Teaching the "Advanced Sewing School" camp that involved machine sewing, taught me a lot. As you know, machine sewing is so different from hand sewing. Even though it may be faster, it's not always easier.
I've gotten several comments and emails in the past about machine sewing and thought I'd offer you some tips from my experience. Remember, this is just my experience. I am used to sewing with a group of kids, so one-on-one may be very different. Also, you know your kids. What they can handle, where are they in their sewing knowledge, etc.
What's the right age? - From my experience, 3rd grade is about as low as I'd go for independent machine sewing. Now, one-on-one, that age might be different. By 3rd grade, kids seem to have a better understanding of sewing, how the machine works, and are able to problem solve on their own. Younger than that, I like to sew with them. Usually I have the child work the foot pedal while I guide the fabric (see photo above). I talk them through what I'm doing, how I'm guiding the fabric through the machine, and what will happen next. I give simple signals such as "stop" and "go" for them to know when to raise their foot. Once I can see that a child is becoming more confident or is old enough, I will sit with them and talk them through using a machine independently.
Where do you start? - Go through the machine basics - a little "sewing machine tour" if you will. Start by making sure the kids know to how thread their own machines. This is very important or you'll be spending a lot of time threading them!
I also gave my campers a little mental checklist to do before starting to sew:
1. Is the machine threaded?
2. Does my bobbin have thread? (this really only works for drop-in bobbin machines)
3. Am I using the right stitch? (we had some campers who were always using super tiny stitches or had it on something strange)
Once they were ready to sew:
1. Position the fabric. Put down the pressure foot.
2. Start sewing forward, now backstitch a little.
3. At the end, backstitch again to make a knot.
What's a good first project? - Something simple for sure! This year, we started with a simple tote. Also, I did a "sew-along" where I broke the project into steps, modeled what to do, and then the kids sewed. I literally took them through the entire process from cutting the fabric to sewing on the handle. They gathered around me to watch while I talked them through a section. Then, they did it. I found that this process worked really, really well. While they sewed, I went around and helped out where needed. Once everyone finished a step, we continued, as a group, with the next step. The fun part about the tote is that everyone also had a chance to customize it with fabric, handle choices, buttons, etc. I also had some little hand sewing projects for the faster sewers to work on while they waited for the group to catch up.
Regardless of the project, keep it simple! I knew that all of the girls in the camp had sewn before, so I wanted to make sure they understood hems and how to turn corners. The tote was a good starting point for this. We went on to sew skirts, zipper bags, pillowcases, and pull-over shirts.
What's the best machine to use? - My advice is to NOT buy a "toy" or "kid" machine. They are not worth the $19.99 they cost and cause a lot of frustration and disappointment. If you already have a machine, then it should be fine for your child to use. If you want to get a new one, I like the Janome Sew Mini it's small, goes slowly, and does a good job. Note that it may not last forever, and doesn't have a zipper foot, but it's a wonderful first machine. After that, I would say just a basic model of a regular sized machine.
What tools do kids need? - Make sure that young sewers have a good scissors just for fabric, a seam ripper (this will become a favorite tool fast!), pins, machine sewing thread, and other basic hand sewing supplies. Having a special place to put their tools is very important.
What if I don't sew, but my child wants to? - Check your local quilt and fabric stores for classes. I've also seen some kid sewing classes at sewing machine shops. It's surprising how many opportunities are out there. While you're at, take a class yourself!
I hope this helps. I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject - what works for you and what other questions you may have. Happy Sewing!