HU students using J-Term to learn much-needed skill that instructor says is becoming a lost art

Berlinda Nibo, a junior from Los Angeles, CA, concentrates on the seam she is sewing on her apron project in the Basic Personal Sewing class at Huntington University on Thursday, Jan. 14. Two classes of 10 students in each class are learning sewing basics as they put together an apron and potholder project for the class.
Berlinda Nibo, a junior from Los Angeles, CA, concentrates on the seam she is sewing on her apron project in the Basic Personal Sewing class at Huntington University on Thursday, Jan. 14. Two classes of 10 students in each class are learning sewing basics as they put together an apron and potholder project for the class. Photo by Rebecca Sandlin.

Originally published Jan. 21, 2016.

Twenty students at Huntington University are spending their January term learning some much-desired skills their instructor says are threatening to become a lost art.

Mary Zellers, adjunct professor and costume shop supervisor, says the popularity of the Basic Personal Sewing class necessitated adding a second session so students could learn what she describes are the basics of sewing and clothing repair.


“I believe every person should know basic sewing enough to take care of their clothes,” she explains, “so that’s what we teach. Sewing on a button, fixing a seam. And I want them to have the joy of making their first garment.”

Most of the students – 17 women and three men – are beginners, Zellers says.

“I think there was one student out of my 20 who knew how to thread a needle,” she says. “A few of them have taken a junior high class for sewing, and they’ve never gone further with it. So they kind of have a knowledge, but not much, and they’ve pretty much forgotten what they’ve learned. So in beginning sewing we teach them that it’s a fun thing.”

The first project is making an apron. Students are also sewing a hot pad to go with the apron. During the first week students learned how to make a basting stitch, backstitch fabrics and properly sew on buttons and snaps, among other basic skills.

They moved on to designing their own aprons, and picked out fabrics to sew their creation into existence. The colorful choices of fabrics and unique apron designs have impressed Zellers. One of her students, a basketball fan, made the top of his apron to look like a basketball backboard, and the pocket to look like the goal.

“My love is designing,” Zellers says. “I’m the resident costume designer here at Huntington University, and I just think that they have so much that they don’t get to express, that they can just go crazy with this and then learn … let them have the joy of creating their own dream apron.”

It’s not unusual for students’ plans to change after they buy their fabric, making the need to redesign their apron or figure out how to make do with what they have.

Zellers says sewing can present life lessons in more than just learning how to sew a seam.

“You only have so much, so that works in finance and everything,” she says. “So they have to learn, ‘How can I work with that?’ And they learn to redo their second draft, or third, fourth, fifth draft in some cases, to make their apron what they want with the resources that they have.”

The students in Basic Personal Sewing come from a wide variety of majors, ranging from theatre to business, nursing, exercise science and public relations.

“Some of them are nursing students, and you can tell by how they hold the needle when they’re going to put it in, because they’ve done that so much with their drawing blood – how they hold it is ‘a nurse,’” Zellers adds. “They come in just terrified – ‘I just don’t know what I’m going to be able to do – I can’t do any of this!’ And yet, when that lightbulb goes off they say, ‘What I have accomplished is just amazing!’ and they just are so proud of themselves. They glow, and I love to see that. It makes it so worthwhile.”

Daniel Becker, a junior exercise science major from Huntington, decided to take the class to obtain a creative arts credit. But he says he had a more practical reason in mind as well.

“I was really interested in taking the class and getting basic sewing skills so I can repair my own stuff,” he explains. “Like, if a button falls off, a snap falls off, or if I get a hole in some jeans or sweats or something, I can fix that up. And so that would be really nice to do myself, and I don’t have to take to my grandma every time.”

Becker took a home economics sewing class back in middle school, so some of the terms and techniques are somewhat familiar years later. His goal is to make an apron he can use while grilling.

“At first it was definitely challenging, because we started off with hand stitching and stuff before we got on the machines,” he says. “So that was a bit difficult at first in trying to sew a straight line. But as the course of a week-and-a-half has gone on, it’s definitely gotten much easier. I’ve definitely learned a lot and understand a lot more of what I’m doing … It’s just a lot of practical knowledge. I think everyone should know how to sew.”

Public relations and communications major Abbie Thiebaut, a senior from Jackson, MI, says she has a lot of fun every day in the low-key class.

“I have always wanted to learn to sew,” she says. “My whole family does it, but I’ve just never taken the time, so it was nice to have that built into my schedule already. Additionally, it does count as an applied arts credit, so it’s a fun way to get it, and something that I might actually be more interested in than say, guitar.”

Thiebaut says the biggest things she’ll take away from the class are the practical skills Zellers teaches the students. She’s made throw pillows and done a little mending, but has never learned the nuts and bolts of how to sew.

“Things that happen to your clothes, like even the correct way to sew on a button,” she adds. “I’ve been doing it for years, but I didn’t necessarily know all the fine details that make it last and look professional. So that’s a good skill. And just generally, I’m more comfortable with a sewing machine. It’s definitely something that I enjoy.”

She hopes to gain enough proficiency to make some simple skirts and other garments in the future.

After they finish up with their apron and pot holder projects, the students will be allowed to bring in their own clothing that needs to be repaired and learn how to make the proper fixes.

Zellers says being able to sew and repair their own clothing is a skill that every young person should have. Even though the J-Term class is a fun one for students, the benefits will last them a lifetime. The popularity of the class has university officials considering offering it every year, rather that the current every-other year.

“When we were at the fabric store, one of the other patrons came up to me, and all the kids had gone out to the 15-passenger van, and I was still paying the bill,” she recalls. “She came up to me and said, ‘Are you their teacher?’ and I said, ‘Yes.’ And she says, ‘Kudos to you! This is a dying art. I am so glad that somebody is still doing this.’ … That’s my goal in this class, is to teach ‘forever’ skills.”