The Free Motion Quilting Project: Don't Buy Your Kid a Toy Sewing Machine

Friday, December 11, 2015

Don't Buy Your Kid a Toy Sewing Machine

Earlier this week I shared a post about buying a new sewing machine and today I have to follow up with an additional rant / tip - Please, please, please don't buy your kid a toy sewing machine!

I was once an unlucky recipient of a toy sewing machine when I was around 14 years old. I had wanted a new machine for years, but I just couldn't wrap my brain around the cost of a real machine. I saw a toy machine at Walmart and figured it would be just as good as the others.

I can remember well the total letdown of that little toy machine - all the parts were cheap plastic and the foot attachment was so wobbly stitching a straight seam was absolutely impossible. A machine should never be described as flexible, but that is exactly what that flimsy plastic machine was!

But here is what this machine was to me - frustrating, annoying, and yet another barrier between me and learning to sew properly. Many times I blamed myself for the uneven stitches and wobbly seams when in reality it was entirely due to the cheap machine I was using.

Now here's an interesting question I was asked today - Is a real sewing machine dangerous?

Stitch your finger one time and
you'll never make that mistake again!
I had to stop for a second and think about that. Whether it's a toy or a real sewing machine, the only way to get hurt is to stitch through your fingers. When I was a kid, I never let my hands get anywhere near the needle. I could see that sharp needle moving up and down and it didn't take much imagination to know how badly it would hurt to stitch over my fingers.

Looking at a toy sewing machine for sale at Walmart this morning, I found the entire needle area covered with a thick plastic guard. Clearly this thing was designed with parents fears as the #1 concern - not the child's enjoyment or skill building potential.

Please don't get me wrong - I absolutely hate to see my son get hurt, but I do think some valuable lessons in life are taught by using real materials. Your kid will only have to stitch through their finger one time to learn THAT HURTS. By getting hurt, they will learn to respect that piece of equipment and pay more attention to what they are doing.

Leah laying bricks in 7th grade
I believe in teaching my child to use real tools because that's how I grew up. My dad handed me a real hammer and nails and showed me how to drive them into a piece of wood to make a box. I smashed the crap out of my fingers and thumb for hours, cried many tears, but I kept at it and eventually learned how to hammer a nail without hurting myself.

Unfortunately it seems most parents aren't like my dad and prefer instead to infantilize their children with the toy version of everything from sewing machines to ovens to pottery wheels.

I could get James an Easy Bake Oven because they're designed for kids and supposedly safer than learning to bake with a real oven. But will opening little packets of processed powders to make strange colored cakes and cookies really teach him the type of baking I want him to learn?

I'd rather risk a burn teaching him how to open the oven and pull out a pan of muffins than risk my child growing into an adult who doesn't know how to really cook. Consider the message we're sending to our kids - you're not old enough, this is too dangerous for you, you need to be safe at all times.

At what point do we risk a little pain in exchange for our child understanding that the real world doesn't come with safety guards on every surface?

What this all really comes down to is common sense. If your child is mature and capable of listening, learning, and focusing on their work with attention, then they are ready for a real sewing machine.

If you're worried they will get hurt because that kid is too flighty and distracted, wait another year and look for a sewing camp or class in your area during the summer so they can learn the basics with a professional teacher.

I also think a real sewing machine should be an investment. That means spending $300 - $500 for a solidly built, REAL machine with changeable feet that can grow with your child. Unless you're willing to commit that kind of investment into your child's potential sewing future, don't buy in.

Whatever you do, don't buy a cheap toy sewing machine thinking that you can just get a better one once your kid proves they like sewing. You might as well take her passion for sewing and kick it off a cliff because that will be one frustrated kid. Who wants to sew or quilt when it means constantly fighting with a bad machine?

Buy a book on hand sewing instead and explain that this is how all clothing was made once upon a time, and it's still a viable way of stitching fabric together. If your kid really wants to learn how to sew, a needle and thread is a simple, inexpensive way to get started.

Let's go quilt (or sew)!

