Gyllian Svensson begins each of her sewing classes with a massive pile of repurposed fabric and a simple request of her students: Find something you like. Her adult students, in response, typically hem and haw. But the kids in the class have a completely different reaction. Almost immediately they start grabbing at everything, enthusing, "I love this! And this!"
"Kids are fearless," says Svensson, and they tend to quickly grasp the joys of sewing. Svensson should know. For the past three years, she's been teaching classes and operating a public drop-in sewing center called the Bobbin Sewbar + Craft Lounge. She recently closed her retail storefront, but she's still teaching classes and doing sustainable design in her garage, which she's converted to a work space called the Bobbin Slow Fashion + Sustainable Design.
Svensson sewed as a kid but dropped the hobby in her twenties to pursue music. She rediscovered it later in life and hasn't been able to pry herself from the sewing machine since.
Now approaching 40, with two kids of her own, Svensson models herself after her grandmother, who raised a family on an organic farm in Down East Maine. "She made a living as a seamstress, clothed all her children, baked bread," says Svensson. In Svensson's view, sewing is a sustainable — and timeless — life skill. "I teach slow fashion, which is really a partner to the slow-food movement," she says. When you teach kids to thread a needle, you begin to teach them where their clothes come from.
Svensson introduces beginners to hand sewing and basic mending. Really young kids start with a thick, dull needle threaded with yarn. Svensson doesn't start anyone on the sewing machine until the age of 10. Before that, she says, their fingers are too small; they might easily sew over them. Plus, kids need a decent attention span to finish a project.
Once they're a little older, attention span is less of a problem. The biggest challenge Svensson faces in teaching kids to sew is convincing them to take breaks. "It's so addictive," she says. She recalls watching four typically chatty tween girls as they worked in silence on their projects. "All you could hear was the sound of the sewing machines," she says.
Sewing involves plenty of ironing and needles, so Svensson says covering basic safety with kids is important. For example: Don't leave an iron face down on anything, and keep fingers out of the way of the needle. Then again, little nicks come with the territory. "Every sewer is going to prick their finger and make it bleed," she says.
Svensson gets a thrill watching kids break from the trends they see at school and on TV when they make their own designs. "There's a lot of pressure for young girls to dress a lot older than they are," she says. Her young seamstresses let their imaginations go wild and realize they can "dress like a rock star" without dressing too provocatively.
Sewing isn't just for girls. Svensson says she always has a few boys in her weeklong summer camps. This year she's unveiling a Harry Potter-inspired Sorcerer's Sew Camp, in which kids will make wizard caps and spell bags, as well as herbal potions from Svensson's garden.
It was Svensson's Harry Potter-obsessed son who inspired her latest creation: waterproof superhero capes. The little triangular capes have high, pointed collars and are emblazoned with stars, moons and question marks. She's using the leftover, smaller triangular scraps to make matching capes for little dogs.
The possibilities for kids — and dogs — are endless.