For a year, my 5 year old daughter has been begging to learn to sew. I would have put her off a bit longer, but her school holds a "Character Fair" each year where the kids must complete a project to show off a certain character trait they've been studying. We were having trouble coming up with ideas until I realized I could link "determination" with learning to sew.
She's not ready to use a sewing machine, but I always think it's good to start with hand sewing, anyway. After a lot of thought and research, I thought I'd pass on some tips to you. Whether your kids start at 5 or 15, sewing is a great skill to have, no matter your child's gender. (Remember, it used to be only men made a living sewing!)
Putting Together a Sewing Basket
When a child is just starting out, she doesn't need much:
* A pin cushion with an emery
* Pins with large, colorful plastic heads
* A variety of hand sewing needles (Don't just stick to traditional sewing needles; young children may do better with larger needles)
* A pair of thread-cutting scissors (I chose ordinary blunt, Kindergarten-style scissors)
* And perhaps a measuring tape or ruler
It's a good idea to put all this in your child's own sewing basket. This is a point of pride for kids, and it's smart to encourage them to care for their sewing tools right off the bat.
You'll also need thread, of course, and fabric. When your child is first starting out, your sewing scraps will suffice. Choose a thread that contrasts well with the fabric, so your child can more easily see what he's doing. Also consider stocking up on a little bit of cross stitch (Aida) fabric. (More on that in a moment.)
Sometimes it's nice to have a book to illustrate certain points to a child. There are several available, even for quite young children. I really like See and Sew: A Sewing Book for Children by Tina Davis. It is written in simple, clear language and has great illustrations and fun projects.
I also like the Mary Frances Sewing Book by Jane Eayer. This was originally published in the 1910s, and it's just plain charming. Some parents may object to the mention of fairies in this book, but if your child likes older books or fantasies (as mine does) this may be a great introduction to sewing. In it, a little girl named Mary Frances discovers her grandmother's sewing bird (an antique sewing tool) can talk, along with all her other sewing tools - and they teach her the art of hand sewing. The end result is a bunch of cute, old fashioned doll clothes.
This book is available on Amazon, but you can also download a .PDF version of the book for free - and, unlike the reprinted, traditionally bound copies of the book, the .PDF retains the original color illustrations and patterns. There's also a Kindle edition available for free from this website, but I discovered the layout is very confusing and there are garbled sentences throughout. You can see one person's version of the finished doll clothes from Mary Frances here.
Begin very simply. Teach your child to cut the thread no longer than the length of her arm. Teach her to tie a knot in one end. Teach her to thread the needle.
Then, take a tip from the Mary Frances Sewing Book and consider having your child practice a plain seam on cross stitch fabric (also called "Aida;" see the image below). The holes in this type of fabric make it easier for children to learn to sew even stitches. (Cross stitch fabric can be somewhat expensive; if you're on a budget, try looking in thrift stores for scraps of the cloth or old, completed cross stitch projects from which fabric could be cut.)
You might also consider having your child stitch her first seams on felt. It won't ravel and the needle runs through the felt smoothly.
Whether or not you teach your child to measure and cut out the fabric he sews depends a lot on your child's age. My 5 year old's cutting skills aren't that great yet, so I have her help me measure out the cloth. Then I mark it, drawing the entire cutting line for her, before she cuts. With some kids, you may need to do all the cutting at first. For certain, always closely supervise cutting, since any shears sharp enough to cut fabric can easily slice through your child's skin.
Once your child can sew a basic seam without frustration, it's time to pick a first project. Choose something with straight seams only. A square or rectangular pillow is an excellent choice. If your child is a bit older or shows special talent for sewing, consider having her sew a patchwork pattern for the front of the quilt - for example, 3 or 4 inch squares stitched together.
Another possibility are projects from a book like Sewing Projects for Children: 35 Step-by-Step Projects to Help Kids Aged 3 and Up Learn to Sew by Emma Hardy.
Moving On to Machine Sewing
When your child seems mature enough to sew with a machine, I recommend setting the machine to it's slowest setting. Also, finger or needle guards are available from some sewing machine manufacturers. By all means, if you can buy one for your machine, do so. I can't really recommend sewing machines designed for kids; in my experience they don't work well, causing frustration for young sewers.