Leah Day

49 comments:

  1. I agree wholeheartedly regarding using a real sewing machine and tools and common sense. Some things will need more supervision than others and by making mistakes is where the greatest learning takes place.

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  2. I really do agree with most of your thoughts above but I did want to share my little story. Keep in mind that I am in my 70s now!!
    I have the toy sewing machine that Santa gave me (I was probably 6 or 7.) It only made a chain stitch and had a hand crank, but it did work and I made a few simple things for my dolls - like a blanket. Then when I was about 10, I used my birthday $$ to buy an electric toy stove. The folks were shocked when they realized that it REALLY worked. The burners got hot enough to fry potatoes, etc. The oven worked beautifully to made cakes, muffins, etc. Yep, after the first time (Did I mention they were surprised?), I could only use the stove with supervision but I certainly learned about getting burned and being careful. :) Actually, I still have the stove; used it about 11/12 years ago and it still worked well. I'll have to admit that I'm a bit sensitive about the old wiring so haven't plugged it in since. What wonderful memories I have of those toys. I'm afraid they don't make them like they used to. :(

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    1. Thank you so much for sharing your story! I agree, toy sewing machines were once higher quality and actually worth buying for a child. I'm glad you still have your little oven and maybe you can get the plug changed out by an electrician. It's a shame to not be able to enjoy playing with it!

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    2. had that machine for my granddaughter and it lasted exactly 10 minutes when i could not get the chain stitch to even chain stitch...so she is using my featherweight and loving it. has become a good little seamstress, loves doing the panels since lots of the fussy patching is done. All three of the grandchildren have used the featherweights and also the blue Kenmore machines with great success. My thoughts are to give them a good machine to use so that they will develop the love of sewing

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  3. Yes! My dad always had the same philosophy about Easy Bake Ovens -- just teach how to use the real oven properly! :)

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  4. My son is turning 6 in March and he is cooking/baking with me in the kitchen since he is 2. We started with some cookie dough smoothing, and now he can make almost anything alone with a very little help, the only thing I do for him is cutting the big or extrafine things (he does the medium) and taking things out from the hot oven. He loves it, because it is real food and not just plaything. Of course I am always supervising, but it is so cute when he is explaining what to do any how - we made a video about home made strawberry jam for the family. And yes, he is doing the jam cooking, which can be dangerous, but he knows and always very careful. He knows his limits, and asks for help if he needs. I think this is the key: if you let them to take care of themselves and give your children responsability - and let them know you are always there to give a helping hand if needed - they learn how to use their skills and became comfortable in the world.

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    1. Absolutely! You're going to raise a healthy, independent ADULT - that's the whole point!

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  5. And yes, he also sews with my machine, and loves free motion quilting. He never hurt his finger, because he does it very carefully. Sometimes I feel like putting my diamond ring in a grinder when I hear the noise makes with a wrong move, but my machine is a medium quality one, and always think even if something happens with it it worth - he grows up that these are natural things to do and sees everything as fun not as something as a must.

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  6. Very well put! I totally agree with you on teacher big kids the "real way"! I taught my kids the same way your Dad taught you! I am now teaching my grandkids the same way! My 4 year old granddaughter just made a doll quilt on my featherweight!!!

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  7. Do you have a recommendation for an inexpensive machine with a speed control? That is actually my main concern. I know some you can set the top speed.

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    1. I'm really loving my Juki Exceed F400. It has speed control and a wide range of features that usually come with more expensive machines.

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  8. Great post Leah. My boys are grown, but we always allowed and encouraged them to use "real" tools for the job they were learning or doing. When we gutted and renovated our last house they were 3, 6, and 8 and they were pulling nails out of boards, and pounding nails in other places. They all learned to do basic car maintenance, do laundry, clean the house, and cook. It's a good thing too because they all three married girls who can't cook. :)

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  9. You are totally right Leah, children need to learn about risks by taking risks, otherwise they don't know what their limits or boundaries are. If we guide them to take those risks (rather than hover overtop of them and stop them doing anything) then it means that by the time they are making the really big decisions about their actions as teenagers/adults, then hopefully they will make the right choices.

