Some Reflections on SewShop

Last week we wrapped up SewShop, sorted through all the scrap fabric, put the bear-repair teddies out of their misery and put our sewing machines back in storage (for now).

Isabella and her Doll

Many of the visitors (not just the youngest ones!) were completely new to the world of sewing and textile manipulation. Quite a few had never cut fabric before, never held a needle, never even thought to examine the seams inside their clothes! Of course, there were also those who had sewn in 4H club or for a school project, or who helped their grandmother make clothes and quilts. We even had one or two young visitors who were enrolled in sewing lessons, and were eager to get a little more experience in during their museum visit.

Rebekah and her Black Cat

We learned a lot about individual and crowd facilitation during the SewShop, including what works well and what we should work to avoid.

Comfort with the tools is key. Many of the facilitators had minimal experience working with the machines. While all of them, after a short lesson, were extremely capable, some of them felt uncertain or uneasy with particular tasks or problem-solving activities, such as re-threading the machine, or diagnosing unusual behavior. Busy situations became more stressful and harried when one or two more-experienced sewers were running around while the other facilitators felt unsure about their skills. Additional information/training and simple hands-on experience helped a lot.

Adults are worse at listening than children. One of the biggest problems we encountered was that younger visitors were willing (and often instructed by a guardian) to wait for a facilitator to demonstrate and help use the machine. Adults, on the other hand, would not infrequently slip past us and plop down at the machine without any briefing. Sometimes they were very experienced, but possibly needed a little help navigating a different brand of machine, but often when this happened it was somebody who had never touched a sewing machine in their life. Untrained adults were the major contributing factor to most our machine-related problems.

Turning off the power usually kept smaller hands from managing much damage (or injury!) if somebody was able to get to the machines ahead of a facilitator, but this didn’t stop the adults. We never came to a complete problem-solving solution, but we were able to minimize their effect somewhat by keeping a wary eye out and jumping in immediately if we saw any unfamiliar faces swooping in without a briefing.

How to handle the eager crowds. School groups, large families and certain times of the day/week became madhouses in the MakeShop. One of the biggest problems was queuing and waiting for a turn. With two sewing machines but variable duration of time needed to complete a project, visitors sometimes got antsy or whiney when things didn’t move fast enough or one machine was processing people more quickly than the other. Due to the way the machines were arranged in the space, there wasn’t an immediately obvious solution to placing people for waiting. We mostly handled this situation with verbal instructions, task-giving (“go ask that lady over there how to pin your fabric, and come back when you’re ready”) and re-prioritizing of actions. Thankfully, we were able to address some of these issues in our restructing for WoodShop (fodder for another post).

Rachel and her Doll

While we did make an awful lot of simple pillows and bags and it was at times stressful, there were some incredible highlights for me, personally, during the process:

  • That “a-ha!” moment when a young visitor realized that fabric can be sewn together, then turned inside out to hide the seams
  • Watching a seventh-grade boy absorbed in the work of patching holes in his stuffed shark
  • Hearing that one particular rag doll, “Blossom”, was taken home and is now treated as a beautiful treasure who has earned an ever-growing custom wardrobe
  • Seeing parents marvel at what their child was able to accomplish with only a little instruction, when they themselves have no sewing experience
  • Overhearing a girl ask her mother if she can take sewing lessons

For you sewing fans out there, keep an eye and ear out for our upcoming Soft-Circuitry Workshop, where we’ll be learning a bit about hand-sewing with conductive thread! It’s been delayed due to the Canadian postal strike, but when it happens I’m sure it will be… “illuminating”….