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All sewn up

Showing pupils how to use a sewing machine can be fiddly for teachers and exasperating for students - unless you use laptops and software, that is. Dorothy Walker reports

Julie Messenger inspires her students to work at the cutting edge of textiles technology, designing cool fashion cafes and futuristic clothes that incorporate the hottest electronic gadgetry.

First, however, they must get to grips with the basics, and that means learning how to use a sewing machine. Now her inspired use of ICT is helping Year 7 students zip through one of the trickiest but most fundamental tasks in the textiles curriculum - mastering the art of threading up the machine.

Sewing machine technology may have moved on apace in the digital age, but the fiddly process of threading has hardly changed much in the past century. The business of trying to guide a spidery thread through the right sequence of tiny holes, notches, nooks and crannies, and locating a cleverly concealed bobbin, can confound even the keenest of students.

Julie Messenger is head of design and technology at Sawtry Community College, near Huntingdon, and introduces children to the machine as part of a seven-week module in which they design and make a cover for a novelty notebook.

Learning how to thread was devouring already precious time, putting the entire module at risk.

"Threading was taking three or four double lessons out of a total of 14," she says. "It is so fundamental - you can't move ahead until you have done it, and yet you must do it quickly or there is no time left to produce the products."

Her biggest problem was trying to demonstrate threading to a group of 25 children crowded around a foot-long sewing machine. They simply couldn't see everything that was going on, so when it was time to try the technique for themselves they had to repeatedly ask for help. Some quickly ran out of enthusiasm and gave up.

Two years ago, inspiration came in the form of a digital camera and Microsoft's PowerPoint software, which is designed for giving professional presentations. Julie photographed every stage of the threading process, then transferred the pictures to her computer and created a step-by-step PowerPoint presentation in which she captioned each of the 20 pictures, cartoon-style. To accompany her screen-based presentation, she printed the slides and pasted them on a large display board.

Now, when she demonstrates threading, she has the presentation running on a laptop beside the sewing machine. As she works, Julie talks students through each step on the screen, and shows where they can find it on the display board.

"I point to the sewing machine to show where each component is, so that I do not distort their interpretation of scale. If they are looking for the bobbin case, they need to understand that it is actually much tinier than it looks on screen."

Julie has put her presentation on to CD-Roms, so that when the demonstration is over, and the students take up their positions at one of the 15 sewing machines, they can arm themselves with a laptop and guide themselves through the threading process at their own pace. They can also refer to printed versions of the slideshow, which are laminated and close to hand in a folder beside each machine.

"By looking at their screens I can see immediately what stage they are at, and if there are problems I home in and give them help and support."

Julie is driven by the desire to equip her students to be independent learners.

"This way, they control how they move through the process, and I have designed the classroom so that there is always help on hand. It is tempting for children to say, 'I don't know how to do this, Miss.' I am constantly trying to make them think, 'If I don't know, where can I go to find out?'" She says the approach accommodates different learning styles and plays to students' enthusiasm for the multimedia world.

"Once you create the PowerPoint material it can be presented in different ways. Some children enjoy getting involved in pressing the laptop keys and taking the presentation forward - it makes a complex task more approachable. Others prefer the printed page to the screen. Many are used to coping with masses of visual information - two seconds of looking at a screen, then over to the machine, then up to the display board - and it motivates them. And by presenting the same information in several different ways I am trying to reinforce their learning at every stage."

She is keen to recruit more boys into textiles (none of her boys has yet gone on to GCSE-level) and the use of computers lends street credibility to a subject that is still viewed with suspicion by many lads' fathers. Year 7 boys have deemed the laptops "wicked", which is the highest compliment that could possibly be paid.

"PowerPoint has freed me up to circulate and give help where it is really needed, and the students are learning much faster how to thread the machine. Nowadays, after two double lessons they have usually threaded, and managed to sew straight lines of stitching."

She was so impressed with the results that she has invested much of her spare time in creating presentations for every textile process she teaches at key stages 3 and 4.

From applique and buttonholes to the many fascinating ways to colour fabric, every procedure is now on CD-Rom and her plan is to create a software library which her students can draw on throughout their design and technology career at Sawtry.

"They may have done something in Year 7, and at any point in the future they know they can have the CD-Rom again, put it on the laptop and go."

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