Needlework for Children in France


Text and images by Gabrielle.

Something interesting about our French school (and from what I understand, all French schools), is that needlework is part of the curriculum.

Embroidery and France

I realized this during our first year here, when (then 9-year-old) Olive’s school class completed two separate cross-stitch projects — both the boys and the girls. I asked around, and apparently, this wasn’t unusual at all.

Embroidery and France

Then, just a few months ago, Maude was introduced to embroidery for children in France, when her friend and peer gave her a beautifully embroidered wallet. The whole thing, including the binding on the edges, had been hand-stitched by her friend years earlier. Isn’t it lovely?

The embroidery introduction continued when Maude’s French tutor, an 80-year old French woman named Marie, who is very refined, started to teach Maude different embroidery stitches as part of their tutoring sessions.

I should note, when I mention French tutoring, what I mean is, the oldest 3 kids meet with Marie weekly, one-on-one at the public library. And they just chat. About all sorts of topics — zombie movies, images of our town during WWII, scenes from plays, or even embroidery. The hour-long chats introduce new vocabulary and strengthen our children’s French skills, but don’t involve formally practicing conjugations or rote memorization. It’s a way to practice French, and learn about French culture, without feeling like they’re doing more homework.

Embroidery and FranceEmbroidery and France

Anyway, Marie introduced embroidery to Maude as a topic of conversation for their tutoring sessions, and Mimi, who is so good with her hands, has been loving it.

Marie brought a needle, a thimble, and a small piece of fabric. Maude already had a stockpile of embroidery thread (she uses it for friendship bracelets). And now Maude is practicing the different stitches.

Embroidery and France

And pictured here, Olive’s charming, cross-stitched, recipe notebook mentioned above. It sits happily in our kitchen and records the French recipes we try.

Being able to correctly use a needle and thread seems to be considered a basic life skill here. The understanding is that everyone needs to know how to sew on a button, or make basic repairs to clothing.

No doubt it relates to the clothing culture here, which, from what I’ve observed, is not as “disposable” as it is in the U.S. — especially for adults. People tend to own less clothing overall, but invest more on individual items, then care for them properly, and wear them for a long time.

Embroidery and France

I’d love your thoughts on all of this. What would you think if needlework was introduced as part of the curriculum in your school? Waste of time? Kids should be taking keyboarding instead? Or, referencing Amy’s excellent post from yesterday, would you group needlework with The Arts? And just out of curiosity, how are your own needle skills? Did you ever learn how to properly sew on a button or patch your clothes? I’d love to hear!

80 thoughts on “Needlework for Children in France”

  1. Good basic needlework is simply a life skill. Even if you don’t end up an accomplished seamstress (like my mother, who used to make my church dresses and some amazing samplers), you can sew on a button and fix a tear and take up a hem. Admittedly, I’m a little biased, because I did a bit of costuming at the university theatre: while I’m nowhere near as good as my mother or my bosses at the costume shop, I can hem and patch and add buttons and sew a straight line, which has been invaluable.
    That said, it is nice to be able to make things simply because they’re pretty. I love a good piece of embroidery; a lot of my colleagues here in Vienna have monogrammed handkerchiefs and the like, which I find really charming. I even started on a quilt over the summer (like I said, straight lines!) It’s what Jane Brocket calls a “gentle art”: it does not demand to be practiced, but it makes life so much nicer.

  2. My needlework skills are terrible – however, I can replace a button on the rare occasions that I need to. My husband, on the other hand mended the net around our trampoline with a darning needle and fishing twine. The ethic in French schools sounds lovely, just teaching kids that things can actually be mended rather than replaced is a lesson in itself!

  3. I think doing needle work is a wonderful skill. I’m envious of the older (my age) women who can knit and crochet while they’re watching TV or while visiting, sitting, listening etc. Their skill seems to be automatic and they are very capable, as far as I can tell, of muti-tasking beautifully. There is something very calming about needle work and the product is one of grace and art. Thanks much for sharing!

