Thursday, October 13, 2011

How to hold a successful sewing day

To celebrate Elizabeth's third birthday, I did a one time blitz of making blankets, gowns, bracelets and hats for the hospital I was working for at the time when I realized that they basically had nothing in their infant bereavement stash.  I patted myself on the back and thought I was done.  But over the course of that year, every month or so, I'd get a call from someone who knew someone who knew that I made gowns, usually a very last minute urgent type of a need.  I would frantically drop everything, pull out my sewing machine, and make a tiny gown.  It soon became apparent that the need was great.  So for Elizabeth's fourth birthday, I made the commitment to do monthly sewing sessions.  I have done it ever since, with only one month missed.  Over time, I have managed to get a great group of ladies.  Each month we have a different mix, but I generally have at least 3 or 4 ladies that are regulars and can show everyone else the ropes.  We've got a great system going, which I will share with you so that you can host your own sewing day.
 I spend most of the morning setting up.  I generally scheduled it from 10-3, open house style.  I realize that people are busy, and they'd love to come help, but may not be able to devote 5 whole hours to it.  Starting it at 10 allows me time to get the tables set up, some of the fabric cut and ironed, and the food prepped (more on that later).

I set up three tables.  One for sewing machines, one for finish work, and one for bracelet making.  I do it in my home, so I use my kitchen countertop for cutting.  This could be done an an additional table.  The sewing machine table has an extension cord with a power strip running underneath it so that multiple machines can be plugged in to it at once.  The finish work table is stocked with spools of thread, needles, buttons, embellishments like roses and bows, snaps, liquid stitch to glue the snaps in place before sewing, scissors, a candle and lighter to singe the ribbon ends.
 I set up an ironing board off to the side.  Before the first batch of ladies arrive, I make sure that I have at least a half dozen gowns cut out, side seams ironed, and ribbon and trim precut so that they can grab a gown and get started without any delay.

As people arrive, if they bring a sewing machine, I put them to work sewing gowns.  If not, then I put a person to work on the ironing board, prepping more gowns and doing the final pressing on completed ones.  Another person cuts out gowns, trim and ribbons.  Everyone else either chooses finish work or bracelet sets.  Finish work involves gluing snaps on, then stitching them once they dry, stitching on little embellishments on the girl gowns and bow ties on the boy gowns, and singeing the ribbon ends so that they don't fray.  Three or four people on sewing machines can keep that many people busy with finish work without too much trouble.
 A very important component of happy workers is good food.  I serve lunch at noon, generally homemade bread and a delicious salad of some sort (not pictured - this time it was a lovely combination of mixed baby greens, pears, blackberries, blueberries, spiced pecans, blue cheese and a lemon poppyseed vinaigrette), and lunch meat/cheese and more fruit for the kids.  I am fortunate to have enough space to turn the kids loose downstairs in the basement.  This allows several more women to participate that wouldn't be able to otherwise.
 Then it's back to work!  No rest for the weary!  Jerri's one of my biggest supporters and enjoys playing hooky from work every so often to come to sewing day.
 Jenn gets a little wild with the iron.  I have to reign her in.  Notice in the background I have bins of ribbon.  My friend Coree helped me find a source to order huge spools - 50 and 100 yard increments - for 5-6 bucks each.  It's been a couple years since I ordered, so I will have to verify that the company is still in business.  If you're interested, send me an email and I will see what I can find out for you.
 Finishwork ladies.  Sewing on snaps and bow ties.  Two of the ladies are fellow NILMDTS photographers (the one at the end of the table is the ever wonderful Julie who took our photos), and the other woman is an angel mama.
Confession:  I hate sewing on the snaps.  I have a hard time seeing the clear snaps against white fabric.  Therefore, I am always grateful to hand that task off.
 Another one of my angel mamas working away.  I order my beading supplies in bulk from Fire Mountain Gems.  There's no real right or wrong way to do the bracelet sets - just make some aspect of the mom and baby ones match.  For girls I do large pearl bracelet with pink crystals and a charm for the mom and a small pearl bracelet with small pink crystals and a matching charm for the baby.  For boys I do a large pearl bracelet with blue crystals and a charm for the mom and a ribbon bow with the charm dangling from the middle set on a bar pin for the baby.  Many other people have made sets for me out of different styles of beads.  That's great!  Just make them match.  (Just realized I didn't take any photos of the finished product of any of these.  I will add one when I do.)

