Media & Techniques

Fiber Arts: Sew a Softie (Ep. 205)

Nic always loves working with (and talking about) fiber arts. Today she is joined by Trixi Symonds, founder of Sew a Softie, for a wide-ranging conversation about teaching fibers to kids. Listen as they discuss Trixi’s books, fostering a passion for art, and how to build community through sewing and fibers.  Full Episode Transcript Below.

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Nic: As always, I’m excited about this subject today. You know me, I love to talk all things, Art Education. But today is going to be specific to fibers, which is one of my passions. You’re going to be hearing from the other side of the world. Trixi Symonds is coming to us from Sydney, Australia, and she’s going to talk to us about how she has encouraged students all over the world to create using fibers, using sewing skills, and just celebrating with each other. This is Nic Hahn, and this is Everyday Art Room.

Trixi, I am so very excited to have you on the podcast today because we’ve actually known each other, well sort of, virtually for quite some time. And I’m excited to highlight you, your mission, and some of the books that you write. Will you go ahead and first just introduce yourself to our audience?

Trixi: Yep. I’m Trixi Symonds. I live in Sydney, Australia. I’m a mum of four adult kids. Actually, I trained as a primary school, elementary school teacher, that’s K to six. Basically for the past 30 years, I’ve been teaching kids to sew, running sewing workshops, designing softies. I’ve written or co-authored or authored three books. And I found it Sew a Softie back in 2016 as my sort of desire to teach kids all around the world to sew.

Nic: Yeah, absolutely. And I think you said this, but you are coming to us from where today?

Trixi: From Sydney, Australia.

Nic: Yeah, that’s right. So you might have noticed a little accent there. And yeah, we love having people from all over the world because we can definitely learn a lot. And I think that’s a mission that you know very well with your Sew a Softie project for sure, isn’t it? It’s very global, isn’t it?

Trixi: It’s actually international. That sort of surprises me, I run a Global Kids Sewing Party and I think this year I had 30 or over 30 different countries joining in. And sometimes I have to look at the mappings where like Channel islands and Haiti, and I had one in Ethiopia. So it’s just amazing that kids in 30 different countries were all joining into the Global Kids Sewing Party. So it’s really international. And still after all these years, it surprises me. It’s so exciting just to see so many different countries join you.

Nic: Yes, absolutely. Now we’re talking about Sew a Softie or this Sewing Party, but let’s get into that a little bit more. That’s actually how we met one another. Isn’t that correct?

Trixi: That’s right.

Nic: I joined the Sew a Softie in 2017. I think we’ve decided?

Trixi: 2017, you joined with your little Softie. It was really cute. And I think you’ve got so excited about joining that, you also did a fish softie, also designed a little sewing kit of a little purse that you made for that. That was the first year, so you really got into Sew a Softie.

Nic: I did. And that’s why I’m super excited because I think we share this passion of fibers and fibers for children, for sure. And at that time, my daughter Matisse was much younger and very into whatever I was into. This has definitely changed in our life, but okay. I’ll look forward to that. But yeah, Matisse was a kid ambassador. Can you talk about that aspect a little bit?

Trixi: Yeah. So that was when I started Sew a Softie, my idea was it was just a one day event originally. It was like, this was this one day when whoever knew how to sew would teach other people how to sew. This was not, how am I going to get all these kids sewing? And it was by getting the adults in their lives to teach them how to sew. So I thought everybody teaches everybody else to sew.

So the first year it was just this one single day, the next year I realized that Sew a Softie was bigger than this one day and people just wanted to join in. So it became a month long event. And eventually… I’ll get back to your question. Kid Ambassador joined, I said that I did the third year and I got kids to teach their friends how to sew and run Sew a Softie parties. And I think kids are the best teachers of other kids. They sort of know what to seek to sew. And they get such a kick out of it, not only were kids teaching their friends to sew, but it gave them the feeling of importance because they were the ones teaching their friends how to sew. So that was a really fun aspect. And that was the first year Matisse joined in, with a little Winky Rat puppet.

Nic: Yes. And that’s actually inspired by another friend of mine, Erica [inaudible 00:05:27] who made Winky Rat an actual doll. And then we went to go visit her that year. And so Mattise made a little finger puppet, which was super fun. And- I’m sorry.

Trixi: Cute name.

Nic: Yes. I know. And we had to make sure that we recognize Erica and that too, because it was very much inspired by our friends. But that’s the thing like Erica is a practicing artist, but how wonderful to have inspired a child to want to do a similar thing and a similar activity.

