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Quiltmaking With A Toddler Underfoot

This lesson is adapted from a chapter in my now-out-of-print book, Yes You Can! Make Stunning Quilts From Simple Patterns. I got a lot of positive comments about it, so I thought I'd include it here. My kids are older now, but some of this still applies at my house!
I had a student many years ago who asked, innocently enough, how I managed to get any quiltmaking done. After I went on about not having a television to distract me, foregoing cooking, even skipping meals altogether, staying up 'til the wee hours, and taking the phone off the hook, she politely inquired, "but what about the children?" I am embarassed to say I brushed off the question, saying something to the effect of "How should I know? I don't have a husband or children." I should have opened the topic to the rest of the class for discussion, instead. You will be pleased to hear that the tables have turned. That student's children are teenagers by now, and they probably want some private time as much as their mother wanted some years ago. I, on the other hand, now have a three-year-old and a one-year-old, and I know exactly what she meant by her question so long ago.
The subject of quiltmaking to the pitter-patter of little feet boils down to two things: childproofing and finding time. If your children nap or go to bed at a reasonable hour, finding time becomes a matter of getting the rest of your work done while the children are up so you can work on your quiltmaking projects while they sleep. I realize that this is not always realistic. Perhaps you've heard of my son. He's famous as "The Baby Who Would Not Sleep." In this case, childproofing becomes all the more important, because you'll have to sew with an inquisitive child underfoot. As an aside, now he's eight and his standard reply when standing over something he's broken is, "I was curious." 


Childproofing is more than simply putting latches on the drawers and cupboards. My daughter had busted all of the cabinet latches long before her brother was born. Around our house, my husband and I are driven to comment every two or three weeks, "This is the end of life as we know it." Junior has learned to crawl or to open doors or to climb on chairs or to move a chair to climb to some desired trophy. Things that were safely out of reach just yesterday are fair game today. Of course, you will probably learn of your child's new skill by catching him with a seam ripper in one hand and a loaded pin cushion in the other if you don't change your habits well ahead of your child's development. You know, habits are habit-forming. The minute you get that little plus sign on the early pregnancy test is not too soon to start changing some potentially dangerous habits. If there's one thing more important than finishing your next quilt project, it's the health and safety of your children. 


Before your child is crawling is the time to begin the practice of hunting for that dropped pin the instant it hits the floor. Don't put it off until you finish your seam. Do it now. And if you don't find it, keep looking until you do. This is also the time to stop leaving your iron, hot or cold, on the ironing board. It doesn't take much of a jostle to knock the iron off the board. My ironing board is right next to my sewing table, which is much wider and more stable. I keep the iron far back on the table, near the wall. If your iron doesn't have a cool base, put a portable pad under it on the table. As a further precaution, don't let your iron's cord dangle. I put a six-outlet power strip on my table top, with only the one cord plugged into the wall outlet. My iron, sewing machine, and lamp are plugged into the power strip. It would take a lot of tugging to dislodge the appliances by pulling on the power strip cord!
When your child begins to creep or crawl, pulling to stand may be just a moment away. This is the time to put your pins in a screw-top container and keep scissors, rotary cutters, seam rippers, and needles in a child-proof box. I have a tin box with a tight lid. It has proven sufficient for me so far, but I have been eyeing a clever box in a children's catalogue. It can only be opened by someone whose finger is long enough to reach through a hole to a latch designed to elude the small and curious. When I am sewing, I keep the pins, scissors, and other necessary tools available to me, but I make a point to keep everything pushed back from the edge of the table, out of reach of toddlers. I do not leave the room for even a moment without putting the tools back in the box, turning off the iron, and pushing the portable sewing machine, along with the foot pedal and cord, far back on the table.
You know your children best. You may need to take more drastic measures to protect your children and your tools. Don't assume your children are safe just because they haven't gotten into anything yet. Maybe a door with a lock will be the only safe course of action. While you have safeguards in mind, don't forget to protect your projects. Of course, you will keep your quilt top out of reach if it has pins in it. But your child can unravel your work in no time or drag it through the cat box, or dip it in cocoa, or strew seven hundred squares and triangles all over the house, or do any number of unimaginable things if you don't protect your project from your children as well as protecting your children from sewing hazards. 


As for finding time, my best advice is to eliminate the unnecessary. Cut out some of the television time or visiting with neighbors. Streamline meals, serving dishes that cook themselves. A pot of spaghetti or homemade soup cooks for hours and looks impressive, but it doesn't really take much of your time. Furthermore, you can usually get several meals out of one pot. Make your family understand that you need some time to yourself. Each person should be doing his own reasonable share of the work. If you can afford it, consider paying someone to clean your house. If you can't afford it, can you lower your standards a bit while you finish your quilt? You may find that by lowering your standards, you exceed someone else's "dirt threshold," and that person's cleaning instinct kicks in. (Or maybe not.)
All other distractions aside, there is still the matter of the children. I find it helpful to keep a box of quiet toys and books set aside to bring out in my sewing room when I want to keep the children occupied while I sew. If they haven't seen these particular toys for awhile, so much the better. Sometimes, the children just want to be near me. I let them make a mess of my fabric shelves if it will keep them happy for longer than it will take me to clean up after them. Once, before I had children, my brother-in-law showed up to do some urgent repairs on my computer. Unexpectedly, he brought along my two- and four-year old nieces. I had twenty-three hours left to do twenty-four hours of sewing before my appointment with the photographer. I didn't have time to babysit. I didn't have toys to entertain the children. I got out a box of fabric scraps, and plopped it and the girls down on the floor at my feet, and they occupied themselves for hours. I chattered with the girls as I worked. They felt like the center of attention as long as I was there to interact with them, commenting on their activities and going along with their pretend play. And I never even left my sewing machine. 


There is no substitute for giving your children the attention they deserve. I find that if I read mine a book two or three times or spend a half hour roughhousing, the children are much less likely to hover and whine. They'll let you know when they want attention. My daughter turns my swivel chair around so she can climb on my lap. It's hard to sew when you are no longer facing the sewing machine, and it's simply a bad idea to sew with a toddler on your lap, so I shut off the machine and take a mini-break. After all, the children are only young for a very short time.

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