- By Kristin Finan American-Statesman Staff
It started with “Project Runway.”
Last fall, desperate for an alternative to the constant stream of sing-song Disney Jr. shows flowing through our living room, I enthusiastically introduced my 7-year-old daughter, Kona, to Season 14 of the show.
From the first episode, we were hooked.
“Make it work” became our household mantra, and “Auf Wiedersehen” our new way to say goodbye. Every Thursday, as we sat in front of the TV waiting to disagree with the judges’ critiques, Kona would prop a notepad in her lap, sketching her own creations.
Soon, it wasn’t enough to draw new outfits. She wanted to learn to make them. And she wanted me to learn with her.
I’m not a particularly crafty person — the last time I made anything clothing related was in middle school and involved a Puffy-paint based, nonironic Christmas sweater — but I loved the idea of us learning something together.
So, as a Christmas present to both of us, I signed up for a set of five private lessons at Stitch Lab, a sewing and crafts boutique on South First Street that offers a variety of classes for kids and adults.
Lesson 1: Tote bags
Polka dots. Rainbows. Bicycles. Happy ducks holding balloons.
You really can find anything among the kaleidoscope of fabrics inside Stitch Lab.
For our first project, tote bags, Kona eagerly selected a pink-purple unicorn fabric, while I settled on a print consisting of rows of black reading glasses.
Early one Saturday morning in January, we had arrived to meet our instructor, Vanessa Villalva, who assured us she would show us “everything we need to know” about sewing.
We sat down in lipstick-red chairs in front of our respective sewing machines as she walked us through basics such as winding a bobbin (which spools your thread and helps create the stitch), selecting the machine speed (slow-and-steady turtle setting for us) and creating a backstitch (which helps keep your project from unraveling).
After we prepared our machines, Villalva handed us swatches of fabric on which she had drawn both blocky and swirling patterns and challenged us to sew along the lines.
As a mom, I’m used to teaching my daughter things, so I’ll admit that transitioning to her peer took some getting used to. It also gave me the opportunity to observe the way she learns from someone who isn’t her parent — like how her voice gets really loud when she’s asking a question. Or how she concentrates better when she’s chit-chatting, tidbits, ranging from how many sisters she has to that time she got sent to her room for sneaking candy, spilling out from her mouth like buttons from a jar.
After two hours — and more information about our family than Villalva could possibly have wanted to know — we were reaching the final steps of our tote bags when I made a mistake. I forgot to lower my presser foot, which holds the fabric down near the needle on the machine, and thread instantly amassed on the bottom of my fabric like a miniature mound of cotton candy.
Kona, who had already mastered the presser foot, noticed it first with a panicked “Mommy!”
“With kids, they are so used to a school environment that they are very receptive to instruction,” said Villalva, who first learned to sew at Stitch Lab before becoming an instructor there. (She also runs her own business, ronkita.biz, where she creates personalized clothing, home decor, pet items and more for customers.) “Granted, things get off task at times. With adults, sometimes they’re not as receptive because maybe they already feel they have a grasp on things faster than they actually do.”
By the end of the first class, my assumption that I would somehow automatically be better at sewing than my 7-year-old went out the window. In sewing, as evidenced by my functional but zigzag-seamed, crooked-pocketed tote bag, there is no room for overconfidence.
Lesson 2: Pillowcases
For our second lesson, we made 16-by-16 inch pillowcases, a project Villalva said would help us build on the skills we had learned with the tote bags.
Before we could get to sewing, we had to prep our machines and cut our fabric.
As I sat at my machine trying to remember how to wind my bobbin, Kona, comfortable with Villalva, peppered her with questions that ranged from practical (“How do you clean your machine?”) to silly (“What if a baby walked in and said she wanted to take a sewing lesson?”). Villalva, who has taught children’s sewing classes for two years and is clearly accustomed to questions like these, had an answer for everything. (Note to babies pursuing a sewing career: Villalva recommends you wait until you’re 7 before enrolling.)