Trixi: That’s really good. Kids are very creative and I think adults lose there creativity. Often I find that in my workshops. I might have 20 kids there and never seem to have a problem wondering what to do, they just get straight into their work. They know what they want to do. And even sometimes I love it when they sort of copy each other. And I say, “Yeah, copying is great.” Kids like to work together often. And I’ve got two kids. Sometimes they’ll be working on the same project even together because they want to make something together or they’ll do exact copies of each other. So, kids creativity and they get inspiration from everything in anywhere. And I think we need to learn and have creativity from kids because I often will ask the kids in my class and I’ll ask, “Oh, what do you want to do with your next project?” And the kids have the best ideas.

Nic: They know. They absolutely know what they want to do.

Trixi: And they have such good ideas. So some of my best projects, I got inspired by the kids’ ideas or even in the class, I say, “Wow, I love the way you’ve just done that or put these colors together.” And they’re great kids in terms of creativity, they have no problems.

Nic: Right. Can we cover the Sew a Softie? This is not a business for you. Is it?

Trixi: Sew a Softie was just, it’s a non-profit initiative. It’s a global initiative. I’ve been teaching kids to sew for, without 30 years back. When I started Sew a Softie, I was 25, whatever years. I had on the one hand, moms who kept on saying to me, “Oh, I wish I could sew. I can’t sew, I can’t even sew a button.” And the other hand I had kids who just loved sewing. And the moms would say, “Look, this is the only workshop my kids want to go to. They just love the sewing.” And I could see that sewing was really good for kids. So I wanted to teach kids all over the world to sew and so that’s how the Sew a Softie started. I think I might’ve forgotten your question.

Nic: No. You’re right on it. I think-

Trixi: So this is how Sew a Softie started. My desire to teach kids all over the world to sew. When I talk about sewing, for me, it’s just hand sewing. I don’t have any problems with machine sewing, but I wanted to make sewing accessible to everyone. Basically, you need some felts, some stuffing, needles and thread and you can go. Sew a Softie was just started as this way that I wanted to teach everybody how to sew and it was getting the moms to sew. And so I’ve just forgotten my track. So getting moms to sew by giving them projects that were easy, accessible, doable, and this is how Sew a Softie started and how ‘The Zenki Way’, my book sort of came into it. So it started as a one day event then Sew a Softie became a month long event.

Then we introduced Kid Ambassadors and then I also added accidentally, Sew a Softie Global Kids Sewing Party, that was about three years ago. I partnered with the Children’s Museum of the Arts in New York city. Got a Civic Kids programs. I wanted to get kids involved, so I started the Global Kids Sewing Party. And the idea was that kids would sew a softie, which they then gift it to someone in their community. And it could be anyone that they chose. And the idea was to show kids that they could make a difference in the world, that they don’t have to wait to be adults, that even as a child, they could sew something, give it to somebody and see how much joy and happiness the person got from receiving something. And that they were able to make a difference.

Nic: Oh my gosh.

Trixi: That’s a little bit about how the Sew a Softie started off with this one day event and it just grew and it wasn’t planned that way. It just all happened.

Nic: I love when the universe hands us such wonderful opportunities. You started with such a small vision and it has gone so wide and so big. You really have achieved this goal of teaching children around the world?

Trixi: I know.

Nic: How to sew.

Trixi: I can’t believe that somebody else… Because I remember that first year when it was the one day event and I said to my husband, “What happens if nobody joins?” It just grew and I didn’t plan any of this since, like you said, it just grew organically and I don’t know what’s going to happen next. I have all these ideas and I always plan things this and this, but it just happens. And it just grows. And I’m always surprised.

Nic: The sewing party that you described, is that an annual event or was that a one-time thing?

Trixi: So what happened after that first event, I kept on having people contact me and saying they couldn’t join for whatever reason that year. Is it going to happen again? So at that point I said, yes. And now, so I have two events. It’s the Global Kids Sewing Party, which happens every March. And then I have Sew a Softie in July, which is in July.

Nic: Yeah. Okay. That makes sense. Oh my gosh. So you have this Gifting Hearts, where you bring together people over the idea of fibers. And I love the thought of trying to make it equitable for all with just hand sewing and making it as simple as possible, so it is obtainable and accessible to all. But I know that you are also an author of sewing books. Let’s move into that a little bit. Let me hear, did you say three, I thought there was two but you have three?

Trixi: Yeah. Well, my first one was called ‘Sew Together Grow Together’. That was back in 2013, 2014, and this was my first attempt to write a book that was accessible to moms. It was this idea of sew together, grow together. That was when you sew, you sew with your kids and to grow with your kids. You could learn how to sew together with your kids.

Nic: Yeah.