  4. I adore this! It’s so relaxing and lovely for children to learn a useful skill like this. In France, where beauty is so highly prized (that was my favorite part about studying abroad there) it is truly useful. ;) Maybe not in other cultures, though. I think it’s fantastic!

  5. I remember learning basic sewing and cross stitch in elementary school in England. It was a great skill to learn even though I barely use it. I feel like I could… if I wanted to!

  6. I do not know that it needs to be taught in school, but basic sewing skills are a good thing to know. My dad taught me to sew and I have used that skill many, many times.

  7. My mother made many of my clothes growing up in the ’70s and I learned to sew (by hand and machine) at an early age. I wish there had been needlework classes in school growing up because I often felt like a fish out of water, forced into a college track when I really loved to make things and work with my hands. Creative professions weren’t encouraged much in the ’80s. That’s all changing now, thankfully! The ‘making’ professions are making a comeback.

  8. When I was going to private schools in Hong Kong and Bahrain we were taught embroidery as well as crochet. I really enjoyed it. Sewing is a great skill to learn.

  9. Here in switzerland sewing,stitching,knitting, crocheting(?),cooking, making paper,woodcarving and other things are also essential skills you learn in school…and now that we moved to a village I learn that away from urbanity it is normal, that parents or grandparents teach those skills even before the kids have it in my daughter came home with a note: your kid should practice knitting in springbreak as the other students are much further. I am very greatful for all I learned when I was young. Now it all is a dear hobby:i knit babyblankets,crochet decorations, sew dresses,laptopsleeves,handbags, teach skills to neighbours and kids and am able to cook very foreign recipes because i know all the basics…wow….rather wonderful society…

  10. I would LOVE this. For myself and my kids. I know how to sew and can do some embroidery, but what this girl has done far surpasses my embroidery skills. I think it’s wonderful. Skills! Craft! And something about it also says, “We don’t under-estimate what children can do.” And I really love that.

  11. I think learning to handle a needle is a lovely confidence booster. So many of the skills valued by the education system now are non tactile; so mastering even the basics of a handicraft would likely feel rewarding.
    I learned to embroider when I was eight by watching my grandmother. She was home bound and practically chair bound, but she made magic with her hands. As an adult I’ve been able to translate that skill into a confident competence in making precious gifts that cost little, making my own clothes, adjusting the tailoring in my husband’s suits, and upholstering furniture. I don’t list these to say “look what I can do” but rather “look what that simple, old-fashioned lesson from childhood gave me the confidence to try”. It may be that any hands on skill would have the same impact, this just happens to be the one I experienced.
    The wallet given to your daughter is beautiful, and Olive’s recipe booklet is so stinkin’ cute!

  12. How interesting!

    I learned to do needlework growing up in rural Kansas as some of my peers were doing it in 4H. In middle school, we had a unit on needlework in our Family And Consumer Science class (the updated name for Home Ec). Everyone had to do it. I also sew on a machine, cook, knit, fix things around the house and tend to view these things as fun challenges.

    As an adult, I live in Boston and find that not many of my friends know how to do these these things. I wonder why. Is it regional? Is it city living versus country living? Is it our parents?

  13. Beautiful! I lived in Honduras for a while and needlework was likewise a skill learned in school there. As someone who loves to sew and embroider, but has had to mostly self-teach, I fully support including this in school curriculum .

  14. I love this idea – I think children should learn much more than math and english/french and so one at school. And I like the idea of treating clothes in different way – having less but better quality and taking care of it – it should be supported by school education.

  15. I love the idea of both boys and girls learning needlework. My husband is British and wears his clothing until it is unwearable. After living in the UK, I understood that most people have smaller wardrobes and pay a bit more for each item. I now do the same, but I’ve had to repair his clothes many times. I always wish I knew more than just how to sew a button or repair a hole in the material. And now that I have two little boys, I would love to have more sewing skills. Great post!!

  16. I would love there to be more skills like this taught and less tv/computer-time in our US schools! Also, it allows those that aren’t the best athletes nor the best academically to shine elsewhere. Love it!