Once we had our machines set up and our fabric cut and pinned into place, we were finally ready to sew.
The actual act of sewing on the machine, with its hypnotic thump-thump of needle hitting fabric, is, undeniably, the best part, an addictive payoff for all of that prep work.
I still made mistakes, of course, but with every stitch I felt more comfortable. The same was true for Kona, who started yelling, “Did it!” proudly after completing each seam.
Once we had stitched everything together, though, the result didn’t look anything like a pillowcase. That’s when Villalva instructed us to turn them inside out and stuff them.
Like magic, our fabric transformed into pillowcases that, while flawed, were decent enough to earn a decorative spot on each of our beds at home.
“When I first started, I think what I liked the most about sewing was the ability to be creative, but also have that math behind it,” Villalva said. “It was kind of an interesting combination. And to see the layers of everything that goes into sewing. You start with a flat pattern and you can create something three-dimensional out of it.”
Lesson 3: Stuffed animals
We have so many toys in our playroom that it could be mistaken for a Toys “R” Us, so when Villalva told us our third class would be dedicated to creating stuffed animals, I was less than enthused.
Villalva assured me, however, that the skills we would learn — namely how to sew very small pieces such as noses and eyes — were essential for creating clothing, our ultimate goal.
Kona, who decided to create an owl, was thrilled by the project, eagerly plotting out every detail, from the colors of the wings to the placement of the beak. I reluctantly selected a rabbit pattern, which I would give to Kona’s 4-year-old sister as an early nod to Easter.
When the time came to sew the bunny’s facial features, I found that I was nervous. Really nervous. That’s common for adults, Villalva says — overconfidence can give way to underconfidence.
I placed the nose on top of the face and tentatively tapped the foot petal to start the machine. Eyes focused on the needle, I swiftly turned the material, creating a wavy but complete circle of stitches that secured the nose to the face.
“Don’t expect perfection,” Villalva advised. “Mistakes are fine. That’s how you learn to build on that. Mistakes are key.”
Once the bodies were constructed, we filled them with fluffy stuffing, the sewing studio transitioning into our own personal Build-A-Bear Workshop.
I was relieved to see that my creation was at least remotely recognizable as a bunny. Kona gave her owl a loving squeeze, then proceeded to scrutinize some of its details. This, too, is common, Villalva said.
“A lot of the kids really want it to be perfect, where adults are totally fine, like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is great,’” she said. “Adults are a little more forgiving.”
Lessons 4 and 5: A shirt and a dress
Our final two lessons took place on a busy weekend, wedged in between birthday parties and soccer games and family get-togethers.
Sitting down in front of the machine and focusing on the meditative up-down of the needle, with Anita O’Day crooning in the background, felt even better than a spa treatment.
That was one of the things I loved most about our lessons: the chance to fully invest in something alone with Kona, without competition for attention from her siblings. Just us, working together on a project.
Over the next two days, we would tackle our biggest challenge yet: creating something we could actually wear. I was making a casual tank top; Kona was creating a pink-and-blue dog-print dress.
As always, there were missteps — for example, I cut off an entire segment of fabric for my shirt that I wasn’t supposed to. And as always, Villalva was there to talk us down.
“I try not to panic in sewing,” she said. “It took me a while to learn that everything can be fixed.”
After six hours spread across two days, we tried on our creations to find that they actually fit. And, even more surprising, they were cute.
I don’t know where our newfound appreciation for sewing will take us from here — but I do know that every time we look at our creations, we’ll remember those hours spent concentrating, laughing, getting frustrated and being humbled as we learned something new.
Even when we messed up, we managed to make it work.
And maybe that’s the lesson Kona and I need to remember. No matter what happens in life, no matter how many things fall apart and need to be stitched back together, if we work together and focus on what’s in front of us, we can, indeed, make it work.