Basic skills for children

Over at Conversations in Klal, ProfK writes about whether children (read girls) should be taught basic homemaking skills. In The Fine Art of Being a Balabusta Part I, she concludes that there’s no point teaching girls to sew because the women she knows sew do so mainly for pleasure. Working mothers don’t have time to sew, and even if they did, it doesn’t pay when you factor in time.

She may be right, but I’m still not convinced that teaching children basic sewing and other neglected homemaking skills is a waste of time. By basic I mean two or three types of hand stitches, hemming, mending, and using a sewing machine well enough to make a simple item like a skirt or a pair of pajamas. This only takes a few lessons–probably 10-15 hours total. That’s much less time than it takes to become proficient at a musical instrument. Now there’s a useless skill–but the last time I checked it hasn’t gone out of style.

In colonial times girls began sewing at four years old. Making clothes and linens took up a large chunk of the family’s time and everyone’s help was needed. I’m sure there were a few girls who were hopeless at it. Some people are hopeless at math, but we still teach it to everyone. I’m not saying we should devote the time to sewing that we devote to math, but sewing belongs in the category of things that most people can pick up easily.

The same applies to a wide variety of skills including sports, making home repairs, languages, gardening, financial management, and using computers. If you start early enough, most people will be able to master those skills with a reasonable level of proficiency. But if they aren’t exposed, there’s a good chance that they will never learn. Not because they can’t (they can) but because they see it as something removed from their experience. It’s a question of exposure.

I would bet that 90% of the sewers in ProfK’s community learned to sew either at home or in a high school home-economics class, like I did. I stopped for while, but after I had a few kids I decided I wanted to sew nursing clothes. I already had a sewing machine so I asked a visitor to bring me a good sewing book and some bright, printed fabric, as there wasn’t much selection in my town. (Unfortunately the saleswoman convinced my visitor that solid gray, which looks terrible on me, was best for a beginner.) While reviewing techniques I remembered tips that my mother had taught me about sewing. They weren’t in the book, either. I sewed several outfits for myself and my daughter, and made myself a skirt less than a year ago. I don’t have a good eye and will never be a great seamstress, but I can follow instructions and most of the time that’s enough for excellent results. And a surprising number of my friends sew frequently, especially the ones with daughters.

We don’t know where our daughters and sons will be twenty or thirty years from now. We may think we are preparing them for life by sending them to a computer chug (afterschool activity) instead of a sewing one, but we can’t predict the future of the job market. The skills we teach them as children may serve as an enjoyable hobby during high school. I can think of a few ways that sewing will be useful. Maybe our children will live in an isolated community where it is hard to get clothes. Their financial situation may indeed make sewing economical, or they will turn it into a part-time business. Possibly, like the women I posted about here, they will prefer to wear unique styles. Or they will enjoy sewing so much that they become seamstresses, fashion designers, or quilters (quilting has become a serious art form). Even if they never pick up a needle again, they have had the satisfaction of wearing something they made themselves.

In our world it’s unrealistic to expect all children to learn to sew–I only bring it up as an example. But we should be providing our children with a variety of practical skills even if not every one will turn out to be useful later in life.


  1. I couldn’t agree with you more. I learned how to sew when I was young and although I didn’t really practice the skill today I use it to sew things like buttons that fell off of my hubby’s pants or to mend a tear in my son’s pants. I think it’s a very useful skill. I learned how to use a sewing machine and I remember really enjoying sewing in high school but since I didn’t have a sewing machine at home I couldn’t practice it. I feel that it’s a shame that I don’t remember how to use one. If we don’t teach our daughters to sew even if it’s just for the sake of small mending jobs that come up in everday life then what we’re doing is buying into Western society which is a disposable society. Oh, I can’t fix this so I’ll just throw it out and get a new one. Like you said, for someone on a tight budget that just wouldn’t fly. I very much value this skill which I acquired when I was young.

  2. mominisrael says

    I certainly didn’t learn every valuable skill as a child, and there are many that I can’t /won’t teach to my children. Whoever doesn’t learn sewing will manage just fine in life. Where did I say that sewing clothes for the family is a necessity?
    Sewing is useful not only for sewing clothes but for window dressings and upholstery. Just sewing your own curtains will more than pay for a nice machine. I disagree that it’s uneconomical, especially if you are hard to fit or need something special or have 6 daughters to outfit for a wedding.
    Being a smart shopper is useful too–why do we have to compare the two? My mother taught me about sewing as well as how to shop for quality clothing. Like I said, basic sewing with a machine doesn’t take a lifetime to master.
    The last part of your comment sounds like you are saying that sewing IS a good skill but only if you get good enough at it to make artistic quilts that you can sell to buy yourself clothes. That seems like a circular argument to me. Making clothes can be an artistic outlet too. Anyway, how will your children ever learn that they are good at quilting if they never touched a sewing machine or a needle and thread?
    I agree with you that cooking is more important for our daughters than sewing. But it sounds like you are denigrating sewing and I can’t figure out why. Sewing continues to be extremely useful and practical, even in today’s world.

  3. Mother in Israel,
    We don’t differ in our feeling that everyone should know how to do the small repairs–sewing a button, a hem etc.–but perhaps in our calling the skill of sewing clothes for the family a necessity. Options for finding inexpensive clothes in the US are everywhere. I would imagine that in Israel they also exist. For the women who enjoy sewing clothes and/or those who turn their skill into a business, kol hakavod. Me? I taught my children how to be super smart shoppers, a skill I see as more useful.
    Interesting that you mention the quilting as an art form. Those handmade “art” quilts here in the states sell for hundreds of dollars and they usually hang on a wall, not on a bed. I would wonder if any of the quilters sew clothes for their families. Nah, they’re probably too busy quilting, which provides them with an artistic outlet and parnoseh that allows them to buy clothing.

  4. Not denigrating sewing but perhaps putting it lower down in the hierarchy of “must have” skills that one of my commenters was lamenting are not taught any more. I place cooking on a much higher level and if only one of these skills was a “requirement” to be taught, I’d choose cooking over sewing.
    I am saying that the rudimentary knowledge of sewing re: repairs is necessary but beyond that it becomes for most people a question of avocation–whether clothes or quilts.

  5. mominisrael says

    BB–Good point about the disposable society. It’s definitely one of the things that feels good about sewing, esp. when you reuse fabric.
    SL–I think we are more inclined to pass on the skills we learned as children. My own parents did very little of the household maintenance or repairs themselves, but my husband knows a little more (and has no time–he’s still at work and it’s almost 10PM).
    Eleanor–any chance of that happening after the baby is born?

  6. I’d like to know more about sewing because I would love to alter skirts that are too small in the waist at the present. (I’d also love to shed that extra inch or two, but I can’t maintain the same workout schedule anymore either).
    I still wouldn’t place sewing too high on the must have skills I plan to transmit to my children (cooking, baking, savy shopping, basics of financial planning, and hopefully I can get them to learn something about home repairs which my husband and I know little about).
    Great post.

  7. I have always wanted to learn how to sew. Not only does it seem like a useful life skill to have, but it could be a wonderful hobby that actually produces something rather than further developing a skill. Sadly, as kids we were all encouraged to pursue music and art (worthwhile, don’t get me wrong) but sewing was seen as old fashioned and outdated. Now that I’m older, its much harder to find the time to take a class to learn to sew and I fall back on the hobbies I picked up as a kid.

  8. sylvia_rachel says

    But we should be providing our children with a variety of practical skills even if not every one will turn out to be useful later in life.
    I agree. Sewing, cooking, various kinds of cleaning, household repairs, budgeting, skilful shopping, writing gracious thank-you notes, decluttering, organizing, baking, table-setting, laundry, mending — all skills one might very well need in one’s adult life, and less likely to be acquired at school than computer-related skills or singing or playing a musical instrument or differential calculus.
    I didn’t learn as much sewing when I was younger as I could have, because my parents split up and my mother had to work full-time, so she didn’t have as much time either to sew for us or to teach me. But I can do some basic sewing, enough to darn socks, replace buttons, let down the hem of a dress, that sort of thing (no machine at the moment, so I’m limited to hand sewing), and it’s very useful, even though I don’t really have the skill level to construct clothing or window treatments. Saves money, too, because I don’t have to take things to a tailor for alterations or mending unless the problem is quite complex.

  9. Maybe we could start with how to write a tactful thank you note. My mother taught me never to thank someone for giving $xx, but rather to write thank you for the generous gift (no mention of money). This month alone, I received two thank you notes, the first thanking us for our check and the second thanking us for $18. Perhaps I’m just sensitive since I learned a different way. But, on a positive note. . . . at least we were sent a thank you note, which doesn’t always happen.

  10. mominisrael says

    WRiting thank-you notes is becoming a useless skill, at least here. SOmetimes we get a handwritten note, but mostly typed notes.
    All I’m really suggesting is that people send their daughters to a sewing class when they are 11 or 12 years old. It doesn’t have to be a lifetime investment.

  11. This is a great thread, so I’m going to chime in. Thank you note writing (the old-fashioned way) is still a wonderful thing to do. It could be taught in English class, no need for a special class for this.
    I had Latin and Talmud in my Jewish Day School, and I would have gladly substituted: art, music, sewing, electronics, car repair, bike repair… (I actually took bike repair in my early twenties).
    My son’s Jewish Day high school next year will incorporate two clubs into the school day (I believe it ends up being two hours a week). So, since he will be commuting, spending all day at school, and then need to do homework, after school time is negligible. I love the idea that he will be able to pick two clubs (such as chess, video, soccer). They call it co-curricular programs instead of extra-curricular. When my daughter reaches that age, I will look for a high school with a similar attitude.

  12. I would love to know more than the barest basics of sewing. I can make minor repairs. When my mother-in-law was here, she tried to teach me how to knit. She knits beautifully. It was a far cry from the hook-rugs I used to do as a kid, it was so hard for me to catch on!! I definitely need some more lessons – preferably with another lefty and a fluent English speaker (those were our 2 main obstacles to overcome!)

  13. Rachel Hershberg says

    I found this posting through – and want to add to the list of lifeskills. As well as the traditionally feminine skills, I want to add using a drill, unclogging a toilet, changing a tire, hanging up a shelf, all should be skills we teach boys and girls. And boys should be able to do laundry, follow a recipe, and sew on a button. Otherwise they fork out unnecessary money, as has been pointed out. I also agree it’s good for the self-esteem.

    And what about growing herbs and vegetables? Check out Barbara Kingsolver’s book about how valuable that can be. Or painting a room?

    Yes, I know it’s not traditional gender roles, but it saves everyone money.


  14. Children enjoys food preparation, I have recently bought a cooking kit for children and I see that they really like it and appreciate assisting me. I have recently bought recipe book with kids recipes.