  17. I would love to see this integrated into the curriculum… especially in the younger grades! My mother taught me embroider as a child and I enjoyed it. She has since taught my daughters when they were each about 9 years old. My mother is talented in many of the old handwork skills, and while I loved doing basic embroidery, I am not as skilled (or as patient) as she.

    My oldest has a great love and talent for all things artistic, and when she was 11, my mom taught her Brazilian embroidery. This form of needlework is probably my favorite. It’s 3D and pops off the background, and is just delicate and beautiful! I think it’s a shame that these amazing skills are being lost, and I hope that my daughters will at least teach the basics to their own kids (or ask great-grandma to teach them!)

  18. Absolutely would love to see this mainstream. It’s so rewarding to have something physical to hold that I’ve made. Especially at the end of the day with two young kids. Housework doesn’t last, but the things I make do.

  19. The idea of teaching children needlecraft in school tickles me to no end. I’m an avid crochet-er, and I recently re-taught myself embroidery (something I learned in middle school home-ec). Kids need to learn a variety of skills in order to find something that makes them happy, either to relax or to make a living. My father, an accountant, enjoys counted-cross stitch. He used to work on projects on the bus into Manhattan, and now works on it at night. He even made a beautiful project for his grandson (my son) for his first birthday. I’m amazed the patience and detail that went into this thoughtful gift.

  20. So very French! They love them some tradition. That said, I think it’s a super idea!

    Private schools here in the UK often teach similar skills – woodwork (I used motorised saws from age 7!), pottery, cookery, special lessons for handwriting and using sewing machines. Even class singing! I remember being 6 and our class project was rug-making.

  21. Note: the reason I think it’s largely limited to private schools is a) time – private schools have longer hours and b) sadly, it’s hard to get government budget directed towards something with less quantifiable results.

  22. What a lovely post! Now I want to embroider something! I think teaching various needle crafts in school is a wonderful idea that would help teach so many other skills…patience, planning, fine motor, and the list goes on. I can embroider (basic stitches), knit and sew, but now I’m thinking about how I use those skills practically. Your reflections on how people in the U.S. versus those around the world treat their clothing are really interesting. I waffle between buying higher quality, more expensive clothing and cheaper pieces. The latter always disappoint me. Thanks for sharing these beautiful creations by your daughter and her friend. :-)

  23. I actually think it is really, really practical — it is a wonderful way to help with fine motor skills for writing. Sewing strengthens all the same hand muscles. Learning to sew and make something beautiful is a bonus.

    I was taught basic sewing in my Northern California public school the same year we were taught cursive. My children are being taught at their French immersion school in kindergarten which is also when they start cursive.

  24. Needlework, Knitting, Crochet – all of these repetitive, meditative arts can be used to calm anxiety. It works because your brain can only do one thing at a time, and it calms the rage pathways. (Read Laurence Gonzales’ “Surviving Survival” which is an amazing book, and a challenging read,(because you are reading about people to whom terrible things have happened, and how they overcome these challenges) but fascinating) Apparently they teach schoolchildren to knit in Sweden because studies show you learn better when your hands are busy.

  25. We moved our daughter to The Waldorf school this year where they have “handwork” as part of the curriculum. At first, I was really skeptical. Shouldn’t they be doing “academic” work? I now understand how critical these skills are to learning. They aren’t just learning how to make something pretty- they are developing lots and lots of important skills (and helping their brain develop)! I feel that we’ve lost track of the simple fact that not all learning is easily measured!

  26. My son started sewing at the age of three because sewing buttons seemed like the perfect church activity – quiet, keeps his hands busy, develops fine motor skills. He was even more interested one Sunday when his dad sat down to sew a button back on his shirt, because he wants to do everything his dad does.

  27. My grandmother made beautiful smocked clothes for my sisters and I as well as our dolls. She taught us to crochet and hand sew. My mother is also a seamstress and taught me how to sew. I have now taught my children. I am always surprised when people don’t even know how to thread a needle.
    I do think more life skills should be brought back into schools. We have so many children that don’t know how to really do things for themselves. Yes they may have soaring test scores, but can they cook or sew a button?