Trixi: I found, I thought these were simple projects. these are the projects I did in my class, but I realized pretty soon that the projects still weren’t accessible enough. They still weren’t simple enough for moms who couldn’t sew, who thought they couldn’t sew. It was actually like bad home experience. They were just frightened almost of sewing. So, after I published ‘Sew Together Grow Together’ that I started slowly trying to give myself a design challenge. What’s the simplest to sew project that I could design, that still had endless creative possibilities and that sort of led to me like this year, ‘The Zenki Way’ was published. ‘The Zenki Way’ was, I guess, the culmination of the years, sort of that design challenge and just trying to see where it would lead me. And-

Nic: Sure. So there’s one in between there though, a book in between there, correct. What is that one?

Trixi: The book that was published this year. That was called ‘Sewing Simple Softies with 17 Amazing Designers’. And this book was simply 17 Sew a Softie participants and they contributed a different simple to serve project to the book. And the range goes from a taco to a mermaid. It was just to show people that there are different ways of sewing softies. It’s just to inspire people to sew a softie and just highlighting these Sew a Softie participants.

Nic: I like that, you not only bring people together in this project that you’re doing, or the several projects that you’re doing, but within a book as well, you are highlighting other people and helping raise their abilities as well. That’s really special.

Trixi: I would have loved to have a 100 different Sew a Softie participants in it, but it was just nice to highlight all these amazing people who join in from all over the world and show people how to sew and to inspire other people to sew. It’s not just me, it’s all these 100s of people around the world, designing projects to inspire other peoples and other people to sew, so this little chain reaction that reads all over the world.

Nic: That’s amazing. Now let’s hit on ‘Zenki Way’ a little bit, because I know this was your most recent. Tell me what that word means? What does that mean to you?

Trixi: I think ‘The Zenki Way’ is my baby in them. So this started off as this design concept challenge I gave myself the simplest to Sew a Softie. And so the first softie that I designed was called Square Zenki. And it’s simply two squares of felt under running stitch and the running stitch for this particular was just like the square, which was his body. And there was a border around the square. I hope that makes sense, cut the arms and legs out of human. The idea was that to make it easy and accessible, you didn’t have to insert arms and legs and wings. It was all part of that two pieces of felt. And the first Zenki I made was a square Zenki. And his name was actually Zenki.

Nic: Oh, okay.

Trixi: Because this was him, he was Zenki. But I soon realized that there was so many possibilities that I could progress from Square Zenki. I could change the shapes. And then all of a sudden I realized I can make cats and dogs and foxes and lions out of the same idea, two pieces of felt and the single running stitch around the torso, opened up the creative possibilities and the adaptability. And that just grew. And I started calling all these softies, which were based on that same design principle of two pieces of felt and a running stitch around the torso. They became the Zenkis, the way of sewing or designing that particular softies was ‘The Zenki Way’.

Nic: I love that. That’s a really beautiful story.

Trixi: I started off with square Zenki. All of a sudden I realized, well, “I can make a fox or a lion or a little bat all from that same principle. And that actually surprised me because it was nothing I’d expected. Again, this sort of thing just happened that I realized that there was so much you could do and so much you could adapt and it was an also a way to show people that you can design your own softie with Zenki method of designing, two pieces of felt and a running stitch. And you’re on your way.

Nic: That’s right. I’m glad that you shared that with the world, and really honed in and really investigated that process because you saved… Sorry.

Trixi: The Zenkis are really thrilled that I’m showing that they have their own book. And then I showed the world through their own personalities and they were very proud of their books. They weren’t here to let you know.

Nic: Well, and this, I believe because I’ve seen the Zenkis appear on your social media. They all do have personalities. They pop in and they pop out. You do an amazing job with just giving them life as well. They’re part of my feed for sure.

Trixi: They just come and they come with their personalities and all of a sudden, they’ve got their own little personalities coming out and they make it fun.

Nic: Trixi. Why do you think it’s important for our youth, especially, to embrace or have the opportunity to even try sewing or fibers?

Trixi: I’m biased about everything I say about sewing, but I think that sewing, for me, ticks every single box. It’s something that’s really practical. Kids can make something, they can hold it, they can see it, they can feel it. For kids, that’s really important because one of the things that I often hear kids saying after they’ve made one of the Zenkis or softies, they say, “Look, I can’t believe I just made something real.” And it’s really important for kids that it’s something they can hold and touch. And on the other hand, once you learn how to sew, the creative possibilities that endless. You can make design, you can do clothing and blankets and softies and Zenkis, and there’s just this endless range of things you can make. And also the thing I’ve found with kids in sewing is, it gives kids a lot of confidence and self-esteem.