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  10. My parents would never have wasted money on 'kid version' tools! I completely agree with your post and the best way to encourage/discourage kids who want to learn. If they're interested, they're ready, and as you say, once is all it takes to learn not to put fingers under the needle.

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  11. Yes! SOOOO agree with you. I also cringe when adults want to 'try' sewing with a cheap machine from the equivalent of Walmart, or buy cheap thread or buy cheap fabric - NOOOOO!!!! It's best to borrow a good machine, or buy a good vintage one, and to buy a few good quality supplies. On another note, I have been sewing a long long time and I have never stitched through my fingers, so I wouldn't say it's an occupational hazard exactly :)

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    1. I honestly agree. You've got to be doing something wrong - not paying attention, working too fast, being distracted or tired - to hurt yourself badly with a sewing machine. First rule of machine safety (any machine or power tool) is to make sure you're up for the job and focused on what you're doing.

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  12. I agree with you. Children have become less likely to try different things because their parents are afraid of them getting hurt. That just leads to less and less things being tried as they get older, because, being afraid of things is a learned behavior. My girls never showed an interest in sewing, but they did have interests in other things, so I either taught them myself about their interests or found another qualified adult when I didn't know how myself. The trick here is, to spend the time, teaching the places to be cautious! Now, at 29 years of age, one of my girls is taking some interest in my quilting and mentioned it would be good for me to teach her, because we could then spend time together. I love it!!!

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    1. That's wonderful! Sometimes sewing is a bug that bites later in life and I love that she's asked you for help now.

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  13. While I agree with you, I am surprised that you haven't gotten dissenting comments from people. If you buy a toy machine, your kid could work more independently, and mom can go do something else ( that is no doubt more important than spending actual time teaching your child to sew).

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    1. I can remember being taught how to use my first real machine in an afternoon and then being able to work relatively independently after that. Kids don't need a constant teacher hovering over them, but someone nearby to ask for help when they really need it.

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  14. Well, you would think that you would only sew through your finger once. I am here to tell you that is not always the case. I did it once as a teenager and again in my 50s, I sew very fast, just like I do most things, and pops-it just happened!

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  15. Vintage sewing machines are simple, plentiful, better quality than almost anything you can get today, and less expensive than new machines. Many vintage machine collectors get their kids hand-crank models - not the toy chain stitch ones (although those are nice if you like chain stitch) but lockstitch machines like the Singer 99K. They say being able to hand-crank lets the kids control the speed better and keeps their fingers out of danger of runaway needles.

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  16. I agree with you, teach them to do it right and do it for real.

    Last year my supervisor, who doesn’t sew, told me that her 11 year-old daughter wanted a sewing machine so they bought her the toy that you have pictured.
    They were having problems trying to get it to work and she wanted advise.
    I told her the best thing that she could do was to return it to the store and that it would not help her daughter learn to sew.

    A few days later, I found a REAL Singer at the Goodwill store for $3.95, all attachments were there, but no manual.
    Only problem was that it was threaded wrong and needed cleaned up.

    I found a manual online and printed it out, gathered up some fabric and added a pack of needles and made a young lady very happy.
    I don’t live close enough to give her lessons but she found a learn to sew class at her local library.

    My 10 year-old grandson started helping me about 4 years ago when he picked out the colors for his quilt.
    Back then he mostly just pushed the foot pedal for me because he was afraid of the needle.
    Now, when he wants “grandma time,” he comes into my sewing room and gets a stack of 2 inch scrap blocks and just sew them into pairs.
    Last year, he designed a wall hanging for his mom and did most of the piecing.

    KarenSue in Ohio

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    1. It's so wonderful that you're teaching so many children how to sew on real machines. It's amazing what you can find at antique malls or even Ebay for not much money, and they are solid, workhorse machines that are so much better than the cheap plasticy machines for the same price!

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  17. Go vintage ... better yet, go vintage handcrank, and nobody gets hurt. Singer spartan or singer 99, mount a spoked handwheel and handcrank, and you have the ultimate portable. Brilliant for teaching someone to sew, excellent for piecing, totally quiet and reliable, takes standard needles and 66 style drop in bobbins.