  28. Charlotte Mason talks about this in her books concerning the importance of training and educating children. It is of utmost importance that children are able to have life skills and work with their hands. They are doing something that is meaningful and creative. I would love to find a good book or tutorial that teaches needle work if you know of any please post a link it would be so helpful. I also think it is important on a number of levels that we are buying good quality clothing and caring for it properly. However it seems that when I try to explain this concept to family and friends they don’t get it. Most people in America would rather spend 10$ on a cheap pair of shoes every year than buy a 120$ pair that could potentially last a life time!

  29. I learned embroidery (as well as other types of needlework, knitting, crocheting, etc.) as a student in a Waldorf school in the US. All Waldorf students take Handwork beginning in the 1st grade. In addition to being very practical skills to possess, for children handwork has so many benefits including the development of fine motor skills, concentration, and patience. While I only attended Waldorf until the 6th grade, I am still (at age 30) an avid knitter and consider myself skilled at handwork. I only wish that they would incorporate this into public school curriculum in the US so all children could benefit!

  30. I think this is great. Not only is the work beautiful but it teaches kids to focus. By doing this, kids are able to sit down, be quiet and get something done. Everything is so rushed and loud nowadays. I think it teaches children more than art and a skill. It teaches someone how to relax and, unfortunately, a lot of people don’t know how to do this anymore. As far as a skill goes… my kids have two pairs of pants with holes in them right now. I wish I knew how to fix them!!!

  31. I would definitely love to see schools in the US incorporate some kind of needlework in school curriculum. This generation is losing the sense of accomplishment and skill that comes from learning such an ancient (?) skill. In this instant-gratification/techno world, children are lacking in the simplicity and beauty and hands-on tasks that help you learn so much more than embroidery. My Grandmother taught me to embroider, sew and cook – In Jr. High I took Sewing and Cooking. Now you have adults that don’t even know how to sew on a button that falls off their pants, literally. In my 20’s I worked with a young woman that was going to take her pants to the dry cleaners to sew a button back on her pants! I taught her how to do. Schools here, especially in So. Calif. do not prepare our children for real life. (nor do their parents)It’s actually is scary!

  32. Hello. I’m a 27 years old french mother and I would like to know where your children go to school… I have never learnt sewing at school and I am desappointed I don’t (I would have been better in embroidery than in english!) . Indeed, sewing is now fashion for women but for our mothers it was a grand-mother activity, something linked with the past, not usefull on “plastic days”. Today, with the return of economy and ecology, sewing will may be teached once again. But I don’t think it is the priority of the National Education, so I will teach the little things I learnt by myself to my daughters. You’re lucky!

  33. I love this! I was surprised recently at my daughter’s Montessori school. She is in a 1st-3rd grade classroom. All the kids were taught to knit and crochet. Everyday at pick up, they all sat on their big area rug, talking, laughing and knitting or crocheting. Even the boys were into it, too. The teacher told me that the boys, especially, were going home at night and knitting/crocheting at home. Love it! We forget this old-fashioned skills can be so useful, melodic and engaging.

  34. I am currently a college student (in the US), and I am taking a drawing class. For our final assignment, we were encouraged to try different mediums and be original, so I decided to embroider an image. Another girl in my class is also doing an embroidery piece. Our drawing professor is so intrigued by it that he is planning to offer a multi-media class next year which will include needlework. I have actually never been taught to embroider, so I have been learning as I go, but so far I am really pleased with my piece (it’s 18×24″, so it’s really big).

  35. Jennifer in France

    I’ve been raising my kids in France for 15 years and have never seen sewing nor cooking nor “industrial arts” in their classrooms. These subjects were part of my personal education in US public schools, as well in Scandinavia. Yours are Lucky to have someone outside of school. I send mine to muséum ateliers for art, as they have hardly done any in their rigourous schools.

