this process to attach the skirt.  (Your eyes aren’t fooling you – the black colors are different from one another).

I’ll do a later post on how to make this skirt as I need to think about how to describe it before I can do a tutorial.

The dress was a huge hit, as I anticipated.  It was for  Cate’s birthday and she wore it for the entire weekend; she even slept in it one night.








What would I do differently?

The obvious is that I’d try to get the blacks a little closer.  Also, this dress just fits so I would have preferred it a little larger.   In this case the 100% cotton t-shirt was 2″ larger than Caitlin’s chest measurement – would go for a larger size the next time.  Other than that, I’d do it the same the next time.  What a fun dress.  Now I need to make a similar one for her big sister.

A Second Career in Sewing?

Retirement is on the Horizon

You all know that I love sewing, fabric and all things fiber, but for the duration of this blog I’ve not posted much about the “other than sewing” aspects of my personal life (well, except for my husband, children and granddaughters).

In a nutshell, I’m a nurse by training and worked as a pediatric nurse for 25 years. For the past 15 years I’ve worked to improve the safety and quality of healthcare  – if you’ve been a recipient of healthcare services lately, you know that’s a job without an end in sight.

All totaled up, I’ve spent more than 40 years working in Children’s Hospitals.  I could probably write a book about the Pediatric diseases that were common in the early 70’s and thankfully are no longer seen today.  Likewise there are new diseases that were non-existent years ago.  My work has been and continues to be very gratifying.

Despite my love for the work, the time is coming for me to pass the baton to another leader.  So my boss has sufficient time to recruit for a replacement, I gave notice months ahead of time.  Today the announcement came out – I will retire at the end of Feb.  This will give Kevin and I the opportunity to travel and of course, I’ll be able to dream about my next career, albeit part-time.  

We’re planning a post-retirement trip to Central America but as yet I’ve not landed on my next calling but as you can guess, fiber or fabric will be in the equation.  Stay tuned.

Any career suggestions?

Hand-picked Zippers

Three Options for Hand-picked Zippers

One of the things I absolutely love is to hand-pick a zipper however I’ve not had many opportunities to use this technique.  That changed with the recent surge in sewing wedding garments and now I think I’ll use this method in other garments, even pants.

Since there are great tutorials on the web and specifically because most point pack to Susan Khalje, there’s really not much for me to add.   If you’re interested, Threads Magazine‘s article by SK describes the technique beautifully and the title says it all: “A hand-picked zipper is worth the effort”.

Now for my three samples:

1. Side zipper

The first is the side zipper in Megan’s wedding dress.  Because I was nervous about the zipper breaking on the day of the wedding, I decided to use 2 rows of stitching on each side of the centered zipper and a double strand of waxed silk thread.   Two rows of stitching wouldn’t have prevented the zipper from splitting but it made me feel better. Maybe I put in a second row because hand sewing is so calming that I couldn’t stop sewing?  In the end the two rows of stitching afforded a nicely finished appearance.

Side zipper with 2 rows of hand stitching (not pressed)
Up close

2. Replacing a Machine-sewn Zipper

The second was on Deb’s wedding dress.  The dress was beautifully constructed except the lapped zipper stood out straight and completely exposed the teeth of the zipper.  As a part of the alterations, she asked if I could do anything to make it look better.  With the yards of fabric in a finished gown, I couldn’t imagine putting the dress on my little sewing machine table.  Besides, as you can see in the photo below, there was some beading which needed to be removed for machine sewing.

My first attempt at hand sewing didn’t look good – even with a double strand of thick silk thread, the stitches sunk into the fabric and looked like snags or fabric flaws.  That’s when I decided to use small pearls.  Unlike Susan Khalje’s tutorial, I stitched the pearl as a part of the back-stitch.  I think SK adds the pearls in a second round of stitching.

Deb loved it this small change to an already beautiful gown.

Machine sewn zipper replaced with pearls and hand picks

3. A hand-picked invisible zipper?

The third one was in the dress I wore for Shaun and Deb’s wedding. The fabric had some distressing in it and the dress bodice was ruched. A machine sewn zipper wasn’t in the cards anyway. The problem was that I planned to use an invisible zipper and that’s all I had on hand. So I improvised and hand-picked the invisible zipper.  Instead of stitching 3/8″ from the edge, I sewed about 1/8″ from the center edge, again using a double strand of waxed silk thread.  It worked very well and I’d definitely try this again.

Hand-stitched Invisible zipper

If you haven’t tried this technique, give it a try.  It’s much easier than a machine sewn zipper and less frustrating than pulling out the stitches if you didn’t get the zipper in straight.  This is way easier than you think.