Learning to sew, sewing to learn

Last week I made a hat. This is the story of that hat, and my reflections on learning through the experience of making it.

Learning to sew:
I wanted to learn how to sew. I had all of the materials (fabric, thread), tools (sewing machine, needles), and teachers (both kids and adults), but I didn’t have the right project. I hate the thought of spending material on something that I don’t expect to last, so I needed the perfect project to provide me context for trying my hand at sewing. I ended up making a birthday hat. 

Last month, Josh made me a birthday hat. I thought I would pass it along. Kelly had a birthday coming up in a week, and I thought it could be a fun start to a new tradition: the birthday hat gets passed from person to person, embellished a little bit more by its previous owner every time.

Allison helped me with the hat. By the time I started I knew some sewing terminology, I could (quite proudly) thread the bobbin, hand-sew a whipstitch (struggling a bit with the knots at either end), and maybe fumble my way through a few other steps, but that was just about it. Together we picked a pattern from a book — I felt ambitious and decided on a baseball cap instead of the tried and true birthday crown — and selected bright, colorful fabric that felt right for an almost-spring birthday. Students in the makerspace came over to help, and suddenly Allison started handing me pieces of fabric that were cut to the sizes of the pattern, already pinned for me to sew. I threaded the machine and got started.

Fast-forward a few hours (and a few hours past that), and the hat was done. Perfect colors, great size, streaming orange ribbons to tie it to fit in the back, twinkling LED lights around the perimeter, and a big, fat “BIRTHDAY” across the front. It was exactly what I wanted.


(More pics here and here.)

Sewing to learn:
First, I have learned that my brain is better working in two dimensions than in three. I started the year with a learning goal: I’m good working with screens, I’d like to become better at working with my hands (sewing, woodworking, etc). It turns out the place where I need to grow has much more to do with spatial reasoning than manual ability. Sewing offers an interesting perspective on spatial reasoning because the objects that are constructed — hats, pillows, pants, shirts — are 3D objects made with 2D fabric. We sew patterns together, invert them to hide the seams, and then inflate them into becoming three dimensional objects, almost like origami. It contorts my brain a little bit just thinking about it. (And that feels like learning.)

Second, I have a renewed appreciation for how damaging slow feedback cycles can be for learning. I sewed a circuit throughout the interior of my hat with conductive thread, a micro controller, and four LEDs that would light up and twinkle. I understood how to build the circuit, but I struggled laying it out on a three-dimensional object (the inside of the hat) and I was slow to sew it all together. One mistake — one momentary lapse in attentiveness — didn’t reveal itself until about 45 minutes of diligent hand-sewing. That mistake cost me another 30 minutes to fix. In the end my “fix” worked only part of the time (the hat still short circuits and the LEDs go out sometimes), however by that point I was so frustrated to have invested so much time in a mistake that I could have corrected immediately that I didn’t have the drive to correct the rest of the error properly. The long turnaround time to get feedback on my circuit damaged my confidence and enthusiasm for the project. Shorter feedback cycles, not short circuits: a useful reminder for learning of all kinds.

And third, patterns are amazing. I mean, it kind of felt like cheating. I am a sewing newbie (threading the bobbin was my proudest accomplishment before this hat, mind you), and yet I was able to make something that — so what if I’m biased — looked good! For a moment I doubted myself: shouldn’t I be a beginner a bit longer? Am I really learning how to sew if I just copy the pattern from this book, cut it out, then, you know, stick it together? Everyone I asked said, YES, ABSOLUTELY. DON’T THINK YOU’RE SOME KIND OF HERO.

And the more I reflect on it, learning how to sew with patterns offers a window into a larger view of learning in general:

It’s easy for students and teachers to talk about skills.
For me, that was threading the bobbin. Driving the foot pedal, but not too fast. Hand-sewing, and tying off knots.

It’s more valuable to talk about concepts.
I was starting to get a feel for when the sewing machine was doing something wrong and how to fix it. And I am starting to see far enough ahead to understand when I’ll invert to hide the seams and how a 2D pattern becomes a 3D object. At some point I’ll learn more about different stitching techniques and when to use each one.

But let’s reach for the big ideas.
Skills and concepts — that’s where the conversation around learning usually stops. Measuring a student’s mastery of skills is easy, concepts a little less so. But there is a level beyond curricular concepts: ideas. This level one is the hardest to measure, but the most satisfying to explore.

I thought that learning to sew would have me threading and rethreading bobbins for a few months before trying anything more substantial. But getting patterns from a book had me scraping at the heels of big ideas. I was ready to learn something about anatomy (how will my design fit different kinds of bodies?) or psychology (why a birthday cap vs. a birthday crown?). I wanted to learn more about the materials I was using, how they were sourced, and the aesthetic choices that I was able to make about my design. I was ready to engage in a more critical, reflective conversation too: what about the clothes am I wearing now? Who made them and in what conditions?

Patterns as scaffolding
Learning how to sew has been exciting. But in my experience there has been more to it than a useful life skill. (And I’ll admit: only recently did I manage to sew a button back onto a shirt by myself.) There are big ideas waiting in the wings, whole disciplines of inquiry and thought, and some of them bear political and ecological implications.

Patterns are scaffolding that raise beginners into practitioners. And practitioners, who inhabit the realm of skills and concepts, are that much closer to reaching for the ideas.

Patterns aren’t cheating.
What are the sewing patterns of our classrooms? Do we give them freely to our students, and do our students understand how powerful they are? How might we give students the patterns more readily so that we can focus our energy not on threading the bobbins of our classrooms but on the concepts and on the powerful ideas behind them?


4 thoughts on “Learning to sew, sewing to learn

  1. Great piece! Your statement about ” how damaging slow feedback cycles can be for learning” definitely resonated with me.

  2. I think the the patterns in our classrooms can be clarity on the skills being assessed. Instead of surprising students on the test – tell them exactly what they will need to know… They still have to execute – you are just giving them the patten.

    • I agree completely. On one level, students deserve to have the patterns that will guide them through our classes, telling them specifically what they need to do in order to find success. And if students can learn to count on them as reliable tools, it would be great, for example, to see them engaging with rubrics and feeling empowered by them. (“You mean you’re just straight-up telling me what I need to do??! It’s almost too easy!”).

      On another level I’m thinking about the same thing in terms of our curricular content. The sewing pattern was a springboard for me: it allowed me to interact with concepts and ideas, whereas I thought I should have just been threading more bobbins, since I expected only to practice skills for a while as a beginner. As a math student I only approached formulae as exercises to be practiced and mastered; it wasn’t until after high school that I was able to approach formulae as patterns: powerful tools that could empower me to tackle all sorts of challenges that I personally found interesting. And so in this sense I think patterns can be powerful in transforming beginners into practitioners… but I’m also thinking of the challenge before the teacher to make sure that students perceive the patterns to be as powerful/empowering as they are.

  3. Pingback: Why and How, Not Just What | Autodesk Project Ignite Blog

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