  36. Being someone who loves to sew and has a little bit of experience with needlework, I love this! I think it’s a lovely idea and I wish US schools would incorporate more of this. Our art classes include the typical mediums:painting, pottery, pastels, paper mache, etc. Why needlework is not considered important is beyond me. Hoorah for the French schools!

  37. I love that the French teach embroidery at school. Education isn’t all about numbers and letters in my opinion. These are life long skills that the kids will definitely appreciate having at some point in their life.

    When I had my kids home sick with the flu this winter (10 days) we did lots of embroidery and they loved it. And ended up creating the most beautiful designs. Here’s the link below.

  38. I’m from Germany and here knitting, crocheting and also embroidery is part of the elementary school curriculum. I’m really happy that I’ve learned this back then, but I think it would be way more important to include cooking classes. I know how to cook and bake, because it is one of my favorite hobbies and I’m also writing a food blog, but some of my teenage friends don’t even know how to boil a egg…

  39. I teach in a Montessori school, and we have sewing as a part of our curriculum. Waldorf schools also do. The kids LOVE it and really like being able to create something themselves. Yay for sewing in France!

  40. One day I picked up my youngest from her after-school Mighty Girls book club, and walked past a knitting class and an art club meeting taking place at the same time. It was so great to see all that creativity happening!

    Your story reminds me of something that happened to a friend of mine years ago. She was in Norway for a semester abroad and the teacher told the group of American students that knitting wasn’t allowed during class. The kids looked at each other, like, why would we be knitting? But by the end of the semester, every single student was knitting in class! (Sorry, that always cracks me up.)

  41. I live in Albania, SE Europe. We did needlework in middle school as part of a class called “Household economy” or something like that. I did several projects, including basic sewing, technical sewing and its different methods, even knitting (if I remember correctly). We also did a few clothes patterns and doll’s dresses, which were my favorite. I still have the pieces of clothes in my home and I remember being very eager and passionate about them then. Now I don’t even fancy sewing a button, because it’s been so many years.
    So, I think it’s one more helpful skill to get from school. The boys must be having a nightmare, but most girls should be enjoying it.

  42. Their work is beautiful! My own needlework is fair (I sew small toys for my kids by hand). I got my start at school in St. Lucia when I was about 5. My own kids have done a bit of embroidery here and there. My 12 y/o took a “teen living” course in school and he learned to used a sewing machine there. His sister plans to take the same class next year and she also dabbles in hand sewing toys. I think handwork would be a fantastic addition to the school day!

  43. I always taught needlework as part of my art curriculum for K-8th grade. The interesting thing to me was how much the boys really loved the stitching. They never poo-pooed it as too girly. I think the intense handwork aspect of it really appealed to them, as well as being able to create something pleasing without a lot of “artistic ability” (in their mind).

    I do sewing with my own toddler and preshool kids, and have had success with burlap stretched over a frame and big needles and thread, or just yarn with a plastic tip. My littles also love to hold my hands while I knit, and “help.”

    How great would it be to see handwork in our American schools as a useful skill, but also a way to relax and recharge the kids’ minds during the day!

  44. So, this is NOT what everyone else is talking about in this space, but I love that your children have Marie for a tutor! I would love to be a tutor like that, for children or adults. What do you even call that kind of tutoring? Is that a thing here in the US?

  45. My mother taught me to embroider and cross stitch when I was seven years old. At the time she was embroidering flowers all over a quilt top for my birthday and then she completely embroidered a dress for me. I treasure those pieces. So I continued to embroider pillowcases, napkins, tea towels, and table clothes for years for my “hope chest.” But by the time I was an adult and wanted to use them….they were never to be found. Probably left at a Goodwill during a move by some family member by mistake. So sad. But still a good skill and a great teaching moment with my mom.

  46. My kiddos went to a Froebel school for their middle school years (Grades 6, 7, 8) and their learned to do many different occupations, including needlework. My oldest son embroidered the prettiest little Christmas tree which I framed and put on our tree as a decoration every year. I always think that it is pretty rare to have something embroidered by a boy in our society and I’m lucky to have this pretty piece.

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