When they say that they’ve made something and they’ve made it by themselves without an adult telling them, “Look, you going to do, this is a better color. Do this, do that.” They’ve designed that they’ve made the decisions. It gives kids a lot of confidence. And the fact that they’ve got something and again, something physical to hold is really important. They can show people and get lots of feedback. And to me, it’s like a reminder, the kids always “Look on made that.” So it’s just this boost of self-confidence and esteem. And kids realizing that they really are clever. And to me, sewing and baking softies and Zenkis just reinforces the idea that kids to themselves, they realize that how clever and how amazing they really are.

Nic: Yeah, absolutely. I’m 100% with you. Now this podcast is mainly designed for art teachers. And so I want to address that. I know that you have some experience in the classroom and then also in more of workshops, what would you suggest, I know you have some ideas, of ways that we can incorporate fibers or encourage fibers for our students?

Trixi: I just wanted… Because of the idea there’s just wanting to get back. One of the reasons, another thing at The Zenki Ways that the simple idea of the Zenkis is that it’s really easy to put in a group situation and teachers and librarians have used the idea because there’s not a lot of preparation. You need your felt and you need your running stitch. And there’s a lot of creative possibilities. So the Zenkis make it really easy for teachers or groups to teach sewing because it is so basic and yet, in terms of what you need to prepare and what do you need to know. But again, the design possibilities is endless, you can have the kids doing Zenkis and they can spend the first 10, 15 minutes just designing it all. Then the teacher can go around and check if there’s any problem.

So that’s just another thing I just want them to mention the Zenkis are designs, groups of kids-

Nic: For a large group?

Trixi: Yeah. For large groups, and it makes it easier for art teachers. So if any of your art teachers want to join the Global Kids Sewing Party, that would be amazing. I have some teachers that, what they do is they get the younger kids to draw a picture of a softie or some sort of design. And then they give the picture to the older class and the kids actually design and sew. That’s their little kids drawings and make it into a softie and then-

Nic: I love it.

Trixi: At a presentation, present it back to the kids. And that’s amazing for the little kids to see their drawings come to life. Amazing for the older kids because they’ve actually designed something from a drawing, which is amazing.

Nic: Yes.

Trixi: And that connection between the younger kid and the older kid, you can’t beat that. Can you?

Nic: No. I have chills from head to toe. You can’t beat that.

Trixi: Any of the art teachers want to join the Global Kids Sewing Party. I would love for them to join.

Nic: When would we sign up? I mean like how, and when do have an-

Trixi: I have a Sew a Softie Facebook group. I’ve mentioned everything in there and also on Instagram. And there’s a signup form, which I put out every January, sorry.

Nic: Okay.

Trixi: So you can sign up. So that’s in January. Put that information in my newsletter, on my Sew a Softie Facebook page and on Instagram.

Nic: Okay. So lots of reasons to follow you for sure. And I already do in all of those areas. So yes, I know that there’s a lot of information being sent and it’s all very supportive of the classroom or of students or children that are in your lives. That’s for sure.

Trixi: Also I have a lot of art teachers in the Sew a Softie Facebook group because sometimes teachers don’t know where to begin OR have lots of questions that they ever come over to the Facebook group. There’s always a lot of support and a lot of ideas for teachers or librarians. I have a lot of librarians also join in just to… They’ve got any questions, what needles do I use? Do I use the felt or any sorts of questions. The Sew a Softie Facebook group is really lovely group of people who are happy to help and answer any questions.

Nic: Yeah. That’s wonderful. You’re really creating some community around the idea of sewing and fibers for sure.

Trixi: It’s lovely community. I’m always getting emails, messages from teachers, art teachers. And I’ve had a few teachers who weren’t quite sure whether they should sew and weren’t confident and they did it. And then they wrote to me to say that the kids in the class actually thanked them for teaching how to sew. And it’s like, oh my goodness. And one teacher actually sent me a really cute message. She overheard one of the kids in her class speaking to a friend, telling a friend that she was the first kid in the family, first person in her family who could sew. She was so proud of herself.

Nic: She should be. All children should have this skill or people. It can be for beauty, but it can be for just living.

Trixi: And surprisingly, I often get the comments from teachers and parents that the kids actually find sewing relaxing and calming, which is really also nice. And it is very therapeutic. It’s the needle and you’re going in and out of the fabric and just feelings, very physical. And it is actually very calming. Well there’s some people might that’s the opposite. Workshops can get very hectic because everybody’s doing things, but the kids actually love it. And they find it relaxing, which is really lovely.

