Friday, November 6, 2015

Plastic Canvas Pen-case: A Practical First Sewing Project for Kids

At least a year ago, my then five-year-old wanted me to teach him to sew. This seemed rather daunting to me at the time, but I did a little poking about online and came up with ideas like this one for a toddler friendly sewing basket centered around waffle-print rug or shelf liner. No-one got very excited about sewing a boring old straight line with no practical application, though, and eventually I came up with an easy lacing activity on a cardboard box. Then the few supplies I'd put together gathered dust for a year.

This week James (now 6) started asking about sewing again and I began thinking through ways to make something practical but with fewer complications - not to mention pointy needles - than traditional sewing on a piece of fabric. I quickly settled on plastic canvas as the medium. The advantages?

  • It's stiff and won't fold in on itself
  • The holes are pre-made and evenly spaced
  • You can use blunt needles and heavy thread or yarn
  • You can tape or tie your thread onto the needle without making it too big to go through the holes, preventing constant unthreading. 

In other words, it's perfect for learning!

James and I have been doing a lot of doodling (and sometimes even Zentangle!) lately, and I handed down a set of my old pens to him. So I thought a pen and pencil case would be a good project. It was his idea to make it big enough to hold a stack of the 3x5 index cards that we use for drawing on.
Grace (nearly 5) wanted to sew too, so I got enough materials for two projects.

What You Need 

  • Plastic canvas sheets, size 7 (7 squares/inch)  ($0.79 at JoAnn Fabrics)
  • Steel canvas needles (~$2/pair in the same aisle.) 
  • Yarn or embroidery floss (all 6 strands!) I used a very light weight yarn which worked well. 
  • Scissors  
  • Miscellaneous elastic, buttons, sharp needles, and etc. for finishing (optional.) 
  • Tape (optional) for semi-permanent attaching of thread to needle

How To Do It

  • Determine the height and width of your project.
    I placed a 3x5 card and the pens I wanted to store on the canvas and added about 3/4 of an inch to the top and side. 
  • Cut two pieces of the same width. Make one piece about 3 "rows" taller than the other. This is the back of your case where you attach the flap closure. 
  • Cut a third piece the same width but much shorter to use as the flap. Maybe in a contrasting color? :) 
    • Kid Hint: Decide how you feel about wasting canvas due to bad cuts before you hand over the scissors. I chickened out! Either way, after cutting You should go back and Very Carefully trim off the ragged edge. It will get in the way! 
  • Cut a very long piece of yarn or thread, because you don't really want to tie off and on in the middle. Thread a canvas needle. 
    • Kid Hint: Save yourself the frustration of constant unthreading by tying or taping the thread to the needle. 
  • Determine your stitch and how many holes (if any) you will skip in each stitch.
    The easiest options are the basic Running Stitch (in from the top, up from the bottom), and the Overcast stitch (every stitch comes in from the bottom, so the thread wraps around the edge.) For a nice visual tutorial, check here
  • Start Sewing! We started Grace's project first and decided to use a basic running stitch. I tied on at the top left and sewed in every other hole. After doing a couple of stitches I handed it over to Grace. Actually, I kept holding the project for her during her first several stitches. I found it necessary to remind her gently nearly every stitch whether she ought to be going in through the top or up from the bottom. But, she stuck with it and made it all the way around.
    When we got back to the top, we switched to an overcast stitch to sew the flap on. This made a nice "hinge," although I suggest keeping it a little loser then I did so it will rotate smoothly.
    I ended up doing this sewing myself as she was out of attention and energy.

    James is clearly my son, because he wanted to do something different then I had planned. (I always second guess the instructions on my craft projects too!) Anyway, he wanted to leave one of the long edges open rather than a short edge. He convinced me that we could use an elastic to close it instead of a flap, and I quickly decided to let him go his own way - although I did cut off the extra length on the "back" piece first.
    I gave him a lot less focused attention than I did Grace, and after the first edge we discovered he'd inadvertently switched to an overcast stitch (in from the bottom, wrap around, in from the bottom again.) We decided to just go with it, and he ended up stitching in every hole instead of every other.
  • Finish it offThis step you'll probably be doing yourself because it will be tricky, involve sharp needles, or both.
    For Grace's case I found some narrow elastic cord and tied a small loop to the flap, and then tied on a bright button half an inch below. With the long flap this wasn't technically necessary but it was a fun touch. 

For James' case I found some 1/2 inch printed elastic (I'd bought it for either hair ties or belts some time ago) and measured out just enough to fit around the narrow edge of the case tightly. I turned it inside out and sewed it using a real needle and thread to the very top edge of the "back." Flip it around and slip it over the case to close.
It's hard to see, but the opening is on the left,
and the right edge is sewn with an Overcast stitch.

Lessons Learned
  • In retrospect the Overcast stitch seems to be an easier stitch for beginners to understand, because every stitch is exactly the same. But it also is harder to manage your thread which regularly seems to get crossed over and hung up on things. 
  • James' thread also was fuzzier and less slippery than Grace's, and twisted itself into knots or near knots regularly. I recommend a mercerized cotton or embroidery floss to help avoid this.
  • Surprisingly, they really didn't manage to unthread their needles very often and occasionally were even able to re-thread them independently. But expect to be doing this yourself most of the time!
    On the other hand, scroll way down on this post at Filth Wizardry for a great DIY needle threader made from a craft stick, pipe cleaner, and electrical tape! 
  • If this really is your kids' first sewing project or if they are as young as mine, expect to give them pretty much your full attention for the whole project. It was Hard for them, but they were also very pleased with the finished product. 

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