The Sewing Machine as a Tool for Artists and Educators

Sewing is one of my favorite things to do. I love how quickly you can see progress, and how it’s relatively simple to make something impressive. Fabric hoarding is in my blood, and I have boxes, baskets, and bins labeled “small fabric pieces” and “trims/pompoms”.

My mom tried to teach me how to sew when I was little, but the frustration quickly overpowered the enjoyment. I didn’t decide to really jump back into formally learning how to sew until I was in high school. My high school had a “fashion arts” program that became my safe space for four years. I blew through the elective courses offered in the space, and by my junior year I was in Ms. Simon’s class more periods than out of it… using my mornings, lunch, and study hall time to work on the clothing garments I was learning to make. I spent countless hours in the back of her classroom swearing under my breath about an invisible hem or misplaced pleat.

In college I learned to see the sewing machine as a useful tool. My university didn’t offer sewing classes, but I used my trusty Brother A-Line to whip up curtains to spruce up my garbage apartment, patch up holes in favorite jeans, make presents for friends or roommates, and eventually make sculptures! It was a creative break through when I realized how freeing it could be to use the machine without a pattern! The sewing machine became an artistic tool that I used as frequently as a pencil sharpener.

When I graduated from college, I began working with kids and found that the way I saw my sewing machine had changed again. From a way to escape math class to an artistic tool, my machine became an important feature in the maker space where I was working with kids. Learning to use the machine created this sense of pride that was so amazing to witness as a young educator, that it quickly became my favorite thing to teach.


“Fiber Fridays” during the summers at the library filled the back room or maker space with laughter and creative sparks as learners left wearing homemade shorts or sundresses. When kids hear that I am going to let them use the machine, their eyes light up with some combination of fear and excitement, and usually they ask how fast they will be allowed to go. The feeling of empowerment and strength that comes from using the foot pedal and “steering” the fabric is usually worth all of the stress surrounding getting little ones on the machine.

I just finished teaching a camp where the end result of three days of sewing was a handmade skirt. I loved seeing the fabric choices and unusal combinations that these creative kids decided on. At the end of the three days, I was completely exhausted, but also totally inspired by the pride that these young seamstresses exhibited when strutting their creations through the library and neighboring tea shop.

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For me, it’s really important to remember that it was too hard for my mom to teach me how to sew because of my frustration. Sewing is hard! It requires patience and accepting imperfection as not only a possibility but a reality. That’s something I still struggle with!

Do any of you use sewing machines in your work with kids? Share your experiences below! I would love to hear from other educators!


It’s tough to teach manners in a garden…

I wear many hats as an educator. At any given time I could be the librarian, the director, the camp counselor, the entertainment, the rule-enforcer, the “it” when playing tag, the teammate, the devil’s advocate, or the friend. But in the summer I am also the gardener. I manage the large garden bed in the back yard, all of the potted plants on the deck and steps, and this year I am also in charge of two smaller beds at the community garden down the street.

Something that has been a challenge for me as a garden educator is teaching kids how to respect the plants. Garden manners if you will.

Last summer I was trying to grow sugar baby watermelon in containers on the deck. From tiny seedlings, I supported these plants (with minimal help from uninterested kids) as they grew, blossomed, and eventually produced lots of teeny tiny watermelon babies. I feel like maybe you all can sense a tone shift coming… I’m afraid this story doesn’t have a happy ending…

I came to work early one day to check on the garden before summer camp, only to find all of the baby watermelons missing, and several of them broken on the deck and thrown about the yard. It was heartbreaking.
I mourned… but I wanted to find a way to show the kids that what they had done, potentially with very little malicious intent, really hurt my feelings, and ruined a lot of hardwork that had gone into growing these young plants.
Luckily, I am as dramatic as I am crafty. (watch the video)


This year, I am facing similar difficulties in keeping little hands away from fragile growing fruits and veggies! Specifically my tomatoes have been picked too early to use as artillary in backyard vegetable fights… It’s really discouraging, especially because the gardens are a part of the summer camps, and we will need all of those tomatoes to turn red if we want to make yummy salsa with the kids in a few weeks!



I plan on pointing out these signs as I see kids playing in the backyard, just to show that we are paying attention to the plants, and they belong to someone. Do any of you have ideas as to how else I could create a culture of respect around the garden? Have you ever had similar problems?
I would love to hear any stories, ideas, or suggestions!

Summer Learning in a Library Maker Space

Summer at the Millvale Community Library is a frenzy of slamming doors, popsicles, bike helmets, and (more recently) hover boards. Most days there are kids at the doors before we open, and kids in the library until the moment we close at the end of the day. In the past, summer programming at the MCL has functioned as a drop-in model, where there would be a time window where kids could drop by and participate in as much or as little of the decided activity. This proved difficult to plan for and hard to accommodate the growing number of interested children. So, last year we moved to a summer camp model.
Summer 2017 brings 12 summer camps and over 150 campers to the MCL. I would say that our first two camps were huge successes, and having two weeks off before the next camps was a genius idea on past Nora’s part.


MakeShop Campers with their cardboard creations… Something about cardboard and hot glue made us feel like warriors…

Our first camp was a collaboration with the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, and was so so so much fun. Just so fun! The two groups of campers, younger kids in the morning and older ones in the afternoon, learned so many new words and became comfortable with new tools… what an awesome way to measure a good time.
Words like “ply”, “kumihimo”, and “conductor” were thrown around like no big deal… I’m still impressed tbh. Three days jam-packed with cardboard construction, weaving and braiding, and circuitry explorations… Those were some lucky kids. Big shout out to the Children’s Museum for lending us one of your magical teaching artists for a few days.


