My children attend a school where handwork is an integral part of the curriculum, and hand sewing, knitting, and other forms of crafting are a daily part of their learning.
They love creating beautiful objects, and this reminds me of how I gladly learned to knit, sew and do embroidery in primary school so many years ago.
But it seems that handwork no longer forms part of the curriculum for most local schools, and I was unable to pinpoint the reasons for this. However, parents can encourage this skill at home, so I spoke to two sewing and handwork teachers who chatted to me about the benefits of handwork, and how parents can introduce these skills at home.
Mascha Rutherford, a sewing teacher at Michael Oak Waldorf School in Cape Town, explains that one learns so much through simple yet complex skills such as sewing. She shares with me more details on why exactly this skill is so beneficial to children.
“There are so many benefits in learning to sew,” she says. “Using your hands and developing your fine motor skills help develop your brain which increases learning in other areas of your schooling.”
Sewing teaches you to slow down and focus on just that one thing, Rutherford, who also runs a sewing school for adults from her studio in Cape Town’s southern suburbs, says. It teaches patience and delayed satisfaction.
She adds that learning to use a sewing machine and sew something together involves creativity, problem-solving, and thinking in a 3D realm as well as the ability to follow instructions.
“It is very rewarding seeing a garment, or bag or toy, take shape as you work with it from beginning to end. It’s a priceless process that brings joy. I have seen it time and time again, the look on students’ faces (young and old) as they create something,” she shares.
Learning to sew can only be of benefit to children of all ages, she explains, and learning to hand sew as a younger child and then moving on to machine sewing shows how something can progress and be made easier.
“We don’t all want to hand sew our own clothing, but it opens up a world of creativity and lets us use the other parts of our brains not used for Math and Science,” she says, adding that knitting is also very good in developing fine motor skills and is believed to help develop the brain to be better at things like maths in later years.
So if parents want their kids to learn to sew, where should they start?
Rutherford says that allowing the child to have an experience with a sewing machine is a good place to start before buying a sewing machine.
“Most of us have a sewing machine in a cupboard somewhere, handed down by a granny or aunt or uncle,” she laughs. “Pull it out and get creative! There are not very many sewing schools in Cape Town but signing up for a beginners course will help them learn the basics which will give them enough to know if they want to keep sewing or not.”
Winifred Bond, the handwork teacher at Michael Oak Waldorf, echoes these sentiments, explaining to us how handwork benefits younger children through aiding their physical development, hand-eye coordination, and that creating things, making something, brings confidence.
She says that through this process children become aware of how things are made and develop an interest in how things are made. “They realize they can make something beautiful and useful, and manifest their physical and artistic expression this way,” she says.
As children progress through Waldorf schools, Bond explains, they are led through a natural learning process. As they start to sew, start making things, they sew by hand and learn to take pride in their work, develop a feel for textures and colors, and see that they can make items as gifts.
Once the children reach high school they develop more of their intellectual side. At Waldorf schools, the children then study the industrial revolution, and how to turn sewing into something mechanical, not unlike weaving, which creates an awareness of invention and creation.
Bond says this understanding of how clothes are put together, encourages children through a natural learning process. The children sometimes hand make a shirt, including buttonholes, and through this learn that clothes use more material than they might think, for example, which can lead to an understanding of sustainable practices.
Rutherford tells us that she has experienced a big increase in inquiries for sewing classes since lockdown.
“I think the reasons are twofold,” she says.
“On the one hand, people have slowed down and started appreciating things that they can make themselves. It brings joy and fulfillment. It’s also like therapy because it forces you to focus on only one thing and stops the noise of daily life.”
“On the other hand, I see that people are looking for other ways of making an income and are looking at sewing as one way.”