Nic: I think in large group, when you are teaching something new, that’s part of the process is having that rocky and not sure. And then allowing students who are more successful to assist the others, and then at the other end, everybody’s successful and you feel proud.

Trixi: Yeah. And often say to the kids, “If you’re not sure about something, ask your friend next door, see if they can help you. And even for designing, go around the classroom and have a look what everybody else is doing.” And it’s just nice for kids to realize that it’s okay to get ideas from other kids. And that’s a good thing.

Nic: Yeah it is. Are there any other thoughts that you have for the teachers that might be listening right now?

Trixi: Yes, I’ve got, softies inspired by artists. Like I have friend in Perth, Western Australia, Kate Driscoll.

Nic: Yeah.

Trixi: And she did softies inspired by Pete Cromer, who does Australian animals?

Nic: Yes. I’ve seen those, actually of hers. They’re amazing.

Trixi: They’re really amazing. And I did a little Zenki the other day I’m inspired by Mondrian. My husband had, Mondrian was there with his Broadway boogie-woogie image, which I really liked. And I did a little Zenki inspired by Mondrian with the colors in the squares, which was fun. So you can take any artist. I’m sure the art teachers have a huge range of artists and take aspects of that artist and see if you can design softies inspired by that artists. And what else?

Halloween ideas, designing monsters. It’s really fun idea for kids to have to draw their idea of a monster and using the Zenki idea with the two pieces of felt translating your monster Halloween into a softie and what other ideas did I have? Just starting with a basic shape and seeing ,this is like a peanut shape or bottle shape or heart shape. And everybody in the class can start with the same shape. And you can start drawing this on paper by, you had your heart. And then what can you make your heart shape into? And kids are just amazing because I’ve used the heart shape and you can do cats and dogs and dragons and dinosaurs. Just seeing what kids come up with, with that sort of basic shape.

Nic: Yeah. That’s amazing. Wow. That’s a ton. And I love… See, I have the advantage of actually being able to see you right now. So I see all your beautiful softies behind you and it really does bring a lot of joy. I definitely would recommend anyone to visit you via all your social media. So you mentioned Facebook, Instagram and then signing up for a newsletter via email. Are those the three ways?

Trixi: A YouTube channel where actually have started from beginning to… I’m not sure, how to do square Zenki or whichever project. And also just the running stitch, how’d I have to thread a needle, even like the idea, what needle, what thread to use. I actually personally like using just ordinary sewing thread because it can be doubled over and tied to the knot so that the needle is not pulling off the thread all the time.

Nic: Yep.

Trixi: And because of the thread is thin, it means I can use a smaller needle. So the smaller the needle, the easier it is to go through the felt of fabric. So I’ve got lots of tutorials in how to do a running stitch, how to thread a needle, what sort of threads I use. So, that’s all on YouTube channel.

Nic: I’m really glad that you mentioned that because that’s what I was going to say earlier with having a media specialist, pick this book up and run this in their classroom. They don’t need the skills of sewing and no one really does because you have it all there. I’ve seen videos of running stitch and I’ve seen those videos and they really explained everything that a teacher would need to put this into the classroom.

Trixi: Yeah, that’s what I’m sort of hoping because there are different ways of doing runnings. Sometimes they’ll just take the thread to bottom. And I go down this up like a diving stitch. It makes it quicker for kids. They don’t lose where they’re sewing. Try to explain everything or any questions that teachers or parents might have about sewing in my videos. And if anybody ever has any questions, I’m always happy to help in anyway I can.

Nic: I believe that. Trixi, I cannot thank you enough for sharing your talents with the world and your time with us today. Thank you so much.

Trixi: Nic it’s been so much fun, even though I was so nervous before.

Nic: You were amazing.

I simply cannot encourage you enough to go check out Trixi’s Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, go get her books. My goodness, this woman is a wealth of knowledge. She has been doing this a long time. She is adamant at making connections throughout our world. She is actively seeking out ways to create a worldwide sewing party. Come on. She is amazing. I thank Trixi very much for all the resources she puts out there in this world. Of course, the Art of Education University has some resources for fibers as well.

Do a little Google search or a little search on our website for fibers or sewing. And you’re going to find so many Pro packs and flex options and articles based around sewing. Why? Because sewing is one of the winning projects in the classroom. I cannot stress that enough. Every time I bring it into my classroom, my kids thrive. They are absolutely enthralled. And just as Trixi was saying, they do feel so proud of what they have created. Consider bringing it into your classroom, especially this year, when you might need a little joy and a little reason to go to work in the day. This might be just the thing to bring into your classroom is a Sew a Softie, or just fibers in general.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.