Learning how to keep our watershed and rivers clean with Allegheny Cleanways… ON A BOAT!

Our second camp was Environmental Camp. A little less directly related to the traditional ideas of “maker education”, I was tasked with connecting the dots between “green” learning experiences and building and learning with our hands the week before. Campers met a real screech owl with the Audubon Society, went on a nature scavenger hunt (that ended in a water fight), and learned about single point pollution while cleaning up the Allegheny River on a boat with Allegheny Cleanways! It was an action packed week full of quotes like “I learned what a watergarage was today!” (Watershed… oops), and “Birds don’t have teeth but they have really lopsided ears.”

Summer learning is so important. Libraries are here to fight summer brain rot. Teaching artists are here to show your kids that learning is fun and exciting! Support your local library… and follow mine on instagram! (@millvalemakers)

Stay tuned for more summer updates. Summer Nora is a little less reliable, but be patient. She’s probably sunburned and sleep-deprived. πŸ’•

Pittsburgh “Yinz-broidery”

Embroidery is one of those crafts that I really want to be amazing at. Well, maybe that’s all crafts. I am somehow both lazy and over-ambitious with new projects, so, unfortunately, it remains a craft that I am good at, but not great at. Like knitting. And making pickles…

Anyway. Every month at the library I host an “adult maker” workshop where we bring in local artists and makers to teach a skill or craft. Past workshops have brought in ceramic artists, beekeepers, and printmakers. This month I was the local artist teaching a class on Pittsburgh-themed embroidery, or, “yinz-broidery”. Yes, I thought of that really clever name myself, thank you for asking.

For those of you who are not familiar with the word “yinz” or “yinzer”, a “yinzer” is a term for a native Pittsburgher who speaks with a Pittsburgh accent and uses words such as “yinz”, “n’at”, “nebby”. Ex. “She asked what yinz were up to n’at and I told her to stop being so nebby.” A little bit of a stretch, but you get the idea. It’s frequently a source of pride in Pittsburgh, to be considered a yinzer. 

My Yinz-broidery class wasn’t exactly well attended… I had four participants by the time the class was over, but it was a lot of fun and I think the results were pretty cute. The ladies got to take home one or two small embroidery hoops featuring designs that I created specifically for the class. Overall if felt like a success!

I think I’ll keep making these for small gifts for ex-pat Pittsburghers… Once a yinzer always a yinzer, so they say.

They All Saw A Cat

Fridays at the library are “Small Fry Fridays”. Tiny humans and their grown ups line up at the doors awaiting a morning filled with stories, maker crafts, snack and free play. It’s one of our more successful programs, as it combines several initiatives into one day full of activities for PreK kids and their families. 

With the Picture Book Maker Craft Project well underway, I am trying to make more visible connections between the book read during story time, and the hands-on activity done during Mini Makers. This week, the kids read the book “They All Saw A Cat” by Brendan Wenzel. For those of you who aren’t as familiar with picture books, this book is ah-mazing. It explores how different animals all see the same thing, a cat, in very different ways.  A child, a mouse, a dog, a bumblebee, a goldfish… all seeing a cat from different perspectives. I have plans to work with slightly older kids (k-2nd grade-ish), reading the story and exploring looking at something through different “lenses”, but with my mini maker crew, I changed the project a bit to fit my audience. 

After reading the book with our partnering librarian Ms. Jan, the kids came to a table covered in construction paper and oil/chalk pastels. I simply asked them to draw a cat, highlighting the passage of the book “the cat walked through the world, whiskers ears and paws.” I really loved seeing how the grown ups helped their kids with the project, allowing them to interact with the materials, but continuing to ask “Where are the whiskers? Where are the paws?” 

It seemed like a simple project, but I find that something really valuable happens when the hands-on exploration connects to the early literacy experience of listening to a book. 

What is the Picture Book Maker Craft Project?

I realized I never explained what this project even is! Apologies! 

Basically, I design book-based maker projects/crafts, print them on stickers, and place those stickers inside of the books in our collection. Each book containing a maker project is marked with a lime green spine sticker, allowing for perusing patrons to spot them from the shelf. This initiative is really fun to work on, and has provided lots of interesting opportunities for collaboration.

Because of the small size of the MCL, our children’s collection really dominates the space. So far all of the books with prompts inside are picture books, but I have plans to include graphic novels, YA fiction, and juvenile/adult nonfiction. My hope is that by creating a clear line between hands-on learning and literacy, “informal” educational institutions, like the Millvale Community Library, will be able to fill the voids caused by cuts to arts programming in schools. The prompts are inside of books that can be checked out and taken home, expanding the reach of my maker program. It also creates opportunities for connections book-based and maker-based learning. 

So far we have 12 titles with maker project stickers inside. The prompts vary from step-by-step instructions to open-ended explorations, and they are based on everything from the content of the story to the style of illustration. I’ve had visiting educators design projects based on books that could work in their learning environments or classrooms.

My plan is to develop the collection at the MCL and make the stickers available for purchase. I would love to see this project exist in a world outside of Millvale, and reach learners and educators in lots of different spaces.

I have a stack of project ideas created by a few awesome educators who came for the Agency by Design cohort meeting. I used this project as a design challenge, getting the educators to pick a book and create a hands-on learning prompt inspired by it in some way. Some of the ideas were really amazing, and I was so excited to see them in the books!  

Is this something you would find useful? Do you have any ideas for book-based maker projects? Let me know!