 We have a good time at sewing day.  Good company, good food, and making things for angels - you really can't get better than that!
 It sometimes gets a little chaotic with kids milling around and stuff everywhere, but really, the process flows pretty smoothly.  We've got it down pat.  Char, in the middle, likes to do things in a stack.  She'll sew all of the side seams of a half dozen gowns, then all of the sleeves, etc.  She's quite efficient at it.  When we get the right mix of ladies, each of us like to do different parts of the gown, so we'll assembly line the process.  Otherwise, we each just do our own individual gowns.  Either way works.
 This is a relic from a church group that did a sewing day for gowns for me.  Since they had women that were all new to the process, the lady in charge separated out all of the tasks even more, and had instructions like this on each table.  I would highly recommend this if you're doing a sewing session on a scale of more than 8 or so people, especially if none of them have sewn this particular pattern before. I'd also like to point out that on the Angel Babies main page under the Patterns tab, I have the pattern downloadable in addition to step by step instructions with photographs.
 Finished products of gowns in both sizes.  I took this photo on top of my cutting mat to show measurements, not because I think the green checkerboard look is particularly nice.

Here's a days' work.  Plus another 12 gowns that just need finish work.  In the past, I would spend three or so days after my sewing day trying to complete all the finish work.  I drove myself crazy.  I finally realized that it's actually good to put everything away right at the stage we wrap up at.  I hang up the complete gowns that have had all the finish work done and a final pressing.  The ones that haven't had snaps put in get put into a bag, and the gowns that are ironed but not sewn get put into another bag.  Then we pick right up where we left off the next month and no one has to wait for someone else to do a step to get started.

So, to summarize, here are some tips for success:

  1. Advertise well in advance.  I do this on my blog and on facebook.  I like to allow 10-14 days for people to plan, if not more.
  2. Purchase your supplies well in advance.  Use coupons and buy in bulk - it drives the total cost way down.  You will need fabric, ribbon, trim, thread, liquid stitch, snaps, buttons, and embellishments for the gowns.  For the bracelets you will need pearls in two sizes, crystals in two sizes, charms, jump rings, clasps, crimp beads, beading wire, stretchy cord (for the girl sets), ribbon (for the boy sets), glue gun, bar pins, and little bags to put the sets in.
  3. Set up tables for each major task.  Cutting, sewing and finish work, plus a bracelet table if you are doing that as well.  Set up an ironing area.  Have extension cords and power strips available.
  4. Before the event starts, have a few cut out, side seams ironed and trim cut and ready to go so that there is no delay in putting anyone to work.
  5. If people are unfamiliar with the work flow, put instruction cards on each table.  You may also want to print out a copy of the pattern instructions.
  6. Feed your worker bees.  Everyone works better on a full tummy!
  7. Enjoy the company of other people as you do something wonderful.  Take pride in your work and know that you are making clothing for angels :).
When you're all done making a series of gowns, I suggest contacting your local Labor and Delivery unit.  Ask for the infant bereavement specialist.  This may be a nurse, chaplain or social worker.  Arrange a time to drop the items off.  You may also contact an area coordinator for Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep.  Go to the webpage and search for photographers.  Area coordinators are highlighted in red.  They will then be able to distribute the items to their photographers.


  1. I really want to do this Heidi....I really do!! I will have to do a shout out and see if anyone would be interested in my area!!!

  2. i want to do it too. i wonder if I could get organized enough to make it happen.

  3. Heidi,
    I was looking for the link for the downloadable pattern for the gown and can't seem to find it. Can you point me in the right direction please?

    I've got my first angel sewing day scheduled in October. This post is a huge help!