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    1. I'm now looking into the old handcrank toy machines just for fun. They USED to be built so wonderfully...

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  18. Thanks for this timely post. I've been searching for a machine for my granddaughter. Any suggestions on a machine for a 5 1/2 year old who loves to help her Nona sew? Or for that matter a good machine for Nona to replace the 20+ year old Kenmore she uses? (Budget for me would be under $1000, for granddaughter $200.)

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    1. I would pass your old Kenmore to your grandaughter because you're really familiar with how it sews and how to use it. For you, it really depends on what you love to do most and what new features you're interested in playing with. I love my Juki Exceed F400 which retails for around $800.

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  19. Toy sewing machines don't make a sewing stitch, they chain. So not realistic anyway. I never do free maching if tired, mistakes for one and safety concentration another. Likewise, consider my clothing for my task, sleeves which might catch, or knock things flying when reaching across,

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  20. My daughter had the same frustration with the cheap toy machine. It was much better to set my real machine on the piano bench, pull up a child-size chair, and have her try it. Hooray for authentic learning!

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    1. Absolutely! Finding the right height table / chair can be an issue, but nothing beats a real machine.

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  21. Bravo!!! You should write a book on parenting! :-) Teaching children the right way to do things with real tools is the only way to do it! Sure... this way takes time and patience... but, that's what being a parent truly is, isn't it? :-)

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  22. I shudder to think of how many children get turned off of sewing after having to tackle an inefficient machine, then thinking it isn't worth the trouble.

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  23. I love this post. My mom was a scaredy-cat mom who gasped and jumped at everything we did. Luckily my dad gave us tools and let us go at it. I'm still the kind of person who would rather do it and fail a few times even if there are bumps along the way. I try my best to do with with my kids. Although I do have a little of that jump and gasp that my mom had.

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    1. Totally understandable Angela! No one wants their kids to get hurt...but if we don't occasionally fall down how do we ever learn how to pick ourselves back up again?

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  24. Wow! I soooo agree with everything you wrote! A Singer featherweight might be a good machine for a kid to start with. They're small, they stitch like a dream, and they don't break the bank.

    Thanks for your sensible post.

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    1. They are the most expensive of the vintage machines (Although cheaper than most of the plastic crap offered today). You can find a lot of wonderful image machines for under $100 on Craigslist, and garage sales.

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  25. I had a toy sewing machine which I thoroughly enjoyed. I made my doll clothes with it, but it was a solidly built toy Singer sewing machine. It had a hand crank and I loved it.

    HOWEVER, I bought my first two granddaughters a children's sewing machine and I think it was even a singer, battery operated and it was a piece of junk. I would never consider one of those today. I think some of the cheaper machines would be perfect for a child to learn on. Like any other activity our children engage in, we should always be close at hand to help and assure their safety at all times. I WOULD NEVER EVER BUY ANOTHER TOY SEWING MACHINE!!! Thanks for creating this post!

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  26. I forgot to add that the sewing speed can always be adjusted to very slow even if you do it by putting something under the foot pedal.

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  27. What a wonderful blog post!! I enjoyed (and agreed with) every word. In the 1950s and 60s my mother was far too protective of me, but I'll give her this--she did try (for about 10 minutes) to teach me to sew on a real machine (let's just say she was not the most patient mother on the planet). Fast forward 15 years later, and I got the patient lessons I needed from my husband's mom, who passed away in 2009. I'm eternally grateful to her, and I now have the wonderful machine on which she taught me to sew, the 1962 Singer 503a.

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  28. Great post! I was the kid who sewed over her finger. This only happened once. Thanks to a wise mother who gave me a bandaid and said, "Keep up the good work," I became very good with a sewing machine. I wish parents today were so encouraging.

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  29. BOUGHT my DD a KENMORE basic machine for $150. I was able to verify that the KENMORE was actually made by Janome .. just had KENMORE name on it. All of my feet for my JANOME fit her machine. The machine was great for introducing her to basic sewing and quilting.... no problems with it and it still is kicking around but mostly goes to classes or retreats with me because I hate breaking down my sewing set up to take to class. Basic machines made by a good manufacture is a good way to introduce a newbie to sewing..... Another alternative is buy an good use machine .... I have picked up several for under $100 ... Singer 301 mechanical machine just straight stitches but what do you need more than that.... Did run into trouble getting bobbins for the 301.

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  30. I agree! I was using my mum's sewing machine since before I was ten. My first sewing machine of my own was an antique Singer – real but needing to be hand cranked. I am not so old that I pre-date electricity :) , but we lived in the country so reliable power supply was a factor in that choice. My next machine, when we had power, was secondhand. I would recommend secondhand to parents – you can get more features so a child is not constrained by a limited machine but at a better price.
    I still have my antique Singer!

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  31. I am so with you on this, much better to teach them how to deal with the danger then keep them away. My son made himself a little needlecase on the machine when he was about seven or eight, he was so proud of himself

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  32. Learned to sew on my grandmother's Singer treadle machine. Noni would peddle and I would guide. It took a while to get the rhythm. But I was probably around 4 or 5. Noni bought a used Montgomery Ward machine for me and eventually a Singer Touch and Sew. Did I say I was spoiled? I learned to cook from her too, old Wedgewood gas range. Never had an easy bake oven, I was 11 by the time it came out and knew my way around the kitchen.

    While I don't have kids or grandkids, I definitely would start them on my machines and then get a mid-level machine for their own.

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  33. Yes, Leah there is nothing more frustrating than to get something that doesn't work. My sisters and I learned how to sew on our Mon's early 1900 singer. We sewed on newspaper with no thread to help us get a straight stitch. My kids and grand kids started with a simple project with thread and fabric! My 7 year old great granddaughter has already made her first doll quilt and her seams are near perfect! She is a quilter for sure. I was nearly 50 before I ever got my finger under the needle and that was only because I thought my cat was going to get her paw under it as she was helping me sew! Another granddaughter burned her self on the iron. I told her she was now an official quilter, because she now had paid the price to be one. No scars were left. My youngest son was 10 when I purchased a new sewing machine before I could sit down to use it he was stitching his name with it! They really are ready to learn we just have to give them the right tools and let them go! That is why they are so much better than us with the electronics, they have no fear. Fear holds us back!

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  34. When my daughter was about 5 I wanted to get her a machine. I went to the Singer dealer and when I told them how old my daughter was, then said, "oh, you don't want a machcine like this, get her a toy machine." Well I walked out and to the Elna/Bernina dealer and they were more than glad to sell me a basic Elna, which many, many years later is still going strong and is an awesome machine.

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  35. I bought my 3 year old granddaughter the toy machine and she loves it. I'm a sewer so she watches me so on my "grown up" machine. I explained to her that when she gets older I will get her a real machine!

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  36. I started sewing with a needle and thread at 6 years old; a ripped pair of favorite shorts needed mending. My mother found what I had done and for Christmas that year was given a tiny Singer Chain Stitcher. It had a crank for sewing; real thread was used. I used this for everything until I was 16 years old!! Doll clothes, aprons, blankets, my own clothes. I learned to carefully ensure that the seams threads were secured, or the whole thing would 'unchain'.

    Some history: my grandmother professionally did crochet beading at home for income and I watched her do, laying under the frame and she her hands move and the tiny crochet needle thread the beads; my mother sewed everything and saved $500 for the most up-to-date Singer zig-zag machine (that was a lot of money in 1955). I remember when she brought it home and was amazed at what the machine could do; I was only 4 at the time. I would watch her sew all the time; sometimes asking questions and probably being taught concepts well before I took that first needle to sew my shorts.

    I have fond memories using this tiny Singer; it kindled my love of making things, sewing, and being creative using my mother's fabric scraps. I then really appreciated the 'real' sewing machine when my mother finally allowed me to use her Singer zig-zag. I earned my privilege and the rest is history.

    Thank you.

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