Sewing what children will actually wear

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.


  1. That was the most wonderful blog post I've read all week! It's so true! My heart melts every time my toddler tells someone that mama made his very favourite dragon pants and I girt my teeth every time he wants to pair those bright blue pants with his red tie dyed t-shirt that is waaaay too big and faded to pink from overuse.

    I'll never understand why kids will wear something and not wear the exact same thing in a different colour. But I'll just keep sewing and hopefully some of your tips will help improve my record! :)

  2. Oh so well said! Scratchy kills so much of my knitting starts--my daughter touches the yarn and wrinkles up her nose. But the non-scrathcy alpaca blend sweater that looks like a clown threw up on her she will wear every single day to school.

  3. This is so true. I find that really the only handmade clothes my two daughters wear are pajama pants (in either jersey, thermal, or flannel) and playing-dress-up-dresses. Hopefully this will change as they gain appreciation for being able to have a garment created especially for them, but for now.. if it doesnt look like princess clothes and isn't a costuming piece or EXCESSIVELY comfortable.. its out.

  4. Ah, so true. I made lovely, simple cotton skirts last year and Violet refused to wear one of them because it had dogs on it. I loved this fabric and it made me mad every time she refused to wear it. I resolved my anger by cutting it up and including it in a patchwork skirt that she will be powerless to resist.

  5. What great advice, I have to say I judge my clothes by the same standards! (with the exception of loving brown). Its important to be comfortable! I think your clothes are great by the way!

  6. Wonderful! And so true! My daughter pretends to hate everything I make but Sunday she literally threw a dress on the floor b/c "Mama didn't make it". Go figure.

    I'm so glad I'm not the only person out there with this issue!

  7. Thanks for sharing your hard-earned observations with us! I have also spent the last four years carefully observing the success & failures of mama-made garments. The most important thing I've learned is that sewing for my little ones is more of a collaborative process than it is *my* creative vision. Before I start, they get to touch the cloth, approve of the color, help me pick the cloth (ds LOVES to look at the thrift for recon fabrics), pick the patterns, etc. It is a lot of work. But at this point, my ds will only enjoy wearing mama-made pants (or sweat pants... he has several mama-made pants to choose from)! And that is largely the fruit of his collaboration!

  8. LOL...I hear ya! I have gone through all of that, too. I line dresses in flannel and enclose all the seams I can.

    Brown is not a favorite here either. I even tried to add sparkles to a brown dress and it has seen only 2 or 3 wearings, and that was because I specifically ASKED if she would please wear the PRETTY DRESS??

    Ah kids!

  9. Great thoughts! I have always, always included the kiddos in the design process - especially picking the fabric. (I give several options & then they get to "chose". Sneaky me.) I've had very few rejections.

  10. Now that my niece is 3 and a half, she enjoys looking at the fabric, so far she trusts my style choices - however the outfit must be part of a set of "matchy matchy outfits" for both her and her sister. I recently let her create a dress for herself and her sister with some help, hopefully I can get them on my blog later this week.

  11. Thanks for the post. My two daughters, ages 3 and 5, are the same way about what I make. You've given me some great clues about what to make next. Also, thank you for the t-shirt to maternity T tutorial. I need that one right now since I'm 5 months along and starting to need more shirts that fit right--just like you said. I'm going to try it today.

  12. I am only new to sewing and recently made a skirt for my niece (basically a fold material, sew one side and add elastic kind of job) I added some buttons that spelt out her name and a ribbon for a border, overall very VERY much a beginners effort.
    I gave it to her with some trepidation, fearing a hesitant 'thanks' while putting it to one side but instead was met with such enthusiasm, glee and much ripping off of current wear in order to put on her new skirt and twirl around for all and sundry to see her new garb. It was such a satisfying experience that I immediately promised to make her another as soon as time permitted. Now every visit starts off with 'Hello! Is my new skirt ready yet?'
    So thanks for the tips because it looks like I'm going to need all the help I can get!

  13. This year my 4 year old daughter begged me to sew her a hermit crab costume for Halloween. Not really a pattern for that, but I managed to make a great 3D spiral shell and everything. She wore it for a few minutes, but said the shell moved too much. At least I got a few pictures. Then she ended up wearing a princess dress from a store that she wore the year before.

  14. This is such an excellent post. I've only started to dabble in making dresses for my daughter (almost 3 years old) using old t-shirts). So far they've been a big hit, which I think in large part is due to the comfortability factor. The bright colors definitely help too. When I tell her I made it for her she gets even more worked up. There's no better feeling than that! But I know someday I'll likely slave over something she may not love and all the things you mentioned in this post are good to keep in mind for future garment construction for the little ones.

  15. I love how you respect your kids enough to let them make the decision on what they will wear...I grew up being made to wear whatever outfit my mom made for me, and some of them I just hated. Think 'fortrel jumpsuit'...now that's uncomfortable :) .

  16. It's so true. My sons would not wear something I made which I thought cute. So, I always asked them to choose the fabric n color, though sometimes the big one ended up never wore them (just to please mama, he said), and the small one will choose one thing and will wear it till it's all faded. But recently, my big one was very happy with the ben 10 t-shirt I made for him that he's wearing it everyday..:).

  17. Okay, THAT was so funny. Even my husband laughed at the 'ice-cream lock-up' comment. Thanks again for your perspective. And sharing the maternity shirt. As usual you rock!

  18. So true! I have 4 girls and can't make all 4 a dress from the same style pattern because one ( or two, or three) will absolutely HATE the cut or the neck shape or the fabric.

    A couple things I've found is kids love French seams and you can line almost anything with jersey.

    Your kids sound fairly polite about your creations...I've been told outright that there is no way on this green earth that a certain garment will be worn. Sniff sniff

  19. I have a feeling that when my 9 month old can start telling me what she thinks of my creations, she will have a LOT to say...wonderful post!

  20. Absolutely loved reading this post! Nodded along, smiling, at your wonderful insight, wondering if my mom ever thought about wringing my ungrateful neck - I was too terribly honest with the clothes my mom made for me... and now that I see my daughter sticking her tongue out at some of my toughest creations, I can feel the world going round :)

  21. What a great post! I've struggled with the rejection as well, made worse by reading other blogs where the children apparently adore everything their mother makes them and every item is a raging success. After blogging about my struggles with it I discovered that I'm not alone and now reading this makes me feel positively normal! Such great tips too, I wish like anything I'd read this a couple years ago :)
    Tips I'd add are letting the child pick the fabrics, embellishments and patterns as often as you can, and involving them in the sewing process. Where I still fall down is that I really can't bring myself to sew things that I actively dislike and as you say, kids are drawn to tacky, bright and bling. The trick seems to be finding a middle ground where you're both happy. I like the idea of using bits of what they want in the garment rather than as the whole thing.

  22. This is so true! my little one is only 20 months so I haven't had the "i hate it" line yet, but she does tend to pull some things off minuets after i put them on her.. I'm getting the point! My mother used to make my two sisters and I wear the exact same rompers or dresses all the time (they were nice but y would i want to wear what my bratty younger sisters were wearing when i was soooo much cooler), I hated it so much that I used to purposely get dirt stains or rips in them just to get them off!