Sewing a garment for a little child is a big job. Even for the really small ones. There is this whole mental process and series of acquisitions that happens before a single stitch is ever sewn. What item to make, what pattern or style to use, will it fit (where's the bloody tape measure?), what fabric, is there matching thread, is the zipper going to be the right size, which needle, trace the pattern, cut the pattern, do the applique, fix the serger that always dethreads itself right when you need it. Some of this prep work is creative and some is mere housekeeping details and accounting, but almost all of it is forgotten about and not accounted for when presenting the final project by everyone except the person who did it all.
Sewing, as done by most of us, is basically non-essential to life maintenance, and therefore a gift that we present to our most cherished. A gift that takes skill, creativity, a cultivated attitude of calm (do not get flustered and cut wrong, do not hit machines), time and money. It takes energy. We stitch in pieces of ourselves, our thoughts and adoration, into every tiny pair of pants and sun dress.
So, when your sweet little angel sticks her tongue out at your precious gift of love and whines, 'But I don't wanna wear this, it's scratchy, it's ugly, and I hate it!' and you have to dig even deeper into your cache of emotional and spiritual resources to stop yourself from wringing her ungrateful little neck, it is time to go far away from the child in question and reflect upon the entire sewing process.
Sewing for children is different then sewing for adults. There is style, of course, and the fact that their bodies won't stay the same shape or size for five minutes, but most of all it's because children are not, in actual fact, very nice. Instead, they are honest. They lack diplomacy and empathy. They believe, because you get to stay up late and have the keys to the ice cream lock up, that you are all powerful and knowing and everything is easy for you. Not only is your life all parties and cookies, but you make them do things they do not want to do ALL the time, and NEVER let them do anything fun.
They have no idea that you make them pants because you love them. They think that you are trying to torture them.
There are many things I've sewn for my children that they love. Today, for instance, Smootch is wearing a skirt I made for her when she was only two. She's worn the skirt every week for three years now. It's getting fairly faded and ragged, but the whole 'my mama made this with love' thing is going pretty well for this particular item.
But I've put a lot of effort into some items that she completely hates and refuses to wear. No, she doesn't actually doesn't stick her tongue out it, at least when I'm looking, but if I put it on her, it's all scratching and wiggling and whining until I finally let her take it off again.
Even Birdie, not yet two years old, has some items that I've made that he loves, just loves, and shows off to other toddlers, and others that he'll throw across the room when I pull it out of the drawer and try to hide under the beds.
So, what makes any particular item something that a kid will wear or something that will be plotting to line the cat basket with the very first time they see it. It seems so random sometimes. Items that the child in question has even helped choose the style and fabric for, all in their favorite colour with sparkles, are rejected, while the ugliest, grease stained brown dress with the lining half hanging off pulled off, dug out from the free box at the thrift store, is all the little mite will wear for two weeks straight. What the...?
Over the years I've made a study of decoding the mystery of children's tastes. With every handmade outgrown and never worn, with every rejection and suspicious total destruction on the first wearing, I've dedicated more thought to the details of wearability vs. neglected garment squished into the very back of the drawer. Given that I actually make patterns for children's clothes, I may be losing some credibility here by admitting my kids don't love everything I make them, but my success rate has increased significantly over the years. I don't know what every child will like, but I've learned a lot about what not to make for mine.
Here are a few things I've noted:
The most very basic is do not use scratchy materials. Do NOT use scratchy materials. Kids never sacrifice comfort for style. I've lined beautiful dresses with inexpensive poly-blend materials and had Smootch refuse to wear it (or only with an undershirt, that completely ruined the look of the dress). Now I line with soft cotton or flannel. Yes, flannel - it's the inside, make comfort the priority and don't worry about how odd it is.
Stitch down all seams that may poke out or scratch. You can top-stitch some down, like the shoulder seams on raglan shirts, or do a bit of blind hem stitching on the insides. Avoid using wooly nylon thread on inside seams too.
Colour is important. Like most kids, my children like brights and disdain pale or muted. They will go for garnish and tacky every time. Sparkles, glitter, dangly bits of plastic, these all increase likeability. I've noticed that that the colour, be it pink or orange or whatever is the favorite this week, only needs to be somewhere, but need not be overwhelming. The edge done in pink lace or an orange bird applique is usually enough to tip the balance in favor of the garment.
Study what the older kids wear. They want to be like and wear what their older siblings or cousins or school mates are wearing. My toddler wants to dress like my preschooler and she wants to dress like a tween and the tweens want to be like the high school kids. Usually it's enough to borrow a few elements from the older set - colours, shape, embellishments - and use them to modify age appropriate styles.
Every once in awhile it's time to go through the children's clothes and wean out what is too small or unloved. This has been a great time to get Smootch involved and glean a bit of knowledge. I have her sort through her clothes into keep, go, and have mama modify or reconstruct. Then we talk about why she chose to keep some clothes and not others. Sometimes it's really easy to detect a pattern, like when the stay pile is all pink and the go pile all gray. I've learned to check my ego at the door when we do this and not argue her choices with her. I may not let her have the final say on everything, but I value and learn from her honesty.
When I make most of the decisions on what my kids wear it's one thing. When I actually make most of it too, it becomes this potentially treacherous place of hurt feelings, resentment, and guilt. I want my kids to enjoy what they wear and how their bodies feel in their clothes. I do not want them to feel like they have to wear something just because I made it, even with love. Finding that balance between what I do and what they like is a part of the sewing process. That is creative work.
One of my proudest moments last week is overhearing Smootch telling her school mates how her mama makes the best dresses ever. When Smootch tells somebody that what she is wearing is handmade, she says it in the same way as she would say, pay close attention because this is special. She likes books with illustrations done in fabric (and then photographed) because they are 'handmade'. Handmade is a word to describe something wonderful. I used to worry that my pride in this kind of talk was about my ego and that I was brainwashing her, which will ultimately led her to rebel against my pushy, sewing mama ways. But now I think that the time I've spent listening to what she wants and learning about her highly idiosyncratic preferences has paid off. She actually, sometimes, truly feels that invisible part of the garment where I've stitched in my love and adulation.
As long as I don't make it scratchy or brown. And add some sparkles. Maybe a heart and pink lace. A pocket or four. Just